The Automation Blind Spot

I am deeply concerned about the future of the American middle class and the long term sustainability of healthy capitalism in the land of baseball, apple pie and backyard barbecues. The reason why I am so concerned about the former is because of the inevitable and uncontrolled yet highly celebrated mass adoption of automation in our society. I just don’t see how the internet economy will generate enough peripheral jobs to sustain our standard of living and our off-line communities in the future because the majority of the jobs that the cyberspace sector produces tend to benefit only a small number of people. When you think about buying a book on-line, where do you think about buying it from? Amazon, right? If you need to sell a product on-line, which place do you go to to sell it? Amazon, maybe eBay?

Some bloggers make a living on-line with their writings. However, chances are pretty high that “professional bloggers” work off-line somewhere in order to maintain their on-line empires because blogging alone won’t pay the bills. Some folks believe that creating a smartphone app is a ticket to modern social mobility. I am skeptical! Do you know anyone who has made five hundred thousand dollars in profit selling an app? Maybe you are luckier than me. I haven’t met even a single soul. If we are relying on these activities to sustain ourselves in the future, rather than working on a traditional off-line establishment, we are in deep trouble, don’t you think?

The auto industry generated peripheral jobs that benefited the middle class, like body shops, insurance agents, oil changing stations, DOT workers, rental car companies, and many more. I am not so sure about this new wave of internet job creation. Martin Ford, the author of the book, “The Rise of Robots” talks about this topic in greater detail and presents the argument that the internet economy won’t work for many of us because this new business model tends to generate what he calls, the “Winners-take-all” effect. Rather than everyone benefiting from the advancements of technology, only a few will in fact benefit from and acquire sustainable long-term gains. Most players of this new economy win very little to nothing. I fully agree with him about that.

Let’s think about the former for a minute. If our jobs are being replaced by automation (which they are) with the justification that information technology will produce peripheral jobs to sustain ourselves when they might not, how are we going to contribute to the economy and sustain our communities? By risking losing our dependable middle class income for the sake of technology, we might lose more than a salary or a career. We risk losing what we all stand for in the United States — Freedom. Some may argue that the former isn’t an issue but I bet they either have enough wealth to sustain themselves or are benefiting from the upcoming system. For the remaining of us, the threat of automation seems to be pretty real.

I don’t think that full automation will happen tomorrow or next year but in five to ten years, I predict that the majority of our warehouse functions will be automated. Fast food restaurants will have ordering kiosks which by themselves will reduce the number of available jobs in small-town USA by at least thirty percent. If these predictions come true, it could change our local economies substantially, not necessarily for the betterment and goodwill of the people. I am a proud capitalist who believes in the market economy. We may not have a choice but to somehow control the adoption of new technologies in our communities for our survival’s sake.

Adam Smith once said, “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” Technology seems to be the fuel that is driving this revolution. We need to be cautious about such advancements and think systemically about its consequences before fully supporting new initiatives. At least this is what I think.