The Humanity of Job Automation

This is really clever.

A lot of the times when I look at what I’m doing for work, much of it is is laid bare in simple rules. Hierarchical chains of command often impress upon its lower members some values and applications of those values that would be easily presentable to AI. The phrase, “a monkey could do this!” may as well mean that AI can do it too.

The routine, mundane and, if we’re being honest, boring things about work are those things that automation will slowly overtake. It will overtake them and thus give human beings less excusse in their jobs and force them to take on more challenging and complex tasks. That doesn’t mean those tasks still won’t be hindered by capitalism, hierarchy or the government which perpetuates the former two. But at least it may open opportunities for personal growth.

That growth can take many forms. It might look like people taking on their own projects or people becoming a more essential part of the group or company they work for. Eventually these rises in positions and responsibilities could create a kind of culture shock where people realize that works can (gasp) self-manage and we don’t need bosses.

Some of this can be waved away as wishful thinking and I think that’s at least partially fair. I know I personally wouldn’t mind seeing much of my own job automated but I also know there are hardly “tough” parts of it that a robot couldn’t do. The only thing I can think of is giving some sort of emotions in the work you are doing and communicating those emotions to the customers that come into the store. But even then, you seem more like a figurehead than an actual worker. Like the workers at the CVS in South Station (Boston MA) who mostly just pick up the slack for machines.

These workers have the interesting experience of not being quite automated, not yet. Instead, they work alongside the machines. And while the self-serve checkouts help with customers, some customers are too annoyed by modern technology, the self-serve machines may get filled up fast or people may prefer talking to other humans (I don’t).

This bias towards speaking to and interacting with members of our own species is something that is going to hold back full robot automation for a long time. Whenever I think about this facet of automation I’m reminded of the fact that even in Mass Effect 2 (one of my favorite video games of all time) there were humans/aliens next to robots.

That said, the comfort people take in interacting with fellow humans could eventually fall by the wayside. Automation may make it that we accept AI even more than we already do in our everyday life (e.g predictive text as an easy example) and accept that these AI units are just as good (if not better) than the humans we used to prefer.

I can’t say for sure (no one can) what automation and capitalism will do to each other. If automation is going to replace us within our more routine and boring tasks in jobs, I can only hope it will somehow make jobs more humane. If so it’ll allow humans the time and energy to dedicate to tasks that are much more meaningful to them, not bosses.

But that meaning rests on the assumption that meaning can be created freely and the hierarchical nature of corporations ensures that this freedom is unlikely to be simply had. It’ll be a long struggle to reclaim independence from these large organizations that, by and large, control society and I don’t think automation by itself will do anything major to that.

Partly because it depends on who defines the terms of the economy and right now that’s the bosses, managers, capitalists, stock holders, politicians and other so-called “leaders” of the country.

This means that automation will work for the best interests of the ruling class and not the ruled. I would posit that the further development of things like 3D printing, DIY hacker-spaces, fab labs, tool-sharing networks, networking online and the lowering of prices for tech will help people be able to create their own jobs, on their own terms (relatively).

Whether that’s enough for us to successfully resist an economy where people don’t have jobs but still need them, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much hope for a UBI (Universal Basic Income) or anything of the sort in America. It already seems like so much political upheaval is taking place as it is. It’s hard to imagine that voters could get the senate and congress to agree on those things unless enough people really banded together on this issue.

But even then, my hopes and dreams are not (nor are they likely ever to be) found in electoral politics. I have more faith in people creating their own jobs and resources for maintaining their preferred lifestyles. For myself, I find the long-term state of retail unstable (at best) and it’s very likely in 10 years many tasks in retail will be partially (if not fully) automated.

And even if that automation doesn’t save us from the hells of capitalism, it might at least diminish the hell we feel in our everyday life when we’re bored to numbness at our job. My hope would be that it gives retail workers chances to have more equality in the workplace, but knowing the system of capitalism and how it operates, this seems unlikely.

On the other hand, historically technology has often been lauded as tools of the rich to oppress the poor. And while this has some truth to it, it’s also just as true that the poor can often appropriate these technologies (through either market forces, illegalism, etc.) and turn them against the rich and the powerful.

Now, whether that’ll happen with automation, I (get ready for it), don’t know.

But at least this video on why coding alone probably won’t save your job from being automated made me think about how automation ideally could restore a little bit of humanity back into work.

But without radical actions against capitalism and the state, I doubt that’ll get us far enough.


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