The Problem with Blaming Robots for Taking Our Jobs

The New Yorker
June 20, 2022
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Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash


For decades, the effects of automation have been fiercely debated. Are we missing the bigger picture? Jane Hu writes in The Economist that "the rise and fall of automation discourse is a richer subject than automation itself. The debate becomes a kind of historical index—a sign of the times, even if it doesn’t always accurately describe the times."

In the late nineteen-forties, Delmar Harder, a vice-president at Ford, popularized the term “automation”—a “nickname,” he said, for the increased mechanization at the company’s Detroit factory. Harder was mostly talking about the automatic transfer of car parts between machines, but the concept soon grew legs—and sometimes a robotic arm—to encompass a range of practices and possibilities.

From the immediate postwar years to the late nineteen-sixties, America underwent what we might call an automation boom, not only in the automotive sector but in most heavy-manufacturing industries. As new technology made factory work more efficient, it also rendered factory workers redundant, often displacing them into a growing service sector. Automation looks a little different these days, but the rhetoric around it remains basically the same. Popular discourse alternates between a vision of benevolent machines—ones that could, say, carry out dangerous or gruelling tasks—and one of job-stealing robots. Such talk frequently swells in moments of technological innovation. (Think of the birth of the personal computer, or, more recently, of the rise of Amazon.) covid-19 only intensified this anxiety, as labor shortages, and the pressure to keep people safe, gave companies new opportunities to automate. Are robots really, finally, going to replace us?

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