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July 24, 2019


Dave Timoney

One factor that led to the state's change in attitude towards labour displacement between Elizabeth I and the early 19th century was the development of empire. This provided an alternative outlet for immiserated workers beyond riot, as well as a convenient oubliette for labour "agitators" such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

The parallel with today is the global dispersal of production, which has allowed cheap labour in developing nations to exert downward pressure on wages in developed ones. As wages for that labour in turn start to rise, there is a shift towards investment in increased productivity (e.g. a third of all industrial robots have been deployed in China). Stagnation in the UK is likely to continue until global wages are roughly equalised (allowing for transportation costs etc) at which point productivity will become the focus here once more.

In other words, the problem is not so much one of the differential impact of new technology as the way that the labour market has been constructed politically, which is also a direct parallel with the state's activism in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. I've not read Frey's book, but I'd be curious to know whether he cites Karl Polanyi at all.


He doesn't mention Polanyi.


Thanks for this, Chris.

It's one of the great challenges of our age.

I'm imagining a 2x2 chart where the axes are:
- new jobs vs. less work
- hoarded vs. dispersed

This gives us four possible futures:

1. New jobs distributed among the many: New Renaissance
2. New jobs, hoarded: Techno-Feudalism
3. Less work, distributed among the many: a Gig Darwinism
4. Less work, hoarded: Mad Max

If you like that, then the discussion then revolves around agency.

Whether or not automation leads to new jobs or less work isn't up to us or governments. Businesses and economies can't isolate themselves from competitors and counterparts who are radically more advanced or cheaper. So once the genie is out of the bottle, you have to deal with it.

All we can do is decide whether to hoard or distribute what opportunities there are. So our ideal world is the New Renaissance, but if the reality of automation leads to less work we can at least avoid Mad Max by choosing a Gig Darwinism and trying to make the best of it. A shitty order that's preferable to savage chaos.

Clearly, the likes of Bezos and Zuckerberg will argue for New Renaissance with the understanding that they will be techno-feudalistic princes if governments neglect to intervene.

The broader point is that only one scenario out of the four is progressive. Which is why we should be worried about the deterministic power of technology (not in the sense that it leads to one inevitable destination, but that it determines the possible choices).

The interesting thought is whether Gig Darwinism might be as bad as it sounds if, indeed, automation makes everything ridiculously cheap. Maybe we only need to whittle three artisinal spoons a year to live like kings?


As usual, no mention of "fuel"/"food". which is really what supported both labor-replacing and labor-enabling. At least there is a mention that politics (as in state policies) mattered a great deal, but not as to the division of the windfall from the discovery of the most fertile fields in history.
But more of the usual celebration of the technologies as a way oit celebrate the aynrandian style heroes of wealth creation that invented or invested in those technologies, the usual old framing.


«If we get these, mightn’t we open the Pandora’s box that Frey fears, of significant labour-displacing investment?»

That is a purely political choice: suppose that "bioengineered macaques" were able to do all the jobs that 80% of human beings do, while being faster and consuming less food, why shouldn't the owners of the "bioengineed macaques" reap all the benefits and stop employing that 80% of human beings? The same goes for robots that can do the same jobs as 80% of human beings, and were to cost less to build and feed. After all in the 19th we reached "peak horse", and as cars and trucks replaced them, they are now owned just by a few rich people as hobbies. We haven't shared the productivity benefits of oil powered cars and trucks with the horses...

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