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On being replaced by technology, re-visited

In writing about The Electronic Sweatshop earlier this week, I touched upon the prospect of professional work being replaced by automation together with systematisation and centralisation of decision-making (“managerialism”). The Electronic Sweatshop portrays this process as largely de-skilling and de-personalising workers but other writers, such as the authors of The Future of the Professions, are enthusiastic about its potential to make professional work more cheaply available.

Many skilled workers react to the prospect of being replaced by a machine by insisting that a machine could never replace the sophisticated skills and judgement of a trained artisan or professional. Or, if it did, the end user of those services would be missing something.

In many cases, they probably are missing something. The question is, is what is left good enough? The Electronic Sweatshop gives the example of tailors: while no one doubts that tailor-made clothing fits better than mass-produced clothing, mass-produced clothing works quite well enough for most purposes at a far lower cost. So most of us wear mass-produced clothing most of the time. But in other cases, such as MOOCs, enthusiasm to automate the work of professionals has run ahead of what the machines can actually do. In the case of MOOCs, at least, the machines’ designers might also have misunderstood what the professionals do: schools and teachers don’t simply provide information to their students; they provide an environment and structure within which students are supported to actually practice and absorb it.

For someone who takes pride in their work, being replaced by a machine that provides a cheaper but not-quite-as-good service might be galling. One of my own pet hates is the over-requirements, poorly-commented and poorly-understood code auto-generated by integrated development environments. But presumably other developers appreciate having all that code added without having to do any work or needing to understand it, and if it means cheaper software completed more quickly customers probably like it in their way as well. But at the same time I use compilers and interpreters in all of the programming that I do, which one can imagine being equally resented by an assembly code enthusiast.

In an entry of my previous blog, I speculated that such artisans could continue to practice their art as a hobby even if it had been automated for economic purposes—though I could see an in-principle possibility for this to lead to in people spending the best part of their week doing something that they don’t like instead of something that they can take pride in, more or less as The Electronic Sweatshop describes. In other cases, such as the tailors already mentioned and the craft breweries that have sprung up over the past decade, artisans can still make a living by providing a premium service (even if there are fewer artisans than there were before).

No doubt there are better and worse ways to use automation, too. I still get to practice a craft I enjoy even though I use a compiler rather than an assembler, while in another context I suffer through automated help systems and chatbots that try to re-direct me to pre-prepared answers to different questions or just don’t understand the question at all.

I’d like to think that there’s room in the world for both automation and artisanship, but it’s not immediately obvious how the best balance might be found, not to mention that different people have different desires for what they want to be automated and what they want to be crafted. Perhaps it’s something that we ought to think about rather than just hope the economy will sort it all out somehow.

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