A short thought about automation and cultural bubbles
My brother and I were talking about the fears of automation and it led to him searching for articles arguing against those who were concerned. Among them he found this one: "Opinions: The robots aren’t threatening your job" [Washington Post]. It offers the general dismissals of a journalist living in Washington DC in 2015.
The Great Robot Freakout of 2015 has begun, and it looks a lot like the robot freakouts that came before it.
In a new survey by CNBC, Americans were asked how concerned they were, if at all, that their jobs could be replaced by technology in the next five years. The level of automation angst was astonishing: About 1 in 8 workers indicated was worried about being displaced. Among those earning less than $30,000, it was a whopping 1 in 4.
Then, as now, such premonitions embraced the so-called Luddite Fallacy: that technological developments would permanently reduce or even eliminate the need for human labor. But again and again such fears have been proven wrong. Across history, technological developments have caused certain skill sets and jobs to obsolesce, yes, but they have also created demand for new skill sets and types of jobs, typically higher-paying ones that are complementary to technological advances. In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce labored in farming; those jobs disappeared, but new ones sprang up in their place, mostly in occupations that could not have even been imagined in 1900.
The conversation carried on, eventually circling back to Donald Trump's effective courtship of formally middle class workers, and how the closing of our mother's family store could've qualified her for membership among Trump's voters if she were not female, Jewish, and urban. And then Jack remembered the opening of that article, and the author's foreboding scoff that in 2015 1 in 4 people making less than $30,000 were concerned that automation could displace them within five years. She presented the statistic as if it were evidence of the foolish fears of so many Chicken Littles. As though it was a given that twenty-five percent of Americans just couldn't appreciate progress because they were too old in their ways. And as though so much fear and hopelessness among formerly middle class workers didn't deserve to be the focus of the article.
I think that over the next few years we'll begin to recognize signs of the growing cultural obliviousness in many articles during this time.