I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

Are machines taking our jobs, or are we working despite them?

2015-05-31 by Nick S., tagged as employment

David Tuffley recently asserted in The Conversation that we [humans] need new jobs as the machines do more of our work. I immediately saw something fishy about the article's premise, in which "governments are encouraging healthy older people to postpone retirement and keep working" on one hand, while "jobs are not easy to come by these days" on the other. Tuffley goes on to consider what might happen, and how we might respond to it, as even more present-day jobs become mechanised. But if jobs are not easy to come by because machines are doing all the work, from where arises the need to have humans keep working in the first place?

I suppose that Tuffley developed his premise by accepting two popular narratives with their own internal logic, but whose internal logicks conflict such that a naïve combination of the two does not make sense. Many of the commenters on the article (including me) perceive this as a symptom of flaws in the worldview in which the aging-population and machines-are-taking-our-jobs narratives flourish.

Tuffley seems to subscribe to the traditional counter-Luddite view that a growing economy will find new non-automated work for displaced human workers, or at least that it must be somehow made to do so. Many of the commenters are not so sure, though few if any of us have a clear idea on how to bring about an alternative.

It's well beyond the scope of this blog — and probably my whole academic career — to have "the dismal science [economics] ... rebuilt from the ground up", as Graeme Martin's comment suggests. But in a previous entry or two on work and mechanisation, I've looked at certain kinds of work as being satisying in their own right, and wondered if anyone would want this work to be taken away by machines.

Several months ago, I happened to pick up Simon Birnbaum's Basic Income Reconsidered (2012). The most powerful memory I have of the book is where Birnbaum questions the notion that the worthiness of a member of a society should depend on paid work, which (notoriously) discounts the value of such things as raising children, caring for sick relatives, and cleaning the house. Not to mention all that produsing that we're supposed to be doing. (A "basic income" is a government payment made to every citizen irrespective of the citizen's income — or lack of it — from other sources.)

Whatever one thinks of basic incomes, Birnbaum's perspective gets at the dilemma that I had when contemplating being replaced by technology about a year ago. Markets provide an incentive to replace labourers with technology if the technology can make products less expensively, and this might be a great thing if the labour is boring or dangerous — but where does that leave those of us who derive satisfaction from our work? Especially if society continues to insist, as Tuffley presumes, that its members keep in paid work for forty hours a week even while more and more work is done by machines.

Rather than talk of machines taking jobs, perhaps we ought to be talking of how best to distribute the wealth created by advancing machinery, and how best to use it in pursuing what we really want to do. As some of the commenters noted, thinkers as diverse as John Maynard Keynes and the writers of Star Trek have grappled with these ideas, but it never seems to have caught on in a society that insists we prove our worth with forty hours of drudgery each week.