Machines don’t fire workers

Posted: 26 October 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Machines don’t fire workers, capitalists do.

That’s what occurred to me after reading Steve Lohr’s review of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee’s new book Race Against the Machine.

Apparently, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are concerned that the increased pace of automation (based on new technologies, including robotics, numerically controlled machines, computerized inventory control, voice recognition, and online commerce) and increased spending on equipment and software have led to the elimination of many jobs, thus increasing unemployment. It’s an argument that makes a lot of sense, until you come to their conclusion:

“In medicine, law, finance, retailing, manufacturing and even scientific discovery,” they write, “the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines.”

What the hell does that mean?

Peter Frase has a much more interesting discussion of the book (which, in his view, is not really a book but “really more like a very long article”). He believes we need to take changes in technology and productivity seriously because they “present us with an opportunity to reorient the economic conversation in a more radical direction.” Frase rejects two alternative arguments—the end of work (“the mistaken notion that if most of the labor currently performed by humans is replaced by machines, the result will inevitably be permanent mass unemployment at some point in the future”) and the end of technology (“which insists that there is some obvious limit to just what can be automated”)—as well as the authors’ own failure to address the issues of unemployment and inequality.

if technology really is dramatically reducing the need for human labor, then we have an opportunity to think bigger and better, getting beyond merely trying to scrape up new skills and new jobs for the displaced proletariat. . .

The defenders of the current order will keep trying to convince us that in a technologically advanced world of material plenty, more capitalism is still the solution to all our problems; but perhaps it is capitalism itself that is holding us back, and maybe it’s time for that integument to burst asunder.

In other words, it’s not new technologies that create mass unemployment and rising inequality but the way capitalists utilize these new technologies to displace workers and extract more surplus. A different way of organizing the economy would create the possibility of making different technological choices—different choices about the technologies that are developed and utilized, and different choices about the effects on employment, the amount of surplus, and the way that surplus is utilized.

  1. Sandwichman says:

    Great minds…

    “Machines don’t discharge workers. Firms discharge workers.”

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