Automation Guilt

You are designing part of a robot that will inevitably put people out of work. So, how guilty do you feel?

There’s an elephant in the room, or perhaps, in the Valley. When you talk to programmers, engineers, and designers that work in various aspects of automation – be it the machine arm that eliminates more auto-plant jobs, or advanced algorithms that diagnose heart disease – eventually that facet of their work that makes something more efficient will clearly also make another human obsolete. Their work is thrilling, complex and challenging; ‘really, man, it is part of a greater and more prosperous future…’ and yet it kinda also might be sending humans to the poor house…

Are trendy 20-something programmers a new Dickensian villain? There is some element in automating traditional human jobs that plays out like a 19th century victorian yarn. Some programmers flinch away from the reality that their job is effectively to end the jobs of others. Not exactly a Bill Sikes prowling the slums, but even if the direct connection from their work to a pink-slip is not abundantly clear, these specialists – capable, highly intelligent, and compassionate – feel the need to atone for their work. On numerous occasions it has come up in conversation like a bad episode from their past: “Well, yeah I worked on automating this process… *but* it doesn’t put people out of work, I swear.” Right buddy. Well, at least you’re not a mortgage repo officer, I guess.

The Dickensian version of AI research.

But ultimately, over the course of history, it is hard to comprehensively condemn what is only temporary, technological unemployment. If you look at the long track record of jobs replaced with machines, these automation fears are old news, and did not cause permanent harm. Since the Luddites were smashing looming mills in 1800s Britain, people have always feared their artificial replacements, and yet jobs continued to be created just as they were destroyed, and society did not collapse. Textile production itself went from the weaver, to the loom, to steam-power, to grid-power, to being outsourced in ways no Victorian loom operator every could have imagined. The world did not end, and Malthus’ predictions of mass unemployment (like others) were not borne out.


The far more terrifying scourge of local and replaceable workers in recent memory has been globalization. Factories from Flint Michigan to Augusta Maine have been shut down by overseas producers, not robots. Rather than being replaced by a cold, faceless automaton, American Auto-workers were simply outsourced. These products today are being produced and assembled by cheaper humans. America’s Rust Belt and Canada’s Golden Horseshoe have watched their fortunes rise and fall with the flow of international trade. So if you – atoning programmer – feel the sting of guilt every time you read about the misfortunes of America’s manufacturing decline, take heart – it’s not your fault, it’s just the cheaper humans and their corporate overlords.

The decline of NE American manufacturing.


On the other side, even considering the long-term moral balance scales, technological disruption is arguably carbon… I mean unemployment-neutral. It should be clear even in this map of manufacturing decline, that many areas across the States also experienced a huge manufacturing boom. Many economists often claim that the so-called ‘Rust-Belt’ is a bad representative of the national manufacturing change, and the just as many 100,000s of factory jobs have been created in Texas and the Carolinas as were lost in New England.

New tech historically also creates opportunities and new work. Think of the electric grid – potentially a huge job-killer (in political terms) or ‘disruptive technology’ (in techie terms). Just as the grid made a litany of jobs obsolete, from the house staff, to the lamplighter, to the job of re-setting the bowling pins (yes) – new jobs were created. New jobs that were not merely directly connected to the technology (power plants, maintenance, grid construction, etc) but also part of entirely new industries that arose from the technology: producing electrical appliances, radio performances, betting on sporting events, telegraph operators; all these were tied to the cascade of changes tumbling down from the great shift of electric grid power. Just as humans engineered the destruction of millions of jobs, they also creatively used the same tech to think of millions of new jobs.

A lot of talk around the coming age of automation hypothesizes that humans will suddenly be free to pursue leisure activities, or create more art. If history is any indicator, there will actually be even less time for leisure and less support for art. Seriously, how often do you longingly imagine days when leaving the office at 5pm meant you could leave work behind until the next morning? Convenience-enhancing technologies like email and text messaging effectively meant that work could stalk you no matter the hour or the location. A world where we are all waited on by robot butlers while spattering out our latest inspired painting is certainly a nice image, but the public figures who take this stance are also still blind to the implied insult to the workers currently doing those tasks.

Entire communities rise up and subsist around manufacturing plants, saw mills, coal mines and other activities getting classified as ‘automatable drudgery.’ The professions they pursue represented not just a means to income, but a stable community and way of life. To offer them the hollowed shell of this reliable world in exchange for the freedom of selling finger-paintings on Etsy is the hallmark of socio-economic blindness – a blindness that seemingly grows every day between city tech versus country town.

The rift in society between the stagnant countrysides, hollow manufacturing centres and those booming tech cities each coalesces into a starkly contrasted vision of the future. One’s view is that America’s greatest days are behind it, and the other’s is that of a limitless future just around the corner. Peter Tiel outlines these different world-views nicely in his quick novel “Zero to One.” Unsurprisingly, these prospect also tack onto the divergent income trajectories in the USA over the last forty years.

Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 3.47.19 PM
Not all boats rise equally.

So while all the pensions, stability and security tied with the old way of work will be eroded away, all the winnings of the new economy will be concentrated just out of your income bracket / educational level’s reach. But you can make more art now.

As much as we can hammer away about a blue collar / white collar social divide, I think there are some general agreements on what jobs we should rightfully mourn. Honestly, even the most vociferous critics would still perhaps agree that the ‘pin-setter’ job is one best left in history’s dustbin. This simple task actually was a job at bowling alleys in America: you wait, and then put the pins back in place.

The lightbulb near his head is actually the idea that he could do something better with his time.

So dear automation expert, take heart, you might actually be responsible for creating new jobs, and perhaps saving the equivalent of today’s pin-setter a good deal of mental stagnation and anguish. Your evil rival – Globalization – can disrupt as well, and disrupt it did – as steady income and reliable pensions withered away all across the Rust belt. If you look at these hollowed-out centres of industry, the terms ‘left behind’ or ‘forgotten’ already fit much more accurately now than in the imagined future. Even while another part of America announces that the ‘future is now,’ stagnation and decline is doubtlessly already acute in the wealthiest country on earth – but your evil robots did not cause it.

Fentanyl Reports from 2015

Perhaps the job automation itself is not so bad as the social divide it accentuates. The janitor replaced by a new advanced Roomba will eventually find new work, but contemplating that janitor’s personal horizon of life possibilities might just make the robot programmer shudder. Next to the plugged-in generation of web 2.0 startup wizards, what can a custodian say about themselves with pride? Maybe take a new flashy Instagram selfie? As the Rust Belt slowly becomes the Fentanyl Belt, the harsh socio-economic dividing line cutting through North America becomes all the more painful to consider. I think this is the silent elephant lurking on the conscience of Silicon Valley. It’s not that their designs will put people out of work, it’s that despite all the technical wizardry, their future is still the same one where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor.

So, if you agree that this may be that blindspot on your burgeoning techie conscience, I propose that there are two solutions to this automation guilt:


1) Maybe the ‘Future is Now’ is actually not now.

The bold predictions of technological transformation are still going to largely flow down the ancient alleyways of class divisions. For the lower 80% of America, the future is not now. In fact, you might accurately say that nothing of any substance for them will actually change. The greatest fundamental improvement in across-the-board living standards was in the United States right after World War Two. After the 1970s in the USA and Canada middle and lower incomes essentially stagnated for forty years, while social programmes and community support institutions like churches and rotary clubs gradually dissolved away.

While the opportunities and horizons for that bulk of society darkens, new and advanced tinsel tech toys will be available to distract them with celebrity gossip. And if you happen to find yourself behind the wheel of a luxury automobile, having earned money designing those tinsel tech toys, good on ya. But let’s not kid ourselves that you’ve paved the way for a brighter future. And maybe watch a few less odiously euphoria-inducing Apple commercials.

2) Commercialize your Guilt: Purchase ‘Automation-Offset’ credits.

The climate crisis sits on the horizon, with vague impacts and myriad consequences. We can analyze into each new weather report as a possible symptom of the dark tide. What best way to assuage our individual conscience by the conspicuous consumption of green products? If we all share a fate, perhaps you can at least burnish your own relative position with a lot of obnoxiously righteous lifestyle choices.

So, likewise, if we can buy carbon credits to assuage ourselves of our climate crimes, there’s a business opportunity in the waiting… Sell conspicuous “Automation-Offset” credits and products to all those lingering moral minds’ misgivings with their dirty hands typing code in California. I’m not saying this is as vague and ponderous as buying indulgences from the Catholic church, but would not ‘automation-offset’ credits be a huge potential boon to the tech crowd?

Why not contribute a few more dollars on your next avocado smoothie that can give you the edifying knowledge that a former coal miner is now selling their hand-drawn charcoal art on Etsy thanks to your guilty conscience? If a few dollars can re-plant trees in the Pacific, cannot your money also re-kindle a broken old soul contemplating that final dose of oxycontin down in Johnston, Pennsylvania? Perhaps it is a brighter world after all. Google bless us everyone!


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