Back in the 1810s a group of skilled self-employed weavers bandied together to take a stand against the new wave of weaving technologies that was being introduced. These included the power-loom and the spinning frame and all would require less-skilled labour to be used. The self-employed weavers were worried they would be out of a job. So they got to breaking these technologies in calculated acts of protest and called themselves the Luddites – arguably a reference to Ned Ludd who smashed some stocking frames back in 1779. And now, hundreds of years later, it’s not a power-loom that will force many people into unemployment, it’s robots.
Drones will deliver post, robots will run warehouses, automated check-outs will bleat at you to ‘insert your card’, Excel will do your accounting, a new piece of software might even paint a picture for you and cars will drive themselves. And what for the people who used to do these blue and white-collar jobs – they’ll have nothing to do. Some call them ‘pointless’ or ‘useless’ people, which is a glib way of acknowledging that history appears to be an endless case of efficiency taking precedence over people. But there’s nothing efficient about a society full of unemployed and unhappy people, the sort of people who might take arms against robots and start smashing.
Meanwhile, those with vested interests will laud the oncoming industrial revolution saying it’s the greatest opportunity humankind has ever had for advancement. I imagine similar things were said about nuclear energy. The zealots of this movement will barely be able to contain themselves knowing that their latest Amazon package will be flown to them via drone or they’ll be able to upload their memories into a robot (yup, Ray Kurzweil would love this). It’s worth remembering that these people will probably be rich and very far removed from the worries and realities of poverty and unemployment. They might also have not have asked if there are actually enough resources on earth to robotise everything.
So, what to do? Firstly, don’t take any of these stories at face values whatever the predictions – nothing goes as planned. Secondly, if the elites get what they want and society becomes increasingly automated (as it already has done) we must ask what it means to have a world without labour (or, at least, human labour) – what does this mean for feelings of self-worth considering they are so often tied to the work we do and what does this mean for the Labour party itself, founded on the rise of the working classes? Thirdly, this isn’t really about machines and robots, this is about power, people and how we treat each other. A Universal Basic Income is just one way of ensuring everyone gets paid even if they don’t work. Although the right wing, if they were to implement something like this, would probably use it as yet another excuse to strip back the state and weaken public services but what’s the point of a UBI if you can’t afford medical care and other necessities?
So the future is still there to be fought for. It’s not a foregone conclusion and the stories the vested interests weave don’t have to become self-fulfilling prophecies. We can challenge power, as hard as it is, and create a fairer world for all, with or without robots. Basically, it doesn’t have to end up becoming like this…