Automation, the use of robots, produces more with less labor than was possible before. That means we don’t need as many people to fill the need for whatever we’re producing. And that means the “excess” people are out of work, right?
Sorry, but that’s not how it has ever worked except in the very shortest of terms.
Producing more with less labor has been the spur for economic growth since before recorded history began.
The basic principle is this: we have nearly infinite wants, and only finite means to satisfy those wants. Every time we come up with labor-saving devices so we can produce the same things with less labor, we do one of three things:
(a) We consume more of the thing.
(b) We consume more sophisticated versions of the same thing.
(c) We consume the same amount of the thing, and use our resources to consume something else.
Take clothing as an example. It used to be that all clothing had to be hand-stitched from cloth that was hand-woven by hand. Most ancient cultures tended to live in temperate or warm climates so people could go naked–because clothing, frankly, was just too expensive to buy.
We know that, in the late 1300’s, a “fashionable gown” cost between £10 to £50–around $9,000 to $45,000 in today’s dollars, in terms of the real price of the dress. (In terms of labor, that is, in terms of how much the average person would have to work to afford that dress, the price is 12 times higher–meaning for a peasant to earn a £10 dress, he’d have to work as hard as an average person today would have to work to earn nearly $100,000.)
Today, while we still have Haute Couture with prices probably as inflated as “fine art” is today (i.e., a scam designed as a form of class signaling rather than related to the true value of a custom-constructed dress), a wedding dress today (which is about the nicest dress typically purchased by a woman) certainly does not cost as much as a car. A dress such as this, which is arguably a much finer dress (better built, better materials, much finer design) runs around $1500. A better dress than those typically worn by 14th century royalty could certainly be bought from a variety of locations for a tenth (or less) of the wedding gown.
Point being clothing in the middle ages was as expensive as a modern luxury car. People often only owned one or two articles of clothing, and for the peasant class, that often consisted of a poorly constructed tunic and pants. People rarely changed their clothing, and they were very careful about washing their clothes–repairing them often.
Today, clothing is so cheap that it is in fact illegal in many places to go in public without clothes. Clothing is so cheap, in fact, that a form of signaling for the young often follows the fashion styles of the 19th century of selective nudity: since clothing covers the body, nudity (especially in women) shows a body free of the marks of physical labor, one free of sags and marks and flab that today signals the working class and the service sector.
And today, even the poorest individuals have more than just one shirt and one pair of pants.
With cheap clothing, build using automation (automated looms make cheap cloth, automated cutting machines cut the cloth, automated sewing machines allow people to assemble the cloths quickly–and researchers are trying to figure out how to replace the people manning those sewing machines with more automation), we’ve chosen to consume more.
Instead of only owning one outfit and constantly patching that out fit obsessively until there is nothing left, we own dozens of outfits, and we discard or donate older items as we get tired of them.
Clothing has stopped being a luxury and is now a commodity. Even the wedding dress is preserved not because it is too expensive to replace, but because it is sentimental: a collectable we can afford to preserve.
The desire to consume more sophisticated versions of the same thing can be seen in our television shows and movies. With automation streamlining everything from the process of shooting film (directly to digital) to editing to creating special effects, rather than continue to make the same types of movies we used to make, we instead incorporate so many special effects it makes the movie “Tron” seem silly.
In fact, the cost of special effects has become cheaper than going on location to shoot film, which is why movies like Sicario are constructed the way they are.
This is an instance where increased automation has increased the sophistication of what we consume.
Food is the ultimate example of a product which has allows us to move on to consuming other products. But you already know the story: in the 1800’s nearly everyone was involved in farming and agriculture. Today, less than 2% of the population is involved in producing food. Yet we don’t have 90% unemployment; instead, we’ve all moved on to other things.
There is no reason to think that this will change.
We still live in a world of infinite wants and finite means. The things we want may shift; we may find ourselves wanting things that only 10 years ago was the gleam in the eye of some engineers–like modern cell phones or tablet computers.
But if the day does come that everyone is put out of work, it will happen for a simple reason: because all of our wants are completely satiated by automation, and we will have no need to work anymore.
Because, ultimately, the point of work is to allow us to obtain the things we want. But if everything can be produced entirely with automation, then ultimately everything will be free, since “price” is a function of the “want” of suppliers and workers so they can have the things they want.
And when everything is free, we will be entirely free to live how we want, without ever working again.