The Automated Society

The real world

I don't pretend to be a particularly good writer, or someone who has the authority to speak on this subject's title. But I have got a few thoughts I'd like to share.

Yesterday, going to the supermarket, I noticed that in order to forego paying for use of their car park, you had to show the car park toll booth a receipt of purchase from the supermarket on the way out. Perfectly reasonable, even though they do not normally do this. They stood to make a good profit, seeing as the car park was fairly full from visitors to the nearby beach.

As we were driving out, the attendant at the toll booth didn't even glance at the receipt we held up. She was seemingly busy eating some cherries from the supermarket. While it was necessary for the supermarket to put someone in the toll booth to check the receipts, the waste of manpower astounded me. They'd basically assigned someone to do nothing, and she'd get paid for it at the end of the day.

What else can they do? She is, after all, making money for them by ensuring that people will purchase an item from the supermarket. And it is probably cheaper (for now) to do this than to use some kind of image-recognition computer system. Yet how can a simple saving of money account for the lost hours in which this person could have done something constructive, something no computer could do?

Companies have a habit of doing this. At a visit to the local Odeon cinema, they had one person standing at the entrance to the 'cinema' section, whose only job was to make a little tear in each person's ticket who was entering the cinema section. That was it. Unlike the supermarket, this person is always there, at every time and day I've visited. Just tearing people's tickets.

And still, it is probably cheaper to do this than to use some turnstile mechanism. Which is why they do it. So why should they change?

Organic food? Give me fertilisers any day

Let me depart on a tangent for a while. When industries such as farming and textiles were first mechanised during the Industrial Revolution, there was a group of anti-mechanisationists called the Luddites, who frequently smashed up this machinery, because it was stealing their jobs. I'm sure you already know this. You probably think that they were standing in the way of progress, because look at us now, in the glory of technology. Foolish luddites.

Were they so foolish? It was undoubtedly cheaper and more efficient for factory owners to mechanise their operations. Unfortunately, that meant sacking a good proportion of their workforce. Okay, it's a necessary evil, but at least their produce is cheaper, right? Not always. In many instances, the factory owners would perhaps lower their prices a fraction, and pocket the rest. I doubt there were many times when the owners would keep their profit margins constant and choose to pass the savings on to their customers. After all, this practice still occurs now.

So, in a way, mechanisation was a bad thing. In a way. We can see now that it was not, in the long run. But in the short run, a large number of workers got trampled on.

The Old Days were always good

Another tangent (please bear with me). Some will say that life was better before we had mechanisation. There wasn't any pollution, we had clean air, and beer was much cheaper. All true. This translates to the thinking that the method of agriculture before mechanisation (and thus use of fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides) was better than what we have now. Food was cleaner in those days, and tasted better. Maybe.

In the recent furore over genetically modified foods, we have a vocal minority shouting for all food to be organic food. Organic food, we are told, is not genetically modified and does not use environment harming fertilisers and pesticides. Very good. And how much does organic food cost, pray tell? Much, much more than 'mechanised' food. Mechanised food is cheap precisely because it does use fertilisers and pesticides. That brings it into the reach of all the consumers. If we returned to organic food, crop yields would plummet drastically and probably hundreds of thousands of people would have to return to farming. Organic food is only for the rich who think they can tell the difference in taste.

Mechanisation of the agriculture industry allowed us to produce more food, much cheaper than normal. It was a Good Thing.

The casualties of progress

One day, we will have the technology to replace a huge chunk of those working in the service industry, the industry that the largest proportion of people in developed countries are employed in. The service industry involves people providing a service for money. They are not producing, or processing, anything physical. People who work in shops are in the service industry.

I'll give you a few examples. There must be dozens of people employed at checkout tills at every single supermarket in the world. All they do is to pass items over a barcode scanner, and perform transactions. That's it. Already, we can see the computerisation of this taking place. Supermarkets such as Tescos are testing schemes in which customers use handheld scanners to checkout their own food, and so the only people at checkout tills are the people performing spot-checks. You've slashed the number of checkout till operators by probably an order of magnitude. Admittedly, this barcode scanner technology is not perfect yet, but it will be soon. So what happens to all those till operators?

At cinemas, soon you'll just be able to use a computer to choose the seats you want. Many people already do this over the Internet. This bypasses the ticket sellers. Ditto with fast food chains. I've visited a McDonalds where they have one person taking orders for the equivalent of three queues, and passing those orders onto an LCD screen which the 'food preparers' read and get the correct food. You've just made two people redundant.

Soon, the ticket tearer and the receipt checker will find their jobs disappearing. Where do they go?

The next industry

Companies will only computerise their operations if it proves to be cheaper if they do so. That's the bottom line. They won't do it for any other reason, if they want to remain competitive. So by computerisation, they save money, but they also lay off a good number of employees who will certainly and justifiably make trouble if they don't get another job.

What does the company do? You've made all these savings. Perhaps, instead of pocketing the savings or passing them on to the customer, the savings made by computerisation could pay for the retraining of the employees they laid off. Cunning, no? Retraining is already included in many redundancy packages, but I doubt very much that it's included for the (I hate to say this, but there you go) lower-grade workers.

Companies have a responsibility for their employees' wellbeing - that's what industry unions are all about. Anyway, once they'd paid for the retraining, they can do whatever they want with the savings.

Okay, I doubt that any company would do that out of their own free will. But it'd be a good law for any government to pass. Instead of having millions of unemployed lying around while the companies get savings, why not get the companies to pay for the retraining?

What will the retraining be for? You've computerised the service industry, so what can people do now? They can create. With the so-called 'Internet' age coming up, and prices getting lower and lower, the most valuable commodity now is time.

There is no point having someone do what a computer can do, since it's wasting their time. It might very well be more expensive to use a computer, but you are wasting this person's potential. This ticket tearer could very well design a new type of car, or write a best-selling book, if they had the time.

A final utopia

One of the main barrier to establishing any kind of utopia is the ever-present fact that someone has to do the dirty work. Someone has to clean the toilets, do the dusting, make the food. In Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World', a group of highly intelligent individuals were put on an island to see what sort of society they would establish. At first, things went well, but then more and more people became unhappy with the menial jobs they had to perform. Eventually, they rebelled and asked to be allowed back inside 'normal' society.

That barrier will be gone in only a few decades. Providing we do it well (that's a pretty large proviso, but still) we could computerise and mechanise all the 'menial' aspects of life, freeing up people's time to pursue whatever they wish. This might bring echoes of Banks' Culture universe to your minds, but his universe is a damn sight better than what we have now, where people's talent and time is wasted by society.

Real Soon Now, we'll be able to free up people from performing 'necessary evil' jobs so that they can carry out constructive work that only humans can perform. Finally, we could use everyone to their fullest potential. And this time, no-one needs to get stepped on, as long as we look after the people whose jobs are replaced by the computerisation and mechanisation. Progress need not hurt.