Tag Archives: technology

Cody Boutilier: How to stop the robot revolution

Yesterday in National Review, James Sherk wrote a staggeringly disingenuous rebuttal to fellow economist Michael R. Strain’s automation jeremiad. The following exercise in flippancy shatters his argument: “almost as quickly as technology has eliminated some jobs, it has created new ones. Like developing smartphone apps (as if the average American worker were capable of mastering advanced computer science). Or shuttling Uber passengers (as if Google’s driverless car won’t complicate that prospect). Or moving inventory in Amazon warehouses (as if stocking and transport can’t go the way of manufacturing).” [italicized phrases mine]

The impending robot revolution places conservatism at a pivotal crossroads. Confronted with the dramatic social upheavals that will follow automation and mass unemployment, conservatives have to decide whether they are first libertarian free marketeers or communitarian social conservatives. Hitherto, capitalism has thrived on the collective benefits derived from Smith’s invisible hand, but when technology fails to replace the jobs it destroys, conservatives must either accept a pronounced degree of government regulation or embrace radical Randian individualism.

It’s true that a robotic workforce will drive down the cost of consumer products to practically nothing, but when most of the human workforce is unemployed, this silver lining is nugatory. Progressives, envisioning an unprecedented redistributive apparatus, herald the New Man to emerge in the wake of obsolesced labor. Considering that more Americans seem to watch the Kardashians than have a working knowledge of the Bible, let alone Shakespeare, a massive welfare regime will coarsen rather than elevate the human spirit. Our hellish, welfare-plagued inner cities should put such utopian speculation to rest. Just as man does not live by bread alone, so does the value of work exceed basic sustenance.

The solution is to ban technology whose steep social costs outweigh its limited benefits. I’m frankly surprised that I’m the first commentator I know of to tend this obvious proposal. If the government can regulate tanks and nuclear missiles, then driverless cars and robot waiters should be no exception.

Questioning laissez-faire economics unsettles some conservatives more than the looming death of human dignity. This is the natural consequence of disparaging social conservatism in favor of libertarian fiscal policy. As social conservatives cognize the adverse consequences of the new wave of automation, they will have to abandon the fiction that humanity can absorb an unlimited degree of technological progress without attendant radical damage to the social fabric. Without impugning the well-meaning Mr. Sherk, it’s worth noting how much libertarians, in their worship of the abstract Baal of Progress and disregard for human impact, echo communists with their omelets and eggs.

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: Conservatism and technological change

Modern technology is realizing a new stage in its evolution, as artificial processes threaten to replace not only human exertion, as they have been doing since the Industrial Revolution, but vast roles hitherto played by human cognition as well. Firms like Google, whose autonomous cars are only years away from the market, are at the vanguard of this transformation, as Cody pointed out yesterday. Robotic devices, until now mostly out of sight, will soon find their place in our everyday lives.

Cody argues that while previous modernizations allowed for the creation of an expanded service sector of the economy, the next wave of innovation will leave no new space for human labour, perhaps leading to mass unemployment.

On this point I don’t agree: if we can’t imagine what the future’s jobs will look like, I think it reflects more on our imagination than on the future. This seems especially true given failed predictions of technology-triggered labour sector collapses in times gone by.

Where I do agree is that the shift toward a highly-technical economy has led, and will continue to lead, to profound social consequences. The less educated, the less ambitious, and the less inclined toward cognitively intensive, technical fields among us will probably be left behind—if not in jobs, at least in pay and status. We are already seeing some of these trends play out, as in yuppie tech haven San Francisco, where according to new data, income inequality rivals Guatemala’s.

This sort of impending social disruption probably justifies, for a conservative, at least a mild Luddism when it comes to technology. If the ship of civilization is thrown off course by rapid technological change, then its crew might do well to cast an anchor on the side of institutional caution.

This cautiousness will require its own ingenuity. Governments might have an educational role to play in mitigating media addiction, especially among young people. Or maybe the astounding, almost accidental accrual of massive wealth to technology firms and their employees will justify future changes to patent laws or tax regulations.

While innovation is prosperity’s lifeblood, it does seem clear that our society’s cultural maturity is lagging its own technical intellect, and large segments of our population will likely pay the price. As Cody mentioned yesterday, the economic and the social are truly inseparable—perhaps the approach to both requires an extra measure of conservatism.

The Hustings

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Cody Boutilier: Why I’m a Luddite

Google and Tesla are developing a driverless car—no matter the unsparing ruin of hundreds of thousands of livelihoods worldwide that will ensue. This is “progress”, which is inherently and universally good. Be grateful that human society is becoming more productive by the day.

But to whom will the fruits of that augmented productivity accrue? Thanks to the new wave of automation, countless occupations, from paralegal to cashier, will obsolesce, and for the idle masses any cost of living will be too high. I’m one step ahead of you, libertarians. Every era of technological advancement has opened up new occupational sectors and ultimately improved our standard of living, right? But what sphere of activity will succeed the service economy?

My guess is that the STEM-deficient plebeians will simply become a barely sustainable burden to the new aristocracy, which will have money to spare on the new welfare state and effusively congratulate itself for its compassion. Numbed by the mindless pleasures of the digital age, the hoi polloi might not realize that they’ve become the redundant casualties of biology.

Here’s Mark Steyn on the topic.

“Work” and “purpose” are intimately connected: Researchers at the University of Michigan, for example, found that welfare payments make one unhappier than a modest income honestly earned and used to provide for one’s family. “It drains too much of the life from life,” said Charles Murray in a speech in 2009. “And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors—even more to the lives of janitors—as it does to the lives of CEOs.” Self-reliance—“work”—is intimately connected to human dignity—“purpose.”

Steyn often writes that the divide between social and economic conservatism is illusory. Our secular culture and the march of technology conspire to make his point painfully clear. As advancements in mechanics coincide with the development of A.I. and human genetic engineering, the inherent value of human life will seem ever more tenuous. With intelligent robots and commercial drones around, who needs all the humans?

The Hustings

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