An oft-chanted mantra of technology champions is that automation will free mankind from the drudgery of repetitive slavish tasks, enabling us to pursue higher more intellectually rewarding vocations. However, as anyone who has lived more than a decade knows, mankind is comprised of a wide variety of different types of individuals – and many are not interested in or even capable of pursuing intellectually rewarding vocations.
If we accept this, then we must also accept that in our brave new automated world not everyone can get a job. However, that should be no problem because less paid jobs means lower prices for consumers, shorter working hours for remaining workers, and a generally higher standard of living for all. Can this be true?
Let’s start with lower prices for consumers. Those of us who are old enough remember that a little more than three decades ago, oil companies started to phase out manned filling stations in favour of self-service outlets. At the time we were told that this would lower the price of petrol at the pump for consumers. Did this happen? I think we all know the answer.
Likewise, about three decades ago banks introduced automated teller machines. Once again, consumers were promised that the reduction in branches and human teller staff would reduce their banking costs. Did this happen?
More recently, giant supermarket chains have eliminated many human checkout stations and replaced them with automated checkout points. Has this reduced our grocery bills?
The truth of the matter is that the main beneficiaries of the elimination of human staff through automation are the corporations who engage in these practices. As the management of these corporations will freely admit, they are duty bound to enforce their legal obligations to maximise returns on investment for their shareholders. If that means replacing humans with machines for increased profits, then so be it.
Whether you agree with such inhumane laws or not, there can be no argument that these are the laws governing western corporations. The question arises, however, as to whether these laws are sustainable.
No matter what western governments or their propaganda arm – otherwise known as the mainstream media – tell you, unemployment in the west is reaching plague proportions. In the US for instance, government statistics claim that there is less than 6% unemployment. However, such statistics mean little when the employed include part-time workers, minimum wage workers receiving lower than subsistence level incomes, and 40% of the eligible workforce are no longer counted because they have given up looking for work.
Speaking of lower than subsistence level incomes, McDonalds has been in the news for being the subject of strikes by its customer facing workers in New York, who were getting paid the US minimum wage of US$7.25 an hour. Anyone who has been to New York would know that this is not even close to a living wage by any standard. McDonalds, true to its corporate charter, believes that the way to solve the problem of disgruntled grossly underpaid workers is to replace them with machines.
The problem for McDonalds, however, is that its workers and others in the working-poor class constitute a significant proportion of its customer base. Yes, there are still some kids from wealthier families that eat McDonalds but it’s mostly the poorer classes that do so regularly. Throwing its workers on the scrap heap ultimately means fewer Happy Meal customers. Unfortunately for McDonalds, machines don’t eat.
For many of us who are repulsed by the mere thought of junk food, the case of McDonalds may hold little relevance. However, the principal of automating traditional human customer facing jobs that employ tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of people worldwide has significant ramifications. Is it good for the global economy in the long run? Will it create enough jobs to replace those that have been made redundant? Will it improve the quality of the lives of ordinary people who don’t belong to elite classes of the rich?
If the answer to any one of the above questions is no, then it is our duty to start ringing alarm bells. As a computer science graduate and technology commentator, I have always believed that technology has the potential to be a benevolent tool for the betterment of mankind. Conversely, technology in malevolent hands can sow the seeds of our destruction. With a fast disappearing middle class, growing indebtedness, a growing wealth gap, endless wars, and ever decreasing freedoms, there is sadly little evidence that the benevolent side of technology is winning the day.