Saturday, March 28, 2009

Capitalism and Its Fruits, Part II

Katherine Gammon over at Wired magazine has a short piece up titled "Stock-Boy Bots are Stealing American Jobs".

Robots are stealing American jobs. In a 76,000-square-foot zone of the 832,000-square-foot Zappos warehouse in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, 72 robotic "drive units" organize and deliver shelves of goods—from argyle socks to handbags. People remain in charge (for now), because it takes human dexterity to pack items into a box for shipping. But the bots still have plenty to do, picking up the slack on boring tasks like shifting inventory.
The droids roll at 3 miles an hour, navigating via barcodes stuck to the floor and commands from a central server. And they're buff, able to lift half a ton.

Adding a dark-future, sci-fi dimension ("Skynet" and "The Rise of the Machines!") , an Artificial Intelligence dimension that is worrisome but which I leave for another day, the concern is an old one, one which the Luddites have given their name to. The original concern, ie., what is to become of skilled, artisanal labor when machinery allows unskilled workers to produce large volumes of cheap goods in place of quality craftsmanship? has been resoundingly set aside as a concern by the enormous productivity, and thus wealth, that industrialization has made possible. By creating such widespread wealth, craftsmen and artists of every possible description have a larger upscale market for their wares than any previous generation, and the lower and middles classes share in a bounty undreamed of by prior centuries. Obviously, the market for an exquisitely made anything is limited, even in the best of times; but the cost-lowering dynamic of mass production is what has made the modern Western world, for better and worse, what it is. The line marking the difference between a luxury and a necessity has been drastically shifted downward. Imagine if you will, if the only method available for making a cell phone, a laptop computer, a GPS navigation device, or an Ipod, were the cottage manufacturing model of the Luddite era. ("Manufacture", from the Latin, is literally "hand made"). Who would have these devices? Any possibility of standardization? And what would they cost?

Yet, a question remains. Industrial robots are here to stay, spreading even into areas, like agriculture, not previously thought possible. Repetitive, dangerous, and menial tasks are being systematically taken over by ever more cleverly designed machines. How important is it to preserve entry level and unskilled manual labor jobs in our increasingly complex, automated, and information-driven economy? No matter how successful our education system could be imagined to become (we have to imagine it because we are very nearly at the point where it could not be worse), there will always be the less intelligent and less able tier of society. What are these people to do if the only jobs that exist are for the skilled or educated?

Here we are met once again with the horns of the dilemma. Progress, innovation, creativity, and efficiency all point to an increasing role for machines, with the cost being borne by the lowest on the totem pole and least capable, who will find fewer and fewer jobs they can do. The socialist answer is to just fund them in their idleness, discard them as productive human beings, and care for them like one might a stray animal.

Are we in a fundamentally different era now? For example, the early industrial era still rested on the same workforce that had been employed on the farms. It was a huge dislocation, but the jobs for the masses were still there, just different ones. But now as auto plants close down, it is ridiculous to think many UAW workers are going to become certified Microsoft technicians. And if even warehouse jobs vanish, where do the young and unskilled go? If the direction is relentlessly toward information and data, creativity and abstraction, are we establishing once again the basis for peasant/nobility dichotomy, with little in between?

Consider the nightmarish vision of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, realized on celluloid in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, with the off-planet upper world of the glitterati and decadent rich occasionally larking down in the squalor of the degenerate world they have escaped. Untold luxury for the educated, misery and hopelessness for everyone else. Is this what unbridled science and markets portend?


Benjamin Shaw said...

To a certain extent, isn't this already happening? The less-educated are in the service industry--food service, lawn care service, construction, etc. True, assembly-line jobs are being replaced with machines, but these other areas are expanding. For example, when I was a kid [yes, in the Dark Ages], almost everyone's lawn was taken care of by someone in the family, or by the kid in the neighborhood with a good lawnmower and a little initiative. Now you can drive through any suburban area of the country on spring or summer day and see hundreds of workers for dozens of lawncare services.

Harold Kildow said...

What you say is true; but I wonder if there is a limit to what the service sector can absorb from the relentless drive to automation of routine jobs. The free market has so far done a good job--Schumpeter's "creative destruction" has always left us better off than before. I'm just wondering if there is something different about this economic shift, or if we can depend on the open market for abor adn goods to take care of dislocated workers when most of the new jobs will require skills and education beyond the reach of large numbers of the newly displaced.

Your thoughts?

David C. Innes said...

The Blade Runner scenario won't happen. Hollywood and the writers of such literature presuppose a Godless universe. But he lives, and he has scattered his holy, loving, Christ-resembling people throughout this world, and so the heaven and earth (as it were) that the film depicts is implausible. The biblical imagery in the Opening Titles is intriguing.