From widget-making to automation

I’ve promised myself that I would write for the longest time, and it seems that one distraction leads to another. Then months pass. So, now that I have a natural break in submitting resumes and doing other projects, I find myself thinking about the future.

I guess the inspiration for these thoughts comes from my attempt to jump start my job hunt. As I review my qualifications in search of the perfect position, I think back to my most substantial employment success. This was a position as Management Representative in the Philippines. The specifics of the position were to carry through a project to raise a 150-person office to readiness for ISO certification for quality, environmental, and occupational health and safety management.

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The author in Bataan in early November 2007. Selfie.

I have to admit that this job was more enjoyable than I had anticipated. Everything boiled down to getting people to write down what they did, and then defining how to measure their performance against what they said that they did.  It all made sense, reducing everything down to inputs, processes, products, and target “customers”, both internal and external. Not everything could be boiled down to this sort of “widget making”, but a lot could.

Next month it will be ten years ago from when I flew out of Warsaw on my way to Manila. Back then, companies like the Arab partner that the firm I worked for was trying to collaborate with were convinced that they needed to work with firms that had gone through ISO certification, so there was a demand at that time. Then of course the economic meltdown happened, and roles like mine disappeared. Major projects vanished or were streamlined. A proposed extension of my position fell by the wayside as the need to certify an office in Abu Dhabi was no longer there. I learned a lot, but I could find no other takers for the skills I picked up in achieving my success, no matter how valuable they appeared to be.


 

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An industrial robot (FANUC ARC Mate 120iC/10L six-axis welder) at work at a plant in France. Photo by Phasmatinox via Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward a decade. Today, the long-term job market operates under the shadow of the next major innovation, one that is going to utterly disrupt economies, values, and even the very essence of what it means to be human. That innovation is automation.

Robot factories are, of course, nothing new. The automotive industry started replacing line workers with robots back in the 1970s. As a result, whole neighborhoods in Detroit became abandoned as formerly prosperous whites fled to the suburbs and beyond. The disruption was easily blamed on racial politics, on riots and tanks rolling down Gratiot and Grand River, the city’s key arterials. Plants were closed as work moved overseas and into the Sun Belt, into new plants that were fitted with these earliest implements of automation.

In a related development, website developers and content providers have slowly replaced the printing industry, as e-books replace the paperback, and newspapers go from stacks of newsprint to online. Films and news programming migrated to YouTube. Alternative media grew out of the ease at which such content could be put online. Even the Russian government found it all too easy to develop effective disinformation campaigns that could be used to successfully influence American politics. Money wasn’t a factor anymore in the global newsroom and the competitive discussion over hearts and minds. All that was required to change perceptions was imagination and the ability to speak English.

The next step in the drift toward our robotic future is going to be even more universal in effect than the steps to remove human workers from manufacturing and printing. As service economy jobs are automated, and Jack-in-the-Box clown speakers are replaced with clown robots, the last of the low wage jobs in America will disappear. No one is going to need illegal aliens or disaffected white nationalists as farm jobs become robotic, as Walmart stockers are replaced with machinery, and as Uber drivers are replaced with driverless cars. Fewer jobs are going to be out there, and those that are out there are going to be focused on equipment maintenance, or computer programming.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to land upon what is going to be the next big question: When all the jobs are taken by robots, what do we do with all the unemployed? When this question finally becomes something other than an academic exercise, the answer that leaders across humanity come up with is going to have world-changing consequences.


 

This has been what has been going through my mind as I try to find work now, and as I think back to my last really satisfying and substantially remunerative job. Through process engineering, in the transformation of work tasks into widget-making, we’re basically setting ourselves up for automation. The transformation isn’t far removed from outsourcing. Consider the case of one medical supply company that operates an office here in Wroclaw. The office was opened four years ago as a way of taking advantage of the low wages that Poles are paid here in this newer part of the European Union. Such functions as accounts payable and receivable could be shifted here, and away from such higher paying countries as the United States. Sales staff was still needed on the ground in America, but a reach-back office here in Poland seemed an effective way to save money.

Then, a few weeks ago, the company announced that in an effort to restructure globally, the English-language accounts receivable functions were going to be transferred to the Philippines. The reason for this was that Philippine workers made even less than Poles, and wages could be cut further, saving the company even more money than what they had in moving jobs to Wroclaw. They promised their Polish workers that everyone would be kept aboard in some capacity, but few people are confident that a reduction in staff can be avoided.

Of course, this race to the bottom has its finish line at robots. When machine maintenance replaces wages, the cost savings are going to prove dramatic. But then so too will be unemployment. How societies handle this will be no less than a matter of life and death.

Two options for an answer to this question come to mind. The first is the laissez faire approach. Let the market handle it by itself. People will find work, or make new businesses. Those that don’t can go out and beg from those who are better off, or die. Eventually, the new economy will reach equilibrium. The second is the tax and spend approach. Those who produce and receive income pay to the government, and the government doles out a survival stipend to everyone that it considers within its area of responsibility (citizens and possibly legal residents that are on the path to citizenship). The concept of work ethic changes from one where you work to survive to one where you work to voluntarily contribute to your community.

The first path emphasizes the value of wealth. Those with the most toys wins. It eventually leads to a transformation of our society to a modern form of feudalism, where money is horded at the top and trickled down through layers of social strata. Those at the bottom face the same conditions as they always have, either become useful to someone richer, or die slowly of starvation.

The second path emphasizes the value of humans, and represents an even more radical transformation. Those with the most toys are made to share. It leads to a restructuring of values from one where everyone has to take from each other in order to survive, to one where contribution becomes the greater value. Those who do not work will not starve, but they won’t live the best life either. They won’t be honored for contributing, nor will they be able to save up the money to get anything decent in life. They’ll just survive.


 

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Arnaiz Avenue in Makati City during Typhoon Frank (the Philippine name for what the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii designated as Typhoon Fengshen). The storm descended on Metro Manila with 165 kph (105 mph) sustained winds and heavy rains. It also sank the MV Princess of the Stars ferry that inexplicably had been operating during the tropical cyclone, killing more than 700. Photo by Ben M. Angel

The modern political landscape in big countries like America is divided into these two camps. You either believe in the 20th century American dream, where you believe that you can work hard and get rewarded, and maybe even get rich if you work hard enough, or you believe in the social safety net, where if you fail, as just about everyone seems to do at some point in their life, you can get the help you need to get back on your feet and try again. Those who believe in the former, and not the latter, point to the 1970s, when Republicans managed to prevail in blaming “welfare queens” for the ills of society and the death of an earlier American work ethic. They point to the glee that some on the lower end of the economic spectrum enjoyed when they received free checks without doing any paid work, often adding that all they seemed to do was produce kids that later contributed little to society. Those who believe in the latter, and not the former, point to the 1980s, when greed became a dominant value in upper class society, and the “disaffected white” part of society waited and waited for money to trickle down from the tax breaks Reagan gave to the wealthy.

Of course, though these two important decades mark the archetypes of these two camps, our progress since then have added new dimensions to this conflict. After the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, the world literally opened up in the 1990s. As Jesus Jones sang about the world waking up from history, Bill Clinton led the business community to building global ties that became tentacles of a new type of global empire, and with outsourcing, the basis for a new problem at home. A decade later, history caught up to us as the World Trade Center fell and the US under George W. Bush led the way to a new era of fear. The burst of the housing bubble in 2008 and the economic recession that followed ushered in a new era of disappointment. Barack Obama, under what was sadly the illusion that a black man could unite an ethnically divided country, failed to act fast enough to ensure that the recovery from that recession reached the lower classes, and as a result, Donald Trump was elected after his two terms expired. This era of disappointment isn’t likely to end under this current president, even with the political advantage of what is effectively single party rule.

Because of these new dimensions, the distraction of globalism vs. nationalism rages in the conservative camp, and the specter of nuclear war has reemerged 25 years after the end of the Cold War. While all eyes are on North Korea, the never-ending recovery from ever-growing tropical storms, and Trump’s perpetual political circus of populism, the greedier part of the wealthy class are successfully pushing the laissez faire agenda. The tax cuts currently before the US Congress, if passed, will shift the momentum in the United States away from any sort of long-term social safety net, and toward the deadlier answer to the question of what to do with those who lose work as a result of automation. The question then becomes, once they realize who they are, what are those condemned to starvation supposed to do?

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