Should We Do Anything About Automation?

Automation threatens at least 25% of jobs in the next two decades. Is yours safe?

It’s a tired narrative, some might say. “The robots are coming for your jobs,” the machines are going to put you out of work…. These predictions have been ongoing for centuries. You might argue that fears of mass unemployment are overblown.

It is true, however, that jobs have disappeared steadily, with technology to blame. Technology has replaced telephone operators, bowling pinsetters, human alarm clocks (yes people used to be hired to tap on your windows in the morning), milkmen, elevator operators…and so on. It is also true that many professions employ far fewer people than they did in the past. As we enter the 4th industrial revolution, however, a far greater percentage of jobs look likely to be automated or driven out of existence altogether. This includes sales clerks and cashier jobs (self-checkout), taxi driver/truck drivers (autonomous vehicles), calling center/customer service (AI voice recognition), bank tellers (online banking), insurance underwriting (big data)…and the list goes on.

These leaves the whole of humanity in an awkward position going forward. Do we preserve the status quo by legislating away our troubles (stopping technological advancement dead in its tracks) or do we confront it head on? Do we allow technology to upend society as we know it, or do we somehow find a means of slowing or stopping technological progress? Is there another way forward? Is there any way forward. Maybe we just leave the planet on SpaceX’s Starship rocket?

To get a better idea of just how automation has transformed society and how it will continue to do so, let’s turn to the textile industry. The textile industry is among the first to have been impacted by automation. There are several overarching steps in the textile-making process. For simplicity let’s divide them into five stages 1) Planting/growing/harvesting cotton 2) Separating the seeds from the cotton fibers 3) Spinning the fiber into thread 4) Weaving the thread into cloth and 5) Cutting and sewing the cloth into the finished product.

This era is defined by a disgruntled middle class that finances the social safety net of the poor without being provided any of its benefits. This middle class is doing this while confronting new technology that is decimating the jobs and careers that it rested upon.

Every step of this process was traditionally labor-intensive, the planting and harvesting was a painstaking endeavor that often involved the use of slave labor. The same was true for the process of separating the seeds from the fibers, and spinning, weaving, and sewing. Ultimately, this meant that clothing was expensive and most people had few items in their wardrobe.

In the 1st industrial revolution, which began around 1750, new machines, often water or steam-powered, greatly increased the output per worker and reduced the cost of textile products. The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney, for example, largely mechanized the process of separating the fibers from the seeds. This machine, in its earliest form, allowed a single person to process 50 pounds per day (compared to just 1 pound a day by hand). Similarly, the 1st industrial revolution brought about new spinning and weaving machines that allowed for vastly greater output per person in the 3rd and 4th stages of the clothing-making process.

The second industrial revolution, which began around 1870, continued to improve labor output by partially mechanizing the sewing process with the widespread adoption of the sewing machine. The sewing machine greatly reduced the time required to sew the cloth into articles of clothing, But sewing machines still required human operators. By 1950, the cost of clothing had dropped such that Americans spent just 10% of their disposable income on their wardrobes.

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The 3rd industrial revolution, which ran from about 1960 until 2010, saw the rise of mechanized farming and the first widespread use of automated machines that are capable of harvesting cotton. By hand, a farmer could harvest about 200 pounds of cotton a day, harvesting machines allowed this same farmer to harvest that same amount in just 90 seconds. During this period, there was also a rapid growth in textile offshoring. The cutting, knitting, and sewing of stage 5 of the clothing making process still required considerable human labor. It made sense to outsource these tasks to areas of the world where labor costs remained low. Combined, the new technology and outsourcing led to a dramatic decline in employment in the textile industry in the developed world but concurrently saw textile pricing continue to drop. By 2010, American’s wardrobes were larger than ever, but they were also spending an even smaller fraction of their disposable income on clothing…just 3%.

Until now, the fifth stage of the clothing-making industry has remained largely immune to automation. Machines do not have the dexterity needed to handle cloth, to cut and to fold, and to maneuver it around for processing. Now, however, the 4th industrial revolution threatens to fully engulf this stage of the process as well. New machinery, making use of ever more sophisticated computers and machine learning, are now becoming nimble enough to handle sheets of cloth. They are able to fold, cut, and sew raw cloth into a finished product without much human involvement. These new machines promise to bring us full circle. We will soon live in an era where the textile industry is almost fully automated from planting to production. The loop is finally being closed and the last vestige of employment of one of the world’s oldest industries will be gone.

What is the problem with this, you might ask? Is not the availability of cheaper clothing a net positive for society? Is it not good that we have been able to so dramatically increase the output of per person? Do the machines not also create new and different kinds of jobs…and higher-paying jobs? All of the above are true. Throughout history, automation and technology has made our lives better and more convenient in many respects. Furthermore, economic growth, as we currently define it, depends on our ability to do more with less. In this case, economic growth requires more output per worker. We all want the economy to grow, do we not?

Indeed, automation and technology are bringing about tremendous benefits to all of humanity. Yet, the world doesn’t feel like life is getting any better, does it? To many, the world increasingly feels divided and the future uncertain. This isn’t the two-way divide of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. That battle was solved by a litany of social programs and safety nets that ensured that even the poorest of people still had access to education, food, and the basics of life. No, this time is different. This era is defined by a disgruntled middle class that finances the social safety net of the poor without being provided any of its benefits. This middle class is doing this while confronting new technology that is decimating the jobs and careers that it rested upon.

Technology might create new and more kinds of jobs, but this time is different. This time the machines might be destroying jobs at a faster pace than they can create them. Meanwhile, government safety nets and programs are obsolete and outdated, created for an era that no longer exists.

I contend that humanity has no choice but to continue forward. To stop or slow the progress of technology in the face of adversity, as some would prefer, will not bring us prosperity. We cannot turn the clock back. We cannot “bring the jobs” back. What is done is done. We can, and we must, however, begin to search for new systems of government, new policies, and new economic systems that will allow civilization to progress through the 4th industrial revolution and into the 22nd century.


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