The Precarity of Job Automation

Maximum Homerdrive

At the intersection of political, economic, and power-focused anthropology there is an emerging concern for the current state, and more importantly future state, of job security in the face of the widespread automation of production and services. In the technological age change is rapid, and the consequences of this are especially significant for the working class. Granted, there are multiple perspectives on this debate, with some arguing that jobs will simply need to be redesigned to accommodate changes and that this will be an opportunity to re-engineer businesses. I think this might be easier said than done (how’s our re-adjustment to renewable energies from fossil fuels going?).

I don’t present the total automation of working class jobs as a given, but it’s worth thinking about. When talking about this issue recently, I remembered an episode of the Simpsons that dealt with this: ‘Maximum Homerdrive’. In this episode, Homer ends up taking over the last job of a truck driver after beating him in an eating contest (the trucker died from over-consumption). After driving the truck for some time, he realises that with the push of a button the truck went into autopilot. Of course, he soon takes advantage of this and blatantly stops driving on the highway, to the dismay of other truckers who then band together to protect their secret and keep themselves in work. The Simpsons quite often tackles social issues, but I was surprised to find out when I looked it up that this episode actually aired in 1999. To me this is testament that anxieties around job automation have been around for some time, though in this case it was in jest and might soon be added to the Simpsons surprising track record of predicting the future.

The trucking community is huge in America, at 3.5 million drivers. A quick look at some of their online forums, shows a concerted effort to track the possible timeline and consequences of autonomous vehicles hitting the roads. Truckers only represent one coherent block of employment that we risk to lose; what about the slowly cumulative changes in factories and offices? What about mining? My own thesis topic concerns a town currently suffering under a indefinite mine closure by the town’s main employer, and should the mine re-open at all they will have to expect changes that will likely mean fewer jobs. And this predicament of underemployment and uncertainty ripples through the other interlinked local concerns of community, identity, art and regeneration, just like it would in any part of the world.

In recent years, anthropology has adopted the notion of ‘precarity’ to describe the current instability of work and incomes in the neo-liberal age (though now its use has stretched beyond political economy to describe a more general contemporary vulnerability). The emergence of precarity is a good example of how changing global dynamics challenge anthropology to attend to the culture of work and push further the scope of anthropology. If we are indeed headed for an employment crisis, could it be anthropology’s attention to job automation that could offer insight on solutions? LSE anthropologist David Graeber thinks we should have a 15 hour work week by now with the level of technology available, while others who delve into post-work theory tout the idea of a universal income.

So what will the future hold? A post-work socialist future where robots do the work and we… pursue our passions? Sounds wonderful, but not like something the corporate stakeholders of capitalism, our true overlords, would go for. While we wait to find out, it might comfort you to know that the job of anthropologist is not yet remotely threatened by the lighting fast growth of AI.


References:

Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit jobs : a theory. Allen Lane.

See also:

https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/blog/automation-and-the-future-of-work-understanding-the-numbers/

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