One of the most fascinating articles I read over the holidays was by Lydia DePillis in the Dec. 29 Washington Post (“8 ways robots stole our jobs in 2013”). The article is not long but was very pointed. Technology is expanding at a more rapid pace than most people have anticipated and with it there has come a significant loss of jobs, ranging from the stuffing of mail to the operation of farm equipment. And now the proposed Amazon flying drone.
For years we have been told that with advances in technology not only will there be the elimination of dirty and dangerous work, but that new and improved opportunities will open for those displaced. Circumstances have not quite worked out that way. Instead, some new and skilled high-tech jobs have emerged; many workers have been rendered “redundant” (un-usable) by the changing economy; and the benefits of the new technology have gone almost exclusively to the rich and the super-rich.
The importance of the DePillis article is that it reminds us that there is no automatic connection between improved technology and benefits to those who work for a living. Our standard of living does not necessarily improve with the spread of robots and other forms of computerization. If there is no direct intervention of working people and those who are supposed to be looking out for them, the cost of producing items will be reduced, and so too will be the opportunities for those who must work.
For those of us who love science fiction, we know that one of the scenarios often raised regarding the future is one where robots and computers take on all or most major tasks, making it easier and more comfortable for humanity. While this is a scenario that I would like to believe will happen, we should not assume that we are on the road toward such a future. Rather, the future seems to look more like the eternal expansion of Walmart, whereby it is easier and cheaper for companies to produce and sell items, but that the rest of us become poorer and poorer.
Rather than despair, however, it is really a moment when we need to start asking questions of government and industry. If workers are losing jobs as a result of changes in technology, and, if such changes benefit the titans of the economy, shouldn’t greater demands be placed on the corporate giants to insist that they provide for those who are displaced? Perhaps we should stop letting corporations get away with dispensing with workers in the name of increasing productivity, only to leave said workers on the side of the road to fend for themselves. The alternative is not the status quo, but rather the expansion of dead cities and abandoned zones where those no longer needed are warehoused.
That is not a future I want to see. There is no reason that it need come about.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.