A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Little sympathy is given to fast food workers making demands regarding a living wage. Largely because the stated value is in excess of life essential roles that require years of training and education such as teachers and paramedics (often referred to as vocational roles). We scoff at the short sightedness; recognising that the more trouble such workers cause the less appealing the existence of such a role becomes. Automation of such a procedural role is technologically feasible and financially viable today. There is no large technological leap that we need to make in order to flip a burger. The obstacle is social and logistical. Similarly the chronic striking of public transport workers corrodes much of the sympathy that the inconvenienced mass public might have had. And again, the technology to automate the driving of a train has already been implemented on a great many lines with employees working along side such systems as a double safety valve. Not to mention ticket vending a role that has almost entirely been eclipsed by the machine. Those of us detached from the immediate reality of operating within the industry mutter to ourselves that those faced with impending redundancy must keep their heads down in these final days so as not to accelerate the automaton’s axe.
In the context of the current onset of self driving cars, the technological requirement for conducting trains can be considered `old hat’ at best. Protected by the psychological desire to have a human at the helm pilots will be protected for sometime. However within 5 years the debate over the morality of allowing people to drive cars themselves will be in full swing (personal prediction) and this will certainly act as the precipitant for air travel. At the most benign, those of us suffering from motion sickness when not behind the wheel may fear such a future, but we must spare a thought for the professional drivers of this world.
Mass retail also holds out against the advance. We currently live in that brief span of time where the social convention and familiarity of visiting a physical retail setting out-weighs the added financial cost. Supermarkets will be the first to recede. For our weekly essentials (with no need to ‘try on for size’), the ability to amalgamate the resource in inexpensive low-staff warehouses and distribute subsequently will overwhelm the habit of grocery shopping. Not to mention the added convenience. This will be followed by the obsolescence of a wider spectrum of retail. Online retailers like Amazon and E-bay simply cannot be matched for economies of scale or personnel costs. Perhaps clothing retailers and luxury purchases will remain as stalwarts of the in-person retail industry but they will prove to be an inconsequential minority.
Any fears of the impact of the outlined initial assault are allayed by the widely held belief that technology always acts by means of creative destruction. In the dissolution of old industry it creates industry anew – held true throughout the industrial revolution, world wars, and the initial internet age. As a result the only perceived side effect is increased efficiency and extension an intended increase in standard of living. The extrapolation of this trend was popularised in the 20th Century through popular culture icons such as The Jetsons purported a 5 hour work week, and Star Trek’s matter transmuting `replicator’. The Jetsons seemingly conforming to a more capitalist extension involving the continuation of the purchase of goods in exchange for service, albeit considerably less service than the contemporary 40+ hour work week. Star Trek occurs in a rather socialist vision of the future in which all goods are produced at no expense (in general but specifically to the individual).
Without offering resolution the question is asked of those in academia and intimately aware of the true front of technology: Is the dismal science right on this one? Can we trust unto the unknown that civilization will march on as it always had or do we fear the potential of a coming techno-feudalism? Will the words of the late Steve Jobs finally be applicable? Does this change everything?
- A. Luddite
(Joshua Duley is a PhD student from MACSI)