Thursday, February 22, 2018

The machines are coming and they’re taking away jobs




In the early 1800s, a group of Luddites stormed Nottingham factories at night and destroyed the machines in them, taking out their anger on the products of the industrial revolution that had taken away jobs and displaced their communities from the workplace. In 2015, the New York Times published an article titled “The Machines Are Coming,” making the case that the increased availability and capabilities of machines are taking away the leverage of workers in employment negotiations. The trend of seeing machines as a danger to the worker and seeking to limit their impact seems to have never ended. People love new technology universally in our phones, in our homes, and in our cars. Why not in the workplace? It would be difficult to say that technology has ever created something ‘new;’ instead, it expands the functions that are already available to us. My iPhone and Facebook let me have conversations with my friends on the other side of the country, or the world, but both of these are essentially a face-to-face conversation, or a carrier pigeon, refitted and expanded. This expansion of human capabilities has allowed people to do things like apply for internships around the world, manage enormous multinational corporations, and build newer, better, iPhones. Technology expands our capabilities almost to an infinite degree. Now, read ‘human worker’ for ‘carrier pigeon,’ and ‘machine’ for ‘Facebook.’ The opposition of workers to the rise of machines in a competitive market becomes clear. Machines don’t get sick or pregnant, don’t take breaks, don’t make mistakes unless they were designed incorrectly, and can work around the clock at a productivity exponentially higher than humans, at least for most manufacturing jobs. It’s not just ‘unskilled’ manual labor jobs that are affected either; machines are being built and used to replace lab technicians, headhunters, advertisers, etc. Recently in Europe, a man was arrested for using a stock-trading algorithm so efficient and fast that it crashed global markets. In my own research on mining in Native American reservations, I’ve found that Rio Tinto, a large British-Australian mining company, is working on completing the Mine of the Future TM. An entirely mechanized mine that can be operated, or left on manual, from a remote office. There is a clear danger in mechanization for operations that become economically threatening when carried out rapidly on a grand scale, like stock trading and mining. The danger in mechanizing jobs like advertising, iPhone construction, and medical diagnoses is less obvious. Replacing workers with machines does not simply lead to new jobs. People are specialized in their labor, or lack the skills, training or education necessary to move on to another job. A welder, for example, who has been doing the same job for years and lacks the transferrable skills that, perhaps, a liberal arts education offers, is likely to have a hard time finding a new source of employment if his or her job is taken by a machine. In a capitalist structure, employment is necessary for survival. Socialist structures, like welfare, can sometimes make the difference between life and death, but are unable to provide someone the autonomy they need to live a satisfying life. The UN 1994 Development Report, which set the foundation for the study of ‘human security,’ lays out high unemployment explicitly as a barrier that keeps people from achieving satisfying lives and interacting fully with their communities. Without money to buy and experience food, transportation, child services, birth control, poetry and movie tickets, it’s difficult to engage with others. The danger in high levels of mechanization isn’t improved efficiency, or the displacement of workers from their jobs, it’s the fact that this is occurring in the political and economic structure of capitalism where unemployment means death or debilitation. The counterargument is ubiquitous, and fair: people should educate themselves and gain new skills, or get a new job. In America, there are about three unemployed people for every open job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, so that doesn’t hold much weight. In addition, there’s the issue of non-transferrable skills and education, as mentioned earlier. One could also say that manufacturing machines create more jobs for workers that are tasked with collecting raw materials. However, besides these jobs being more prone to wage depression, since there are more people competing for low-skill positions, the rise of machines doing ‘emotional’ or ‘intellectual’ labor means that even those small economic openings won’t be happening. Even the process of industry mechanization itself contradicts the capitalist philosophy of individualism, the mechanism of the ‘bootstraps.’ If the premise of people needing to work, to ‘create wealth’ in order to achieve sustenance is true, private ownership of machines and their products makes no sense. The only difference is the capital input. I own the products that the workers within it create, because the factory could not have been possible without my initial capital. First on this, there are historical, political, and demographic-based reasons why peoples’ capability to buy factories. Families today can trace their wealth back to the free land, previously owned by Indigenous people, given away by the U.S. government in the Homestead Acts to white families only. Other families with deeper roots can trace their wealth back to slavery, and regardless of whether the following generations have been morally aligned with or active participants in this system, they continue to reap the benefits of that unpaid labor. The end result is that, in a mechanized world, it’s far easier to fall into the lower class. Why are people opposed to the rise of efficient technology in the workplace? Because the background of post-industrial capitalism these occur in, where ownership is paradoxically treated as a way to rise to the top of a meritocracy, while the working class is less and less able to hold leverage over their employers. Hopefully the modern communities of displaced workers, growing every day in a world where 80 people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the population combined, will identify the enemy as private ownership and global, inescapable, capitalism.

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