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Robots are coming for your job. That might not be bad news

The problem with automation isn’t technology. The problem is capitalism.

Do androids dream of a three-day week? This week, Professor Stephen Hawking weighed in on the topic that’s obsessing technologists, economists and social scientists around the world: whether a dawning age of robotics is going to spell mass unemployment. “If machines produce everything we need,” Hawking wrote in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, “everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared – or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”

As technology advances, the question is no longer whether or not robots are coming for your job. The question is whether or not you should let them take it. 

According to two new books by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the automation of up to 60 per cent of current jobs in America, and by extension other nations, is all but inevitable. This time, as Martin Ford argues in Rise of The Robots, education and upscaling won’t help us. There will simply be fewer jobs to go around, as everything from accountancy to journalism will be done faster, cheaper and more efficiently by machines. The result, as Jerry Kaplan agrees in Humans Need Not Apply, is that billions will be left destitute – unless we radically rethink our way of keeping people fed.

We’ve seen this pattern before. In successive waves of technological innovation from the industrial revolution to the automative leaps of the 1950s, millions of working people found themselves replaced by machines that would never inconvenience their owners by getting sick or going on strike. This time, however, it’s not just working class jobs that are threatened. It seems that Robespierre was right – it’s the prospect of angry unemployed lawyers and doctors that really prompts the elite to panic, or at least to produce urgent hardbacks and suggest to major news outlets that wealth redistribution might not be such a bad idea after all.

There is little to argue with in Kaplan and Ford’s basic predictions. Whatever happens, it seems that by the time most of us reach retirement, machines will be doing far more of the jobs that nobody really wanted to do in the first place. In any sane economic system, this would be good news. No longer will millions of men and women be stuck doing boring, repetitive, often degrading work for the majority of their adult lives. That’s fantastic. Or it should be. Did you really want the job those thieving android scabs are about to take from you? Wouldn’t you rather be writing a symphony, or spending time with your kids, or plucking your nose-hair? All else being equal, don’t you have better things to do than spending most of your life marking time at work to afford the dignity of not starving?

All else, however, is very far from equal – and that’s the problem. Technology is not the problem. The only reason that the automation of routine, predictable jobs is not an unmitigated social good is that the majority of the human race depends on routine, predictable jobs, and the wages we get for them. The rioting textile workers who smashed their weaving machines in the eighteenth century did not do so because they simply loved working twelve-hour days in dangerous, dirty conditions. They did it because they had been given a stark choice between drudge work and starvation. Two hundred years after the Luddite rebellions, most of us, when you get down to it, would not work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for forty years if we had a choice – but the necessity of earning a wage gives us no other option. In fact, advanced automation should for some time have made it unnecessary for any of us to work more than a handful of hours a week, as originally foreseen generations ago by thinkers like John Maynard Keynes – but somehow, most of us are working longer hours for lower wages than our grandparents.

The problem is not technology. The problem is capitalism. The problem is that in order to sell seven billion people on the necessity of globalisation, we’ve created a moral universe where people who do not work to create profit are considered less than human, and used as surplus labour to drive down the cost of wages. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a single parent, an unemployed veteran or an unpaid intern – the logic of late capitalism grants you no right to live unless you are making money for someone else. If our economic system defines the basis of human worth as the capacity to do drudge work for someone else’s profit then the question that has troubled science fiction writers for a century is solved: not only are robots human, they may soon be more human than us. 

The automation crisis need not be a crisis at all – but the simplest solutions are too radical to be raised by anyone but a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, a job title with the authority of “Archbishop of Canterbury” under the moral logic of modern economics. Martin Ford is neither an economist nor a political theorist, but I imagine that when he says that in order to save us all from armies of robot scabs, “a fundamental restructuring of our economic rules will be required”, powerful people will listen. Kaplan and Ford’s books propose the same solution, and it’s one that socialists have been suggesting for generations: a universal basic income. This is not a new idea. Campaigners for social justice have long proposed a basic income as a way to solve every social ill caused by the fact we all have to earn a living, from drug trafficking to gender inequality. Kaplan and Ford, however tell us that there’s an even more important reason to consider it – because it might be the only way to save capitalism from itself.

The logic is solid: if nobody can afford to buy the goods and services all these robots are producing, global markets will collapse. World capitalism cannot be sustained, Ford argues, on luxury consumption alone. It turns out that the only way to save the system might well be massive wealth distribution and total reorganisation of the wage system.

That sounds rather a lot like socialism to me. Ford insists that it isn’t – it’s merely common sense, and everyone knows that socialism can’t be common sense. It is perhaps for this reason that neither Kaplan nor Ford push beyond their policy proposals to imagine what such a future – a world where everyone is guaranteed an income, and wage work is a choice – could really look like. This, surely, is the most thrilling promise of an automated future. What could we become, as a species, if most of our useful years were not taken up by working, looking for work, or doing essential domestic and caring tasks to sustain that work? One thing’s for certain: it’s either going to be wonderful, or it’s going to be disastrous. If we don’t get fully automated luxury liberalism, in Ford’s words, “the plutocracy [might] shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.”

Automation offers us two options. Just two. The first is that we finally, collectively, break our addiction to disaster capitalism and do what needs to be done to create a future where human beings can reach their full potential. The second is that we don’t. And we might not. Just because the answer to the “threat of mass unemployment” is obvious does not mean that we will take it. It is just as likely that the magical thinking of market fundamentalists will prevail in the field of automation just as it has in the field of environmental protection and topple us all into a chaos where only the very rich can survive, for a time, alone in their climate-controlled towers of glass and steel. That’s the other solution. Whether it’s the solution we choose will determine, far more than any job-thieving algorithm, what it truly means to be human. As Professor Hawking observed: “So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

If we choose to allow technology to plunge us into a new age of inequity, then maybe we deserve to be replaced by robots. If the human race can’t get it together to fix this basic bug in our collective survival matrix, then maybe it’s time for us to step aside and let the metal guys have a try. Perhaps it would be kinder, if capitalism continues its current suicide canter, to breed our children and grandchildren of sterner stuff than flesh – with hearts that don’t break in the face of inhumanity, because they are made of silicon and steel.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era