Jobs, Robots and Us: Why the future of work in New Zealand is in our hands by Kinley Salmon (Bridget Williams Books, 2019), 304 pp., $39.95
My initial response to this book was one of relief that someone had finally bothered to write about automation from a New Zealand perspective. You would think that a technology shift like this would command strong interest in a small nation vulnerable to external shocks, but there seems to be a lack of accessible information on this topic for non-specialist readers, and this book fills a need.
Author Kinley Salmon is a bright young thinker, a Harvard graduate, an expat economist in Washington, DC, and a self-identified millennial. The cover features endorsements from international bigwigs. The style is conversational: his approach is humane, sensible, pragmatic, understated—relentlessly reasonable in that EnZed kind of way.
The central theme of the book, as indicated by the subtitle, is focused around the potential effects of a radical technology on the New Zealand economy and society. Automation is a rapidly developing field that includes technologies ranging from artificial intelligence software in call centres to robot manufacturing, self-driving vehicles and virtual assistants.
Salmon reinforces the point of how the future emerges out of the present, and decisions made in the present; he wonders at the lack of analysis from a local angle, noting it is his generation who will experience the full effects of automation (although with simultaneous advances in longevity, perhaps a few of the current crop of ageing billionaires will be hanging around).
He takes a sceptical approach to the bolder claims of Silicon Valley techno boosters, but still predicts major shifts in our economy and society. He examines the level of disruption to employment and the changes that might be made in our working lives. These changes can be navigated, he believes, through the forging of a national consensus about what type of future society New Zealanders want.
Salmon’s snapshots of life in a couple of alternate automated futures are interesting thought experiments but occur in a world where other technological game changers or environmental and political pressures are apparently manageable. It’s not that the author is unaware of these other developments; in fact, he refers to them throughout the text.
Yet trying to tease out the effects of automation from the multiple tracks of technological acceleration and global pressures is not an easy task. Some of us have very different guesstimates of what life might be like in thirty years’ time, and in my case I would say the assumptions that there will be a kind of semi-stable background to automation, or anything else, are well off-course.
It’s essential to look at other authors who offer a wider sense of the liberatory potential of automation in order to understand how Salmon fits into this broader discussion. In Rise of the Robots: Technology and the threat of a jobless future (Basic Books, 2015), Martin Ford warned us about the tendency to see previous patterns repeating in this new era. He argued against the idea that new jobs will simply appear to replace outmoded jobs as in previous generations—mechanics replacing farriers, IT workers replacing factory workers replacing farm labourers, and so on. Ford’s view was that this pattern will be broken by automation, leaving a vast gap between available work and the general population. Remaining work will belong to a small elite of highly skilled experts at the pinnacle of a jobs ‘pyramid’.
The controversy over advancing artificial intelligence is not limited to whether taxi drivers will be put out of work by self-driving vehicles. Another admittedly controversial view was proposed by futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who popularised the concept of the technological singularity. In The Singularity Is Near: When humans transcend biology (Viking, 2005), Kurzweil predicted artificial intelligence will bypass human intelligence and exponentially increase its abilities (the date when this happens is 2045, if you are wondering). There is a significant number of technologists and scientists, in fact, who believe that such an outcome is a possibility, although the time scale involved is a matter for hot debate. Philosopher Nick Bostrom has discussed how an advanced AI with its own agenda could result in an ‘existential catastrophe’ and the end of the human species in Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies (Oxford University Press, 2014)—a book that Bill Gates ‘highly recommends’. In Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a world without work (Verso, 2016), for example, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argued that advanced technology provides the key to realising an updated version of Marx’s vision of a classless society (humorously referenced elsewhere as ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’).
Why raise these other theorists here? Because Salmon is part of a current debate and discussion, and anyone reading his book will benefit from the wider discussion around a potential future where automation could lead. And because, next to these insights, Jobs, Robots and Us has a conservative flavour, perhaps as a side-effect of the author’s profession. In this scenario of runaway technological acceleration, the concerns raised by Salmon might even seem quaint.
In Jobs, Robots and Us, ‘evidence-based policy’ is one term that evokes coolly rational assessments by technocrats in quiet well-lit offices. Another frequent choice of terminology (as it were) that we come to in Salmon’s book is ‘choices’. By this he is referring to the collision between different understandings of the operation of power, which becomes unreconcilable. I hasten to add Salmon is not a one-dimensional market-forces zombie; he introduces radical challengers to conventional thinking like Thomas Piketty, George Monbiot and even Dave Graeber on ‘bullshit jobs’—and unions, inequality and the environment all get a mention. Discussions of the automated economy inevitably have to deal with the issue of what happens when you have automated production and a jobless population: the Universal Basic Income hovers awkwardly in the background.
Even as he considers the implications of inequality (as something that will be multiplied by capital-intensive automation), Salmon proposes a process whereby ‘we’ determine our automated future: he aspires to a national conversation, with a plan no doubt derived from evidence-based decision-making.
But choices of this kind are not made by the bulk of New Zealanders, or any general population, in any meaningful sense. Major shifts in New Zealand’s economic and social life in the last generation have been pushed through from the top levels of society in response to their own perceived self-interest in a rapidly changing world economy, rather than driven by popular sentiment. Take, for example, the biggest socio-economic shift in New Zealand’s recent history, the era of Rogernomics and Ruthenasia (1984–93, approximately). Change took a distinctly non-democratic form: while external factors provided an impetus to events, actual development was informed by an ideological vision, and we witnessed a state captured by political factions, an aggressive new generation of business leaders and a narrow strata of key bureaucrats—all of which, together, bulldozed through radical restructuring. Given this recent history, Salmon seems to have a misplaced faith in the degree whereby New Zealanders, or citizens of any modern nation state, have an input into the key economic decisions made in their society. One is left with an uncomfortable feeling that this faith is a result of being part of a technocratic elite who have access to the levers of decision-making, or who at least believe their voices are heard—unlike the majority, whose involvement in decision-making extends to voting once every few years (if that).
Jobs, Robots and Us provides a useful overview of some of the main questions that need to be considered about the emergence of the automated economy. The merit of Salmon’s book is that it is focused on the New Zealand context, and the specific effects of automation on our industries. This makes it relevant and timely and a good entry point for those wondering what all the fuss is about. I disagreed with many conclusions, however. My own reading makes me think the effects of automation will be compounded by other technologies in much shorter timeframes, and with much greater disruption to economic and social structures. The storm of change that is upon us is moving at a speed that makes our social and political arrangements look decidedly unprepared to weather it.
VICTOR BILLOT is a Dunedin writer with an interest in technology. His poetry collection The Sets will be published by Otago University Press in 2021.