The Brave New World of Automation

"As socialists, we cannot shy away from taking bold policy steps to safeguard peoples’ rights, freedoms and economic empowerment in this Brave New World."

We’ve all read the headlines, and seen the doomsday predictions, that automation is coming for every job and we may as well all just run for the hills to prepare for our new post apocalyptic lives.

There are some truly existential threats to humanity - climate change chief among them. But having a greater proportion of labour currently done by humans instead performed by machines does not immediately strike me as one of them.

We’ve seen automation through another name before. The industrial revolution saw many jobs lost to the machines, in this case everything from the loom to the combine harvester, and we lived through it. The economy adapted, and we’re now doing markedly different jobs.

As technology has developed further in the last few centuries, this change has only increased.

We cannot conceive of a world where jobs that make up the backbone of the economy - particularly, though by no means exclusively, lower skilled jobs - are gone. And yet this is the reality we will face over the next few decades.

We could be Luddites, and try to stop change happening. This will never work. We must confront the change that is upon us, and take up the challenge to ensure people are not harmed by it. Our trade unions need to be at the forefront of this fight.

As socialists, we cannot shy away from taking bold policy steps to safeguard peoples’ rights, freedoms and economic empowerment in this Brave New World. This should mean that nothing is off the table - whether that means significantly heightened corporation taxes for companies that use predominantly robot labour (the so-called “robot tax”), a form of Universal Basic Income that is genuinely progressive - whatever is required to ensure people aren’t harmed.

If people need to reskill throughout their careers as a result of this changing economy, then this shows why Labour’s National Education Service as proposed by Angela Rayner could be so important.   

The Tory government have been woeful in adapting to these challenges. It’s 2018 and while driverless cars have been in development since 2009 – already being driven around US streets – the Government has produced no legislation even beginning to tackle the issues that may surround their implementation, instead promising a three-year review. We have to stop treating the future as though it’s a far-off, imagined concept and start accepting the fact it’s already here. We can’t be left behind in the technology arms race and neither can workers.

We must recognise it is hard to conceive of what a post-automation job market could look like.

A few decades ago, no one would have believed that jobs like ‘social media manager’ would exist. It would have been impossible to consider. And yet, jobs in these fields are ten-a-penny on any recruitment site.  

One industry that is often said to be immune to automation is care work. Whilst I can only assume that those who say that have never worked in it, I can think of plenty of parts of the often back breaking work I remember doing when I worked in care that could be made far easier, and far better for its workers with technology. More importantly  than that, though – it shows that they lack imagination.

And in some ways that sums up my point – we cannot have sufficient imagination, because we are constrained by the context in which we exist. We cannot even panic accurately, because we cannot know that we are done for.

Whilst all change not ending humanity is perhaps not the happiest way to conclude, we all ought to take doomsday predictions with a pinch of salt. We should be wary of changes that seek to roll back rights or the economic improvements of the last century - but remind ourselves that our Labour movement has got through many hurdles. We must be wary of technology taking jobs without adequate alternatives and aiding the Tories in eroding our rights.

We’re at our strongest when we’ve a comprehensive vision for the future. Let’s build it.


Emma Bean is a Young Fabian member. Follow her on Twitter at @emmalbeanie.

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