This essay about automation was written and published for Melbourne Knowledge Week 2017.
“Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.”
– Genesis 17:26, KJV
The weavers are coming to break the machines. They charge through streets that smell of kerosene and dung as the planets – still undimmed by smog – circle above the English midlands. The weavers carry lit torches and sledgehammers and cry the name of their leader, King Ludd.
Ludd is a legend and an in-joke, a hero who doesn’t exist. A couple of the bearded weavers wears dresses and call themselves “Ludd’s Wives”. When the Luddites reach the mill they storm the door and swarm the floor to break the things that took their jobs. The guards have fled and the looms do not fight back.
The mechanised loom is an exciting advance for England’s economy and for humanity as a whole, but for the artisans it usurps it is a violent innovation. The Luddites fight for oldest reason: so their kids can eat. Tendons pull, elbows pivot, human cogs and levers break their iron competition. Cheers and splinters fill the mill. A dog howls in the distance.
Thick thread tumbles from a broken frame. It unspools through history, weaves through the red coats of the soldiers marching up from London and coalesces into ropes that loop around the throats of the weavers, then tighten as they fall. Ludd’s wives dangle in the breeze.
Two hundred years later I call to tell her that the DVD boxset of Midsomer Murders she pre-ordered has arrived.
“Is it true that you’re closing?” the elderly customer asks.
“We are,” I say, for the seventh time that day. I make my Retail Voice extra cloying to hide the clench in my jaw. “We’ll definitely be open over Christmas, but in the first few months of next year all ABC shops will close.”
“That’s ridiculous!” she says, “why?”
“Unfortunately we can’t compete with online shopping —”
“But I’ve been going to the ABC shop for donkey’s years! I get all of my gifts from there!”
And I get all of my income from there. “Yeah it is very sad. I guess it’s the way of the world these days.”
The Best of Countdown burbles through the speakers of the store. It takes me a moment to realise she’s crying.
There were other reasons my job disappeared. Three of the store’s four main products – books, music and television series – can all be downloaded online. That left toys, and it was impossible to compete with huge budget department stores on pricing. That’s not to say the workers at those stores have been all that much safer. As with in Australia’s supermarkets, many have found themselves replaced by self-checkout machines.
The retail sector is one of Ausralia’s largest employers, but technology is slashing the number of employees it requires. This has already happened to the decrepit manufacturing sector, and transport is close behind – it’s well publicised that the reasons self-driving cars aren’t already on our roads are legal rather than technical. Advances in artificial intelligence mean that much white collar and professional work will be automated within the next generation, and even creative jobs aren’t immune to obsolescence. I like to flatter myself by thinking that awkwardly comforting octogenarian Midsomer Murders fans is an exception; but soon there will be little work that machines can’t do more cheaply and effectively than humans. And unlike in the years following the fall of the Luddites, technology is reaching a point where there won’t be new jobs to replace the ones that disappear.
It’s easy to be grim about the rise of the machines. I have an uncle who, every week day for forty years, has gotten up in the 3am darkness to hit the road in his truck. He’s in his early sixties and will narrowly miss the roll out of self-driving vehicles, but many of his younger colleagues will find it difficult to be retrained. The growing wealth gap and erosion of public education only make this worse. This looming tsunami of automation-caused unemployment comes at a time when neoliberalism is unpicking social safety nets across the developed world and the very fabric of liberal democracy appears to be fraying. That’s not to mention the threat to the Global South, where manufacturing work is, for hundreds of millions, a last ladder out of poverty that is being yanked away.
Progress, we are told, is a march, and if some or most of us can’t keep up we have only ourselves to blame. The invisible hand of the market will smite the reticent, and this is just. When Lot’s wife looked back she was turned into a pillar of salt, and when Ludd’s wives tried to turn back their movement was made a byword for ignorance.
But maybe, in focusing so closely on the next few steps in front of us, we forget to glance at the horizon. The strangest thing about this issue is the fact that it’s an issue at all. Technological advance should be a good thing. Our self-liberation from toil is the great triumph of the human story. Automation only looks like a problem because we are tethered to the cultural belief that people need to work in order to justify their right to survive. But there’s nothing morally lax about being free from drudgery, in fact, it’s exactly what our ancestors fought for. The question isn’t “what will our children do for work?” but rather, “what will they be able to do now that they no longer have to?”
Ideas like a Universal Basic Income open up this future, and the first shoots of new ways of being are flourishing across the globe. When labour loses its economic value, it’s difficult to see how automated industries will serve all of humanity unless those industries are under democratic control. But we must never imagine that such a change isn’t possible, because those of us alive today are the ones who can begin it, in those precious corners of our lives where we do for the sake doing; for each other and ourselves.
Soon, most of us will be useless. This is a beautiful thing, because it will force us to see that the value of humans beings is essential. Our utility is not our purpose. The planets still circle above us, dogs still howl in the distance, and if the long burden of livelihood is finally disrupted, perhaps we can focus on living.