One of the most egregious myths about automation is that it is a faceless and elemental force of nature that we puny humans are capable only of scrambling to adapt to. This is technological determinism at its most aggressive, and it’s generally a big fat fallacy.
As I’ve tried to show in these pages, automation is in fact the result of conscious decisions, mostly at the executive and managerial level (though not always). There are plenty of choices that shape the general trend of automation, both by employers thinking of deploying automation and employees actually interacting with the resultant automation. It may be an impulse, especially among those who hold the resources and power necessary to do it, but it is not preordained by any means.
This is important, because the biggest result of the automation-as-force-of-nature framing is that we get reports like the one fresh out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, where the world’s wealthiest executives, TED-liest thought leaders, and the politicians who love them are currently discussing economic policy while eating fondue together on a Swiss mountain.
The report, “Towards a Reskilling Revolution: Industry-Led Action for the Future of Work,” “finds” that of the nearly one and a half million Americans who are slated to lose their jobs, private industry (i.e., those that employ most of them) will only be able to profitably retrain a quarter of them: “With an overall investment of US$4.7 billion, the private sector could reskill 25% of all workers in disrupted jobs with a positive cost-benefit balance.” According to the report, the rest of the burden of “reskilling” workers will fall to the government, which would cost $19.9 billion of public funding.
Now, reskilling workers on automation’s chopping block sounds like a winning proposition, right? As Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the World Economic Forum and head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society, said in a press release, “The question of who pays for the stranded workers and for the upskilling needed across economies is becoming urgent.”
But let’s hold up a second here, and look at what’s actually going on: A report published on behalf of the wealthiest business owners in the world is forecasting that those very business owners are going to automate a million plus of their workers out of jobs—ostensibly reaping the profits from the efficiency gains and saved labor costs—and concludes that the public will have to foot the bill to retrain the “stranded” workers. So they can be rehired or “upskilled” in the new automation-focused industries of the future at those same companies, where they can continue to generate profits for wealthy elites.
The WEF is basically saying governments should subsidize the (re)training of the future workforce that their companies disrupted in the name of increasing profits.
This is, I know, simplifying matters a little, but a strenuous course correction is necessary. These reports are incapable of viewing automation capitalism as anything other than inevitable, and almost always obscure the fact that the biggest beneficiaries of its conclusions are the same kind of folks that float around Davos issuing bromides about the future of work.
There’s no doubt that automation will prove a disruptive force, but it’s important to bear in mind that forecasts and reports like this are cobbled together in the primary interest of ensuring that it’s not disruptive to the ones profiting off of the automating. There are lots of things that can be done in the name of smoothing the transition to an increasingly automated society—and even, gasp, towards more equitably sharing the economic benefits of automation.
Asking world governments to bankroll the project of retraining the next round of corporate workers so they can once again find suitable employment under Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates is not one of them. We absolutely have to overcome this poverty of thinking around automation—and in so doing the actual poverty it may very well lead to—that the only way forward is to retrain the workforce in a way that continues to maximize profits for business.