An Immodest Proposal
It strikes me, in recent days, that some of the most heated rhetoric is aimed at several “threats” to our American essence. That is: Russian hacking, class envy, and (gasp!) Automation! They stand accused of challenging our very democratic foundations, tearing us apart as a people and turning human beings into commodities and turning us one against the other.
It brings to mind the famous work of Jonathan Swift who in 1729 wrote a biting satirical piece aimed at people who were scheming to re-architect society. The irony he employed forced more logic into the discussion by highlighting some of the craziness of it all. In the context of this blog post, I wonder if the same can be done with automation, hailed by many as one of the great villains of our time. I will stay away from lecturing on the means of production, the Marxist dialectic, the evils of the Industrial Revolution, and so on. But let’s do discuss the ironic charges of those automation benefits deniers, and consider the many advantages that automation brings to our daily lives and our way of life.
Perhaps in a different form or if I were a better writer, I might take a more Swift-like approach and really drive home the points as he did nearly 300 years ago. Instead, however, let’s consider where we see automation today and recognize it as the opportunity it is when properly selected versus vilifying it universally.
In general, automation offers many benefits: environmental and worker safety, consumer safety, improvements to quality-of-life, the potential to re-shore work from overseas, throughput efficiencies, and so much more. For instance, when barcode scanners first appeared in grocery stores many of us panicked at the thought of this automated system quickly and unaccountably “ringing up” our purchases, leaving us vulnerable and exposed to errors, overcharging, and dehumanizing our shopping. No longer might our friendly cashier punch in the prices on the cash register and hand us a long tape full of numbers. Instead, now we have just as many cashiers if not more (employment) providing high-quality service focused on customers not keypunching, with incredible accuracy. Furthermore, the information derived from all this allows my friendly Wegmans grocery store to contact us if there’s a recall on lettuce or if my favorite ice cream is going on sale. Convenience, customer service, and consumer safety are all better served.
In the manufacturing and production facilities around the country, workers are increasingly operating in safer environments as robots, computers, and sensors, along with other automation tools, perform the tasks that are most repetitive, dangerous, risky, unpleasant, and so forth. These tools reduce injuries, save lives, produce more product at lower cost, and allow previously outsourced work to cheaper labor markets to come back and create American jobs in American factories. With robots. And computers. Together.
The architecting, design, production, and programming of all these technologies are also producing satisfying and high-paying, high-quality jobs, so many of which are also based here in America. We have to also service and maintain all of these automation tools (more good jobs) and export not only goods but knowledge-based technologies that help to maintain our global leadership.
While Swift’s “Modest Proposal” aimed to shame and expose those who favored the social reengineering they were pursuing, our moment is now to illustrate the opportunities and advantages of selective automation. Let’s identify those conditions where worker, business, community, and environmental concerns are addressed through intelligent and comprehensive means to apply technology to achieve better outcomes. Blaming automation in general, or casting it as a villain, only obscures the advances that can be made by managing the smart deployment of the right tools to tasks that can liberate workers from the mundane, dangerous activities and point the way to more fulfilling work, safer environments, and a more robust economy that can compete on the evolving global stage.
Portrait by Charles Jervas, via Wikipedia.