Were the Luddites onto something?

Back in the early 1800s a group of disgruntled artisans based around Nottingham, in the UK, began a movement that opposed the new technology that was being introduced into England as the industrial revolution gained steam. The Luddites, as they were called, felt that the introduction of all of this new-fangled technology was ultimately going to increase productivity but that the requirement for human labour would diminish.

The rich would get richer, through their use of machines, and the poor would get poorer as unemployment would grow. Of course, this view isn’t exactly true. In fact, the industrial revolution actually created more jobs in the longer term and in general everyone benefitted from the advances in technology. As a result, economists often say that anti-technologists are falling prey to the Luddite Fallacy. But something is changing, and I began to think about this problem after watching a few YouTube videos showing off Siri’s fantastic capabilities. Despite a sudden bout of iPhone envy, I started to wonder how these massive advances in technology will play out economically in the longer term.

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I love technology. I particularly like technology that automates things, so I spend a fair bit of time lurking around robotics forums and on sites like How Stuff Works. That’s how I came across a relatively old essay on robotics and employment called Robotic Nation. This little gem is written by Marshall Brain, the founder of the How Stuff Works website. What I love about his essay, is that he never actually attacks technology itself. Brain has decided instead to focus on the “Labor = Money” equation. He concludes his essay, not by saying that we need to stop improving our technology, but by saying “I believe that it is time to start rethinking our economy and understanding how we will allow people to live their lives in a robotic nation.”

Brain is not alone. Last year Martin Ford, another technologist, published his book called The Lights in the Tunnel. Ford is perhaps one of the loudest voices on the subject, and is still actively trying to spread his message. At the end of last month he appeared on PBS for a show called Ideas in Action. During this debate, he argues that while he is a great fan of automation and robotics, he feels that politically we are gradually doing away with the safety nets that will protect people from the ultimate problem of jobless growth.

Mainstream economists often attack people like Ford and Brain, claiming that they are simply committing the Luddite fallacy. History has repeatedly shown that when there is great technological innovation, although there is an initial period of great unemployment, there is usually a period afterward which results in massive job-growth and employment opportunity. Ford quickly counters that the Luddite fallacy is only true for a small section of previous history, it is not proven that this will always be the case. In fact, people like Ford tend to feel that the Luddites were maybe 200 years too early. The problem is that in previous cases of automation, jobs were created around things that machines couldn’t do. But as things stand today, machines are becoming increasingly capable and are now capable of making and repairing themselves.

Machines are getting more intelligent as well. Siri is a case in point. In all my time working with computers, I have never come across voice recognition software that can handle natural language so well. But it is not just this that amazes me, it is the fact that Siri can tap into so many services and tie them together so easily. This sort of software is only going to improve, and as it does it will become more difficult to justify hiring people who used to perform similar tasks. Apple is even bold enough to refer to Siri as your ‘Personal Assistant’.

But it is not just automation that is doing this. Technology also helps to bring us abstraction. Bookstores and publishers are feeling increasingly threatened by the technology that Amazon has brought into the world. Netflix, LoveFilm and a bunch of other providers have all but done away with the local video store. Even artists are up in arms about how technology like iTunes and P2P file sharing do not allow them to earn fairly out of their work.

It is clear that the Luddites were wrong about one thing: technology itself is not the real enemy. Modern commentators who are concerned with the impact of automation on the job market all agree about this. Technology has always helped to improve our standards of living and to allow us to achieve greater things. But we seem to be trapped in this archaic method of valuing people on the basis of their labour and their productivity. This month, the global population will cross the 7 billion mark. If all of these people are going to feed and clothe themselves, they need money. To get money, they need jobs.

The problem is, can we really create 7-billion jobs if our technology is decreasing the number of personell required to perform a task? Or is it really time that we start thinking about alternative ways to value each other and our contributions to the global community?

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