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Automation refusal puts livelihoods in jeopardy

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Around 3,000 BCE, written language emerged for the first time in human history. The rise of city-states engendered an ever-growing economy, and people could no longer maintain transactional records solely in their minds. Economic progress would halt unless someone found a way to solve the problem of our limited memory.

Such is the genesis of writing and technology — birthed as a solution to a problem, a pathway to progress.

There is much anxiety around automation, understandably so. In the modern economy, humans are employed to the extent that the job at hand requires physical labor, cognitive ability or both. Since human labor comes at the cost of wages, demand for automating said labor is inevitable.

‘Computers’ used to be people who ran calculations with pen and paper.

Then — inevitably — a device was invented that could perform the same tasks with productivity that far outstripped that of its human counterparts. Those individuals who were previously valuable found themselves unemployed.

From their perspective, the invention of the modern computer was a negative. If they could have mandated their continual employment, they would have. The same goes for the farmer, the milkman and the elevator operator.

Every employee has an incentive to maintain her job, whatever the cost to society. Imagine if the computers had gotten their way: a victory for a minority, and a devastating stagnation for the rest of society.

One issue of the anti-automation movement is the arbitrary decision regarding which technologies should be forbidden from invention. To satisfy every worker is to freeze the economy, preventing standard of living from rising, preventing problems from being solved. Few white collar workers would ever switch to physical labor.

Their positions are a result of technological progress that automated more and more manual labor, until people were free and wealthy enough to satisfy cognitive demands, such as marketing, banking and teaching, to name a few.

People often emphasize the cost of automation, namely, potential mass unemployment. But rarely do they weigh this against the benefits. Reduction in production costs translates to reduction in prices, and so everyone becomes wealthier.

In imagining a world without employment, one sometimes projects the current economic paradigm onto the would-be jobless. This is a parochial error.

This disparaging technological progress must, if they are to give a fair assessment of the problem, take into account the vast increase in purchasing power that will benefit the poorest member of society. Taken to the limit, products will eventually cost no more than the raw materials needed to make them.

As seen with the computer, technologies are almost always exapted beyond their original purpose. Many anti-automation advocates claim that they care about the trash man, the IT assistant, the truck driver. They must concede that by protecting their jobs, they are not only preventing living standards from rising, but they are also preventing paths to solutions heretofore unconsidered.

It may be that the life of a middle-class American today is the life of the most impoverished tomorrow. This is not controversial; in fact, this is already the trend.

The fastest route to the end of poverty is innovation. To sacrifice potential prosperity for the sake of short-term concerns of a minority is to relinquish the only tool that has ever succeeded in solving problems.

Columnist Logan Chipkin is an ecology and evolution graduate student and can be reached at [email protected].

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