Me and my buddy?

Posted: 2 June 2015 in Uncategorized


Remember the scene about Auto World, in Michael Moore’s Roger & Me? It featured a puppet auto worker singing a love song, “Me and My Buddy,” to the robot that replaced him on the assembly line.

Back then (the film was released in 1989), the worry was about robots replacing workers on manufacturing assembly lines. Now, it seems, the worry has grown to include both new technologies (especially computerization and big data) and new jobs (especially in the service sector, which were once seen as being immune to automation).

On one hand, you could say (like many mainstream economists and Silicon Valley tech enthusiasts), what’s the problem? These new technologies will raise productivity and make buying goods and services easier. What’s not to like about robots, computers, the internet, and so on?

But, of course, there’s no such thing as technology in general. It’s the use of technology within a particular set of economic institutions—capitalist technology—that has many people worried. And for good reason.

prob of computerization

According to a widely cited study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne (pdf [ht: ja]), fully 47 percent of US employment is at high risk of computerization (meaning that associated occupations are potentially automatable over some unspecified number of years, perhaps a decade or two). The key, according to Frey and Osborne, is that, historically, computer automation was largely confined to manual and cognitive routine tasks involving explicit rule-based activities. Now, however, computerization is spreading to domains commonly defined as non-routine. And the cost of robotics is declining. Together, these two trends place many more occupations, involving both non-routine manual and cognitive tasks, in jeopardy.

Our model predicts that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations, are at risk. . .More surprisingly, we find that a substantial share of employment in service occupations, where most US job growth has occurred over the past decades. . ., are highly susceptible to computerisation.

If Frey and Osborne are right, we have a lot of sorting out to do—of both the conditions and consequences of the new forms of computer automation.

Of course, if you’re Robert Shiller, the solution is easy: adapt to the existing tendency by teaching students skills that cannot be replaced by computers, and providing a more business-oriented education.

The developing redefinition of higher education should provide benefits that will continue for decades into the future. We will have to adapt as information technology advances. At the same time, we must continually re- evaluate what is inherently different between human and computer learning, and what is practical and useful to students for the long haul. And we will have to face the reality that the “art of living in the world” requires at least some elements of a business education.

Is that the best Yale can offer? Not analyze or shape the tendency toward computerizing existing occupations but just try to stay ahead of it by learning new skills and adopting an entrepreneurial approach across the curriculum (perhaps because certain occupations—such as in management, law, medicine, and so on—are likely not to be automated in the near future).

Others, however, are worried—and, as a result, are trying both to determine the effects of replacing workers with computers and robotics and to analyze the consequences if things continue as they are.

Just today, Dominic Basulto expressed his concern about “the erudite university professor with the rumpled corduroy jacket and scholarly spectacles” whose job might soon be eliminated by automation in the workplace. Or, rather, the professors may remain at the world’s elite universities while elsewhere—for example, in small colleges and universities, community colleges, and technical schools—we can expect “robots [to] take over the teaching and training of students.”

Barbara Ehreneich, in reviewing two recent books on the subject, observes that new technologies may create both massive unemployment and new forms of work—”even if no one is willing to pay for it.”

We take it for granted that we’ll have to pump our own gas and bus our own dishes at Panera Bread. Booking travel reservations is now a D.I.Y. task; the travel agents have disappeared. As corporations cut their workforces, managers have to take on the work of support staff (remember secretaries?), and customers can expect to spend many hours of their lives working their way through menus and recorded advertisements in search of “customer service.” At the same time, our underfunded and understaffed schools seem to demand ever more parental participation. Ambitious parents are often expected not only to drive their children to and from school, but to spend hours carrying out science projects and poring over fifth-grade math.

Even Larry Summers (yes, Summers!) has indicated that the new wave of “labor-substitutive innovation,” while it may lead to increases in productivity and overall incomes, is likely leading to more inequality.

The rise of the top 1 percent is likely very tied up with technology. When George Eastman had a fantastic idea for photography, he got quite rich, and the city of Rochester became a flourishing city for generations, supporting thousands of middle-class workers. When Steve Jobs had had remarkable ideas, he and his colleagues made a very large fortune, but there was much less left over – there was no flourishing middle class that followed in their wake. So, understanding what’s happened to the top 1 percent is important in understanding the overall picture.

What I find particularly interesting is that the prospect of “robot labor,” like the most recent financial crash, has provoked a return to Marx and Marxist analyses of the labor process. Frey and Osborne, for example, cite Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. And Jordan Pearson recommends we turn to Marx’s Grundrisse for insight.

The section Pearson refers to is where Marx discusses the implications of the “transformation of the means of labour into machinery”—what elsewhere, in the Appendix to volume 1 of Capital, Marx refers to as the “real subsumption of labor.” Basically, the idea is that, with the development of automated machinery (automated in Marx’s time with steam power, later with electricity and oil, and now with computers), the workers are expropriated within production (after having been dispossessed outside production) and become appendages to the machines.

In the Grundrisse (pdf), Marx writes,

In machinery, objectified labour materially confronts living labour as a ruling power and as an active subsumption of the latter under itself, not only by appropriating it, but in the real production process itself. . .The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper.

In other words, in the form of machinery, “knowledge appears as alien, external to him; and living labour [as] subsumed under self-activating objectified labour.”

The same, of course, can be said about the new forms of computerization and robotics. They represent a kind of knowledge that is alien to workers—both the workers (the 47 percent) who are displaced by the new forms of technology and forced to survive without adequate jobs and those (the rest) who are increasingly forced to have the freedom to become appendages of the new machines on the job.

Me and my buddy, indeed.

  1. […] One possibility is to worry about and search for measures to raise the rate of economic growth, so that displaced workers have a higher likelihood of finding jobs in new, growing sectors of the economy. Fast growth is unlikely but that’s what mainstream economists are focusing on today. The other possibility is to question the nature of the new technologies that are being adopted—to challenge not technology per se but, as I have argued before, capitalist technology. […]

  2. […] argue that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation (a study I discussed here) and then rank them by wages. What they found is […]

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