The "Curse" of Labor-Saving Machinery Is Nothing New


Will Groves's picture

Not everyone who criticizes technology is a technophobe.  These articles that portray people who question the value of further automation as ignorant are likely ignorant themselves.  As someone who designs automation equipment and works with large manufacturing companies, I see first-hand the speed with which highly sophisticated algorithms are being integrated with robots and vision systems to do tasks that would have been the sole domain of human hands just a few years ago.  I don't believe many people who don't work in manufacturing recognize how quickly the costs of this technology are falling, nor how rapidly it is being adopted. 
In earlier iterations of the industrial revolution, when the march of technology may have made some skills obsolete, there were entry-level jobs available in the growing economy created by industrialization.  There were huge numbers of tasks that couldn't be automated.
Today, when factory workers are replaced with robots, there is often no clear path to employment at that level of pay and benefits again.  Axiomatically, you can't fix stupid, and many factory workers are relatively low-IQ people who have no hope of developing serious technical skills in any area.  These people have no role to play in creating this increasingly automated world.
In retrospect, the short period of history when the peasantry earned enough to buy a house, buy new cars every few years, take family vacations, and demand 40-hour work weeks, pensions, and health benefits all the while doing menial work was the result of a perfect storm of technological and economic forces.  When labor competes against automation today, it has very little leverage.  Typical robotic projects recoup their costs in fewer than 2 years, and sometimes just a matter of months.
When the Mises Institute points out that new opportunities will arise, it's something of a straw-man.  Of course new opportunites will arise:  new conditions create new opportunities.  The unmentioned issue is that in the aggregate, those opportunites don't provide for the same level of material comfort that the old factory jobs did. 

Jim Davies's picture

Very interesting comment, Will - and a most interesting Mises article, together with a string of thoughtful comments following it.
Not sure though about your final para. You agree that new opportunities will arise, but think they will not pay very well. A contrary view is that automation will make everything so cheap that even the worst paid in society some decades from now will be better off than most of us are today.
Automation is the story of the human race, would you agree? Man is a tool-maker. It's worked well so far. Why, then, should it not continue? - I can think of only one reason, namely that the incentives are being very badly skewed. Unskilled labor is being replaced by robots, hence is in surplus, which would in a free labor market cause its price to fall and so at least "cushion" the problem; but in the teeth of this, government is forcing the price of unskilled labor UP, with new reams of costly regulations for employers and even a doubling of the minimum wage!
That exacerbation will be nasty, but if government is soon put out of business it will at any rate be short-lived. I conclude there is no rational alternative to a free market, and the sooner the better.

Samarami's picture
    "...government is soon put out of business it will at any rate be short-lived. I conclude there is no rational alternative to a free market, and the sooner the better..."

In this you and I are in sound agreement, Jim. We might not jointly envision the same demise of central political authority, but we agree it must end. In time.

Hoist by their own petards.

A fun time to live!


Jim Davies's picture

A fun time indeed, Sam, and I'm glad we have some agreement.
Might you elucidate: what meaneth "jointly envision the same demise of central political authority"?

Samarami's picture

For the moment, let's boil it down to individual vs collective thinking. My emphasis is individual thinking. I have no control over the behaviors or the attitudes or the philosophies of anybody but myself. I don't have as much influence as I'd perhaps like even with adult members of my own family. Sometimes they listen. Often they don't.

Same here on this forum. And I will be free whether or not you or Will or Alex or Paul are free. Or my children, or their children, or their children's children (my growing coterie of great-grandchildren) on down the line.

Through exchange of ideas (at times heated -- hopefully not antagonistic) here at STR I might have some limited influence upon you and some of our mutual friends in the way each or any of us processes certain information. You certainly have, over the years, been influential with me. I wouldn't want to try to estimate how many times I've referenced various writings of yours at forums in addition to this one -- and even in communication with members of my own family.

I, for instance, don't vote in political elections. Haven't done so since 1964. Neither do you. I might often end a comment with the jocular "abstain from beans", but I don't take personal offense at the millions who are still collaborating with the enemy (your recent term that I enjoy and have used) in that manner. Their time will come.

Same with submitting confessions ("filing returns" ha ha) to the enemy. I take stern lessons from our late and old mutual friend, Irwin Schiff. Why engage in battle when you know you're out-gunned? Just understand: the enemy is like the rattlesnake -- he rattles and warns and, if cornered, will strike. But he will slither away safely when he can. The difference, of course, is that the rattlesnake serves a useful purpose (feeds on mosquitoes and rodents, helping to keep them in check). So, when I hear that rattle I give them the opportunity to slither away without incident.

And I wear high boots and heavy gloves to the woods.

But I recognize my powerlessness when it comes to expending time and emotional energy trying to straighten out others' thinking or behaviors. And I certainly don't intend to jeopardize this forum by belittling you or anybody else who might have a different slant on any specific issue from mine. I hope to continue to learn from Will, and Alex, and Paul, and you, and many, many others here at STR.

The religious mystification of that phenomenon called "state" is coming to a close. I don't know how -- or when -- the finale will come, but I perceive the fat lady may be warming up to sing soon.

Be free. Sam

Jim Davies's picture

Oh, I get it. I should have got it first time, the fault is mine. By "jointly envision the same demise of central political authority" you meant that you don't agree with me that the State can be abolished.
Okay, if none of us do anything, it can't. It may well spiral itself into a destructive black hole of some kind and produce appalling poverty and misery, but out of that will come some monstroius replacement. It will never abolish itself, on that we agree.
Further, a frontal attack on everyone supporting the state won't work either; at any one time, nearly everyone is caught up in the statist religion, yes. Government has been clever and systematic over many generations in educating people to suppose it is indispensable.
But one at a time, dealing just with the few who have become fed up with all of it... there is the opportunity. And it's all we need - along with a little patience. And if you disagree with that, we'll have to agree to disagree.

Samarami's picture
    '...By "jointly envision the same demise of central political authority" you meant that you don't agree with me that the State can be abolished...'

"The State" has been abolished. Or is in the process of being. I did not say or infer your apparent conception.

"It" will not be abolished by me (well, it already has in terms of "jurisdiction") -- and I don't see it being abolished by you. But if you see differently, that's certainly your privilege.

How 'bout let's call it your "right".

These squabbles are merely playing with words -- fiddlin' while Rome burns. IMHO -- which ain't all that humble.


Samarami's picture

The term is -- at least was in the 1940's and early 50's -- "technological unemployment".

I'm an old railroad telegrapher. Keep in mind, that's considered "service industries" -- not actually involved in the production of a product. But, of course, railroading was highly necessary to anybody producing a product at the time, and to an increasing extent still is. That's an interesting technological study in itself.

At the time (age 16) I was still attending high school. I remember a government ("public" ha ha) teacher who was libertarian-minded when it was not cool. His name was Bob Lawson. He lived to be 101, and only died a few years ago now. He and I argued about "technological unemployment" at the time -- he taking the Mises side, I insisting that the railroad telegrapher would soon become obsolete. Telephones, teletypes and 2-way radios were the upcoming technology.

This would have been close to 10 years prior to publication of Leonard E.Read's "I, Pencil". And, even at age 16, I could see the handwriting on the wall. Or so I thought. Long before I ever espoused ideas of the libertarian and the anarchist.

Turns out I'm probably one of the last of the old telegraphers. Any who exist today learned and play it as a hobby -- like cow-boying (I'm also probably the last of the old cowboys who actually grew up as a kid riding horseback to round up calves).

But all those old occupations did die out. And here we are -- mostly quite prosperous. But I won't say you're not, partially at least, correct, Will. The insight you purvey is indeed real.

But, I submit, the issue, as are most issues we might haggle about here at STR, highly involves collectivist thinking as opposed to individualist thinking. Because, as a telegrapher I was forced to join a union: "Order of Railway Telegraphers". "Closed shop" was the term. In that time part of the ORT emphasis was the operation of telegraph schools to bring telegraphers up to 30-35 wpm (faster telegraphy). Those who headed up unions generally started out with the realization that, in order to be effective they needed to whet the skills of workers to make them more valuable to those who wished to employ them. Basic free-market economics.

"Collective bargaining" quickly became the mainstay of unions -- and politics. Significantly, in those days it was "illegal" for government employees at any level to form, solicit or join labor unions. Nowadays labor unions are in place primarily with government employment -- almost all government employment. And they're disappearing "in-the-private-sector". I was once a member of NEA (National Education Association) and TSEA (Texas State Education Association -- now TSTA and TCTA). They were originally and supposedly in place to increase the value of the educator for the welfare of the student. They are now strictly labor unions -- like the policeman's union.

Economically (and individualistically) thinking, Brittany Hunter of MISES is correct. But collectivists are, indeed, going to suffer in the long run. Be thankful you're abstaining. Sam

Jim Davies's picture

Neither you, Will, nor the author Brittany Hunter mentioned in relation to this interesting subject how the effect of continuing automation will probably change after government has ceased to exist. In my Blog today I try to repair that omission.
It shows reason to expect that the least skilled in that society will, far from being idled, enjoy a large resurgence of opportunity for dignified and rewarding work.

Will Groves's picture

This isn't theoretical.  Robotic automation has already replaced 90% of the jobs in some industries.   If you were to compare the prices of many items at retailers today and 40 years ago, I don't deny that on an "inflation-adjusted" basis that they have decreased in price.  However, relative to the earnings for the bottom half of society, it's clear that their material standard of living has decreased.  In other words, the real cost of living hasn't decreased in spite of the automation--or the cheap Chinese shit that pours into the country, which has the same effect as automation, i.e., low labor costs.
Ralph Borsodi, Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich, E.F. Schumacher, Ted Kaczynski, Paul Kingsnorth and many others have written extensively against the thesis that technology just keeps making life better. 
In a nutshell, technological development isn't aimed at improving human well-being.  Technology is driven by efficiency, which is an engineering concept, not one connected with a comfortable life.  Never mind this, it's obvious that people today aren't happier than they were 50 or 100 years ago.  If technology were connected to happiness, I don't think we'd have about 15% of the population on SSRIs. 
People need challenges to create meaning in their lives.  Work has provided that challenge for many, but technology is making work obsolete.  Moreover, every exploitable technology is used as a weapon by government to subdue us further.  Ultimately, technological development is undermining human dignity, and that is a serious problem. 

Jim Davies's picture

Will, you have some thought-provoking ideas here. Somewhere, though, they must have a flaw, because your "technological development is undermining human dignity" cannot be right. Technological development has been taking place since our race climbed down from the trees, and I can't accept that modern hom sap is less dignified than a monkey. Tech dev is the story of man! It is that at which mankind most excels! Those seven authors you name cannot be right; technology most certainly has, for all of history, made life dramatically better.
Not uniformly, sure; when governments get hold of it they put it to the most dreadful uses - but we know where to place the blame for that, and it's not on the technology itself.
Technology is and always has made monotonous work obsolete. Yes, and a good thing too. It releases the assembly-line human robot to do something creative and interesting. If he cannot find something creative and interesting to do, that too is not the fault of technology - but rather of the educational system (in the broadest sense) which fashioned his mind and outlook. And we know who is responsible for most of that.

Will Groves's picture

On some level, all work is monotonous.  I've been in operating rooms and observed open heart surgeries to speak with surgeons and understand how they want a certain tool designed.  Speaking first-hand, one bypass surgery looks a lot like the next.  It's monotonous, just in the way that making nice furniture or preparing ingredients for a dinner with friends or any number of meaningful activities are monotonous.  
Machines that make subtle decisions are here, and in that context, when they can do nearly every task that humans can do, only faster, better, and cheaper, what then?  It's possible that individually we thought that we were working to create machines that would make the world a better place, but in the aggregate, the system created through that action decreases the overall quality of life--and not just the material aspects.  Matt Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft discusses the value in terms of the feeling of self-worth that comes from working with your hands, and my experience resonates strongly with his views.
AI-driven technologies are of a fundamentally different kind from what has come before.  They are able to survey a complicated situation and then "decide" on the best way to approach it.  Not many people know that newswriting algos have been implemented for years now--see here. Push this forward several decades and ponder what creative endeavor this leaves humans to do.
Offhand dismissals of arguments made by the authors I mentioned isn't really a rebuttal when you aren't familiar with their arguments.  We're living in a world when pro-technology mantras are drummed into the heads of everyone from childhood, and most people haven't ever heard a compelling arguement against the march of technology.   Not all, or even a majority of the authors I listed are neo-Luddites (though Kaczynski would identify as such), but most embrace certain technologies while shunning others in an attempt to create a more meaningful and convival life.   If you zoom out far enough, it's not hard to see that humans today are serving the interests of the machines more than they are of their own well-being.

Jim Davies's picture

I hope my dismissal of their arguments was not "offhand", though you raise an interesting point: is it valid to reject a conclusion without having studied deeply the arguments that support it? You're saying it's not, but then again life is short and books are many.
I suggest that it frequently is valid. We can reject Marxism without having spent a lifetime in socialist libraries; on the simple grounds that in the dozens of countries where his ideas have been tried out, they have in every case proven to be miserable failures. We can dismiss Islam as a deeply inferior religion, simply by placing its Five Pillars alongside the Nicene Creed.
And here, we can dismiss the claim that automation is causing the sky to fall, just on the basis that such a cry has gone up every time a bright new labor-saving invention enhanced the human race over the past scores of thousands of years; but every time, the sky has preserved its elevation.
Yes, it's just possible that this time, the warning is valid. But when there exist clear and obvious alternative explanations for the growing number of un- and under-employed low-skilled people, I'm not going to lose sleep over that possibility.
One other, lesser point while I'm here: you mentioned low-price Chinese imports are "shit", quote. That hasn't been my experience, anecdotal though it is. I've bought a dozen or more small items via eBay from China, and with only one exception they have been well made, cleverly designed, low priced and rapidly delivered. I'm delighted that after centuries of deep poverty, a large number of Chinese people have begun to taste the pleasures of prosperity.

Samarami's picture
    "...Never mind this, it's obvious that people today aren't happier than they were 50 or 100 years ago. If technology were connected to happiness, I don't think we'd have about 15% of the population on SSRIs..."

What you're actually identifying is loss of freedom -- what STR is all about: liberty. And, I'll readily agree that much of the technology and the development of more highly automated and robotic production of physical products is itself having a debilitating effect upon those only educated, skilled and trained for factory work. The mass exodus for manufacturing has been to "third-world" places where starvation nips the lower 2/3 of the population in the arse every day. It's increasingly difficult for manufacturers to remain afloat here in the land-of-the-free.

As the article reveals, technology is creating a huge tsunami in "service" industries as well. But the problem is "SSRIs". If there were no such thing as state there could be no such thing as "SSRI". If there were no parasites engaged in redistributing wealth, wealth would abound.

Either that, or we're spinning our wheels here at STR.

"The poor" are the true sufferers from loss of freedom. Yet it is "the poor" who are directed to interchange with the beast (who claims jurisdiction in robbing "the rich"). It has been largely "the poor" who have voted with and for political progressive-ism -- along with those who benefit by keeping them poor (most often "the rich").

Enter "SSRIs".

The enormity of the truth is incredible.


mishochu's picture

I'd posit it's only a curse if the average person doesn't have access to owning one of these machines. If all automation is centralized then yes that would leave very little opportunity to those that used to labor.

However, most labor saving devices to date have found their way into the average household, garage, and even pocket. If that trend continues, it will be up to the average person to determine how their life is made better.

Will Groves's picture

If anyone reading the STR blog wishes to see the limited benefits of technology, look no further than the AI-trollbot that automatically posts under the "Jim Davies" handle.   After years of watching it in action, I think I finally have figured it out:  Its libertarian purity-test algorithm checks all posts for "flaws" and provides boilerplate "corrections" straight out of the Handbook of Libertarian Orthodoxy.  It supposes to "think," yet it sees only in black and white.  As a machine, it cannot understand the non-material aspects of life that are the root of what it means to be human.  It's programmed to view humans as biological robots , that we live in a meaningless universe, that consciousness is an illusion, and everything that can't be measured doesn't exist.  In its algo, humans have infinite wants, so more stuff and less work is always better, even when in real life, it isn't. 

Jim Davies's picture

Ha! Very amusing, Will. And quite true, up to a point. Yes, humans have "wants" to a huge degree I for one have not yet fathomed, and yes, less work is always better because there is such a vast amount of beauty and knowledge to explore during one's time away from the work bench.
Yes, too, the universe is "meaningless" in the sense that it comes with none ready-packaged in some mythical enclosure; not, though, in the other important sense that we humans have an amazing and priceless opportunity (unique in all Nature, I think) to fashion our own meaning.
Yes, yet more, I think so highly of the libertarian understanding of which way is up that I am indeed jealous of preserving its "orthodoxy", for want of a better word. I have, however, no such "handbook" as you mention; just a grasp of the essential principle that every person rightly owns his own life, along with some ability to draw deductions from that axiom.
Thank you, yet further, for reference to the Zero Government Blog. I'm gratified indeed that you have been for "years watching it in action." Disappointed, though, that your prejudice in favor of the current manifestation of the Luddite Faith has prevented you embracing its reasoning. Some day, perhaps, you'll favor us with an explanation of how you can simultaneously deplore the alleged replacement of humans by robots, yet earn a living by helping design them.

Brian Mast's picture

I believe that the potential widespread job loss resulting from AI would be less painful if the state sponsored privileges were removed from certain top-level professions. There have already been many libertarian articles covering topics such as subsidies, the federal reserve, inflation, licensure, the oligarchy, rent-seeking, and so forth. I agree with the authors of those articles that the state should not have interfered with the markets because it picks winners and losers.
I have yet to read a libertarian article about the unreal high pay that CEO's get, and if I had the ability to research the cause and effects that lead up to it: I would write one. The Forbes article I linked to doesn't satisfactorily answer why a free market would allow for this gigantic pay increase to happen, so I suspect that the state or the banksters are the culprit. I do not believe for one split second that present CEO's are that much better or more productive than the CEO's from say 40 or 50 years ago. CEO's ought to only get paid what they are worth. Lowering their pay could result in greater profits for business owners and share-holders, increased pay for employees, and/or lower cost goods. I do not at all advocate that the state create a new law to 'fix' this problem, but what is the free market solution?
Removing these state-enabled subsidies may result in either higher pay for the lower class or make their present income go further. Removing state-caused employment costs may result in more people getting employed. Employees could also opt for a shorter work week which would cause more people to get hired. These suggestions do nothing about the AI problem if it is indeed a problem, but they certainly would improve the economic prospects for all employees and enable them to buy more products.

Jim Davies's picture

Good point, Brian. My Blog did consider the Idle Rich a while ago, and more recently Rich Folks, with a reference to Forbes; but neither specifically considered high CEO salaries.
Government regulation of some industries - notably banking - is such that competition is virtually excluded, so the normal way excessive pay could be trimmed is negated. Such firms are "too big to fail" and so that incentive for limiting officers' salaries is removed. On the other hand shareholders can usually set such pay rates without interference, and if (as in the banks' case) a potentially catastrophic failure is averted when the CEO negotiates a bailout with the FedGov, they are understandably grateful.
A separate consideration is that multimillion dollar salaries only puts such CEOs on a par, more or less, with founders of successful startups, of which Forbes is very good at reporting. This month for example it portrays 30 people under age 30 who have begun enterprises worth $100 million or more; they may presently pay themselves a modest "salary" but their endeavors are setting them up to be much better off than a mere senior employee of a Dow-30 firm.
The coming zero government society will, I think, continue to reward innovation in such ways but by removing the prop of government support it will allow large inefficient firms to collapse and be replaced by nimble competitors, plural, who will be led by CEOs whose pay will be under more active control by shareholders eager to control costs and so stay competitive.
I'm not clear, though, what impact AI will have on that process. As Will Groves has argued, it may impact the jobs and pay rates at the bottom of the ladder (though I think very little) but how would it much affect the top rung?