Candidates nervously discuss automation. Inevitably, it means that jobs will be replaced — the usual metaphor is that you do not see many buggy whip makers anymore — but even more, there is the fear that we will not have enough jobs for people to move to from what they do now.
On the other hand, we could see automation as fixing an uneven process that began long ago with the invention of interchangeable parts:
Wilkinson had built a machine tool – a tool that automates a manufacturing process.
It comprised a very sharp drill, a water-mill, and a system of clamping one thing while smoothly rotating another.
But as Simon Winchester observes in his history of precision engineering, Exactly, these machine tools had a curious side-effect: they put skilled craftsmen out of work in large numbers.
With the invention of this tool, humanity embarked on a new paradigm: instead of having workers create something by hand, we had them turn this little wheel and the machine made the part. Obviously, things were more complicated than that, but the transition was huge.
Now instead of craftsmen required to build things, businesses could use moderately alert labor. While this decreased the competence of the population, it also made manufacturing more efficient and ultimately, of much lower cost and higher utility.
Interchangeable parts allow us to, when an engine breaks down, go buy another of the dead part from off the shelf (or catalogue) somewhere. We can quickly swap and be up and running again. Without interchangeable parts, modern technology would be impossible.
However, this simply transferred the bulk of people from skilled and specific labor into relatively mundane tasks. To compensate for this, we introduced layers of education and certification in order to separate the sheep (obedient) from the wolves (chaotic).
The result formed the basis of the modern job. Your role is to handle repetitive labor with a mental laundry list of exceptions and qualifiers. You do not work toward an end product, but toward fulfillment of a role. Therein lies the problem.
People who are separated from the consequences of their labor become mentally separated in other areas as well. It creates a society of people who follow procedure, and by that act, become attentive to method and not goal or meaning of their activities.
Of course, that was a condition already curated by the bureaucratic society, an Asiatic invention which took root after the Avar and Mongol invasions, if not earlier through trade with the “exotic” (and white people are attracted to the exotic like crack) Asian cultures.
Automation will solve this problem by removing the repetitive jobs. This means that consciousness of what one is doing, rather than rote, and being able to handle complex tasks that are not of a narrow regulated channel in nature.
In short, we will return to the days of the craftsmen, and require more complexity from our labor and more skill. This will in reality eliminate a lot of people from the job market, but they are doing tasks that are not strictly necessary and which would bore any person of reasonable competence.
Imagine a society where automation has taken over all jobs except leadership. The ownership of the automation will pass to something like an aristocracy or state, and they will create jobs for the men, something along the lines of the quasi-feudalist system I proposed in place of a Universal Basic Income.
Even more, we will have time for craftsmanship again, since it only has magic when it reveals the presence of a human soul. The great cathedrals like Notre Dame and the intensely delicate, detailed, and exacting artwork of the past that adorned everyday spaces will return.
These will replace a society obsessed with mass production and easily reproduced images, emulating our political slogans and symbols as well as our advertising. Instead of a city of disposable parts, you will have a society built on basic items which are converted into something elegant by human hands.
Interestingly, this shows us the end of democracy, since it too will be subject to what automation does. We can simulate democracy by bashing a computer with a bat, but we can achieve better prediction of working policies through machine learning. At that point, the voter is merely background noise.
Instead, we face a future in which competence will be highly prized because the trivial basics of modernity — clerking, legal, coding, cleaning, construction, MBAs — will be replaced by machine learning algorithms. We can free ourselves from the tedium of most work.
On a practical level, our stores will probably remain much the same on the customer-facing side; people prefer to deal with people. Behind the STAFF door however, will be machines, making identical burgers or custom software, probably doing your tax returns and financial plans, solving your legal problems and designing basic structures.
Interchangeable parts introduced a great power to humanity, but also threw us into the factory mentality of having people show up to perform relatively rote process. This even applies to law, medicine, and financial practice at this point, which is why so much of that is done badly and so few of the experts are able to understand conditions beyond what they saw in school. Our professions advance only when a generation dies, and the teaching of thirty years ago — when the professors learned it — can become the new standard. We are addicted to rote.
While our politicians debate automation, the idea of “doing something about it” meets derisive laughter from students of history. Efficiency saves money and therefore increases power; if we refuse to do it, the people who replace us will not make the same mistake.