Replacement of workers by technology isn’t new. The original Luddites destroyed the mechanized looms that replaced their labor. But the new looms came anyway. New technology has always won out in the long run.
That has caused crises among those displaced, but never the downfall of society, because when new technology came, it also brought improved productivity and lower unit costs, as well as new kinds of jobs. In the longer run, everyone was better off.
Now we have run up against the brick wall that some were warning about long ago. In 1949 the mathematician Norbert Weiner wrote that the shift to machine labor would create an “industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty”, when human factory workers would “not be worth hiring at any price”. Alas, that time is upon us, and not just for factory workers.
Human workers will not be
worth hiring at any price.
The process of mechanization, especially in recent decades, has accelerated astonishingly, as more and more new robots and computers have been able to do ever more kinds of work. They are learning how to perform the most complex actions that humans can do, and teaching other robots and machines how to do it.
Technology that is brand new may well be obsolete in just a few years, replaced by machines with even more astonishing abilities. Increasing numbers of workers, even highly skilled workers, are made redundant. So many, in fact, that great danger waits in the not-distant future, when robots do almost all of the jobs that formerly required workers. Not just unskilled workers, but highly skilled workers, and even professionals like lawyers, teachers, doctors, and top level managers. Writers. Composers.
Here is the difficulty: This new technology, as always, is owned by the rich. The profit from these machines goes entirely to these same people, who are unlikely to willingly surrender even a small part of the wealth their machines create, not even to taxes. Almost all of the wealth generated will go to a very small cadre of the extremely rich. Virtually nothing will be available for the great majority of the population, who will have no job and no income. Not only will the rich have virtually all the money, they will want to keep it all.
Robots will do the jobs
that highly skilled and
white collar workers did.
Unless something changes, the inevitable outcome will be an increasingly unequal society and ever greater poverty, because the rich already control the political process. The very rich owners of new technology will accumulate ever increasing wealth, and everyone else will lose wealth until they are very poor. More and more, the greatest wealth will become inherited wealth, even further insulated from the rest of us. More and more, society will come to resemble the feudal system of centuries past, with a few extremely rich and the vast majority very poor.
What will be the value of education when it no longer is related to occupation or income? When no one can afford it? I and many others have said that we place far too much emphasis on education as occupational training. When education can no longer be valued as occupational training, will people value it at all? Why spend scarce money on school when it will do you no good financially? The rich already manipulate the ignorant. What will happen when the whole populace is ignorant?
Will people value education at all?
Republicans have been trying to dismantle Social Security, Medicare, and other essential programs for ages. Without a population to pay into them they will get their wish, by default. What will result is obvious: The aged will be thrust into deep poverty. Even minor illnesses will carry people away, as they did in the 19th century, before vaccination and modern medicines were available. Republicans believe only the poor and the black will suffer these fates, but Republican white collar jobs will vanish like all the others.
If we are not to have this radical inequality and mass poverty, we must begin now to find ways for the mechanized bounty to be more equitably shared. But if more than half of the country has no income at all it’s obvious that the money must come from where the money is, the deep pockets of the ultra-rich, whose taxes have been falling for half a century because they control Congress. Corporations too have found ways to avoid their public responsibilities, many paying no tax at all. It’s obvious that neither the rich nor corporations will volunteer to part with even a little bit of their money, even to save their country or their fellow humans. Since they also control the political process, the question becomes, What conditions short of revolution will make it possible for the American people to live a decent life?