Don't Fight The Robots: The False Choice Of Worker V. Machine
Mechanization is bound to destroy jobs, which not surprisingly provokes fear. But trying to delay the inevitable only makes matters worse and prepares neither society nor laborer for the future.
PARIS — To comply with the ban on working on Sunday, the Casino superstore in Angers replaced its employees on Sundays with machines, and reduced security staff to outsourced temporary workers. The first Sunday it did that, unions staged vigorous protests that included sporadic violence. It was a perfect metaphor for the antagonistic view of the relationship between workers on the one hand, and technology and consumers on the other. This would-be confrontation must change, and fast.
Many consider, wrongly, that work is a kind of cake to be divvied up. That inevitably generates a zero-sum vision of the need for workers, wherein every new machine means one less position for a person. It overlooks the philosopher Joseph Schumpeter's principle of creative destruction, which insists on new needs and job opportunities emerging as others are met or automated. It is useless to oppose this process. Karl Marx himself once wrote that "technology will always be stronger than legal and political technostructures."
Will anyone miss waiting in line to pay at a supermarket?
No work that could be done entirely and more cheaply by machines is immune; better yet, regulatory and fiscal restrictions inevitably entail mechanization. So there is no credible moratorium on technological progress in the long term. Should we have banned piped water for example, to protect the position of water carriers?
One discerns another misconception in reactions to the un-staffed superstore: the supposed clash of interests between workers and consumers. In focusing on safeguarding job positions, one loses sight of the central element, which is the added value of work that is a direct response to a need. Thinking in terms of saving jobs is to overlook the fact that sometimes, a particular position's added value has disappeared while new needs are emerging elsewhere.
Many monopoly actors, like taxis once did, wound up paying the price of a blinkered view that ultimately nurtures competitors. Technological innovations improve quality of service (will anyone miss waiting in line to pay at a supermarket?) and help guide staff toward tasks with greater added value, like advising customers.
La Roseraie Casino superstore in Angers — Photo: Google Street View
In his 1931 essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes elaborated his idea of "technological unemployment" as a new ailment of developed societies, caused by a discrepancy between technological progress and workers' skills. The solution is well-known: anticipating future needs in skills and training. Unions and state officials very often react assuming workers are passive beings to whom one promises stability and protection. We should no longer protect, but arm them.
It is cowardly and irresponsible to keep dangling the prospects of safeguarding threatened jobs, which is what politicians often do trying to "attend to" workers' fears and concerns. As for employers, they are not so much guilty of introducing technologies as they are of not helping their workers anticipate new developments.
Should we have banned piped water to protect water carriers?
One trade union leader told an interviewer she was concerned machines would be used on other days too. Well, that is exactly what is going to happen and all retailing may one day look like the Amazon Go store in New York, with no cashiers in sight. And that is great news. Another striking picture recently circulating on social networks was of a robot masterfully cleaning New York's public toilets. It is difficult to see how one could yearn for such jobs, when their disappearance will mean workers are assigned to other tasks.