Automation is Wonderful

Have your parents ever reminded you that your life is easier than theirs were? Most of us probably have. But try not to hold it against them. They heard the same thing from their parents who heard the same thing from their parents. And you will most likely tell your children the same thing. Each generation lives an easier life than the last thanks to automation.

Automation improves each and every one of our lives by making previously expensive, inaccessible technology affordable and accessible. This is why my blood pressure goes up when I read nonsense like this:

Fifty percent of the jobs will be gone in ~20 years. Not from the great sucking sound of jobs to Mexico that can be stopped with a wall. Not from moving offshore to China. From automation that is moving quickly from blue collar manufacturing to white collar information work. Second only to climate change, this is the greatest disruption of our time, and I don’t mean that word in a good way.

The article is yet another in a seemingly ceaseless stream of attempts to give legitimacy to an economic fallacy. The fallacy of machines taking our jobs is so absurd that Henry Hazlitt was able to thoroughly put it down in a single chapter of Economics in One Lesson.

What Ross Mayfield, the author of that wreck of an article, is advocating is that each and every one of us should suffer so that a handful of people don’t have to find a new line of work. Ironically, it was the evil of automation that allowed him to even publish that article. Were it not for computers, the Internet, and the availability of free (to publish and read, but as we know TANSTAAFL) publishing platforms like LinkedIn, Mayfield never would have been able to get his article published to such a wide audience. But I digress.

Let’s consider Mr. Mayfield’s world by taking a look at a fairly modern piece of automation, personal assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Through voice commands the Echo and Home are able to perform many of the tasks that once required a secretary. Paying a full time secretary was something only somebody with a decent amount of wealth could afford. Now, thanks to automation, the average American has access to many of the functions of a secretary for a fraction of the cost.

As I type this I am looking at a flat panel monitor. It’s much lighter than a smaller cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor, displays a superior image, consumes a lot less electricity, and cost less than what I could get a similar sized CRT for when CRTs were still a thing. How is this possible? For the same reason CRTs from a decade ago were both superior in every way and cheaper than the first CRT televisions, automation. Through automation resources once dedicated to hiring human labor are freed up for other activities such as research and development. When more resources are available for research and development superior technologies can be created.

We enjoy our current lifestyle because of automation. Imagine if the world had listened to Mr. Mayfield’s plea when electricity was invented. I’d be writing this post on a piece of paper with a fountain pen by candlelight… assuming I had enough free time to do so since I’d probably have to bust my ass 12 hours a day just to afford a place to live and food to eat. And when I finished writing it I would have to send it to a publisher in the hope that they would find it worthwhile enough to have their laborers configure their moveable type printing press to print off a few thousand copies for circulation. Oh, and you’d have to pay for it so that the publisher could recoup their costs and make a profit.

Does automation suck for the people who lose their jobs? Absolutely. But they can get new jobs just as candlestick makers did once the electric lightbulb became prolific. The loss of a few thousand or million jobs isn’t justification for hindering qualify of life improvements for everybody else in the world.