We are in the middle of a panic about the future of work. There are fears that the rise of robots – or more exactly, a combination of computing power, algorithms and robotics – will destroy the labour market, even, possibly, the very idea of labour value. On the other hand, the economists’ view, generally, is that we’ve been here before.
Just as the advent of the industrial revolution saw jobs destroyed in agriculture, so new jobs will emerge as a result of our current technological transiiton. And better: those jobs will be higher value, higer productivity jobs, so in the medium term we will all be richer. And let’s face it, the Luddites are still mocked, even if that’s usually by people who didn’t understand their politics. But there’s still something that nags away here.
Back in the 1970s there was a joke about the factory of the future. It would be staffed by a man and a dog. The dog would be there to makes sure that the man didn’t touch the equipment. And the man? He’d be there to feed the dog. The idea that automation would destroy the employment base, in other words, has been swimming around for almost 40 years.[Update: Or 50].
And the other difference between the beginning of the 21st century and the beginning of the 19th century is that then we were about to stumble on a huge amount of the cheapest and most potent energy the human race had found, coal, then oil. Now, we are facing a world of tightening resources, of energy shortage rather than abundance. So; it’s complicated. I’m going to try and untangle it, slowly, on this blog.