The true terror of automation

The rhetoric of automation proposes a future in which humans are made obsolete. The mundane tasks that make up this thing we call a “job” will be taken over by a blend of hard- and software and the people of society will be left twiddling their thumbs, with nothing to exert energy upon except the contemplation of their own newfound meaninglessness. It’s a bleak, near-dystopian picture. And it’s also mostly inaccurate.

If we consult historical patterns—instead of relying on over-active imaginations—it’s less clear that automation means human redundancy. In fact, it’s argued that technological progress creates more jobs than it takes away.

Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, most feel an unease at the prospect of a future in which they don’t do what they do now. Which is, in my eyes, the real driver behind the anxiety aroused by automation. What we are worried about is not so much the job loss: people lose their jobs all the time. What provokes unease is the prospect of having to re-learn.

I’ll use myself as an example. I didn’t go to university. I all but flunked my college education. I thought I knew what I wanted to do—strength and conditioning coaching—but then I discovered a greater love—reading and writing—and devoted myself to that. Throughout this period of discovery, a consistent theme has been my lack of continuous employment. I’ve always had two or three jobs, and they’ve always been changing. I’ve always been mobile, employment wise. So for me, the prospect of re-learning is not scary. It’s normal, and somewhat exciting.

But what about someone who went to university for three years, did a master’s degree for two, and held down a job in the same field for five? How must it feel to devote a decade to a super-specific niche or skillset then find that, due to technological advancement outside of your control, that job is now better done by a non-human? What happens to that person who did all the right things, ticked all the right boxes, followed the script to the letter? Do you think they feel excitement at the prospect of a fresh start? Hell no.

Now, multiply that for the majority of the working age society and it’s easy to see why “automation” and the like are so feared and resented.

I’ll reiterate. The problem of automation is re-learning, not job loss. And it’ll continue to be that way as long as we preach traditional life scripts which promote extreme specialisation and the cessation of learning once a good enough job is acquired. Until our educational systems and our cultural frames of reference adapt to the increasing pace at which professions come into and go out of existence, automation will always be seen as an instigator of fear and panic, instead of what it truly could be for humanity the world over—an invitation and an opportunity to keep evolving and expanding personal boundaries.