By Chris Barton, Editor-in-Chief
Imagine a little manufacturing town. This is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, where the diner down the street is the favorite neighborhood hangout and the whole town goes to the local high-school sports games. Let’s call this town Hammburg, because John Hamm is the mayor. Sure. Why not.
Now, Hammburg’s main industry is making pies; they’ve got a competitive advantage based on their proximity to fruit growing regions and a long and proud tradition of being pie people. It’s good business (who doesn’t like pies?), and the local pie factory has been driving the economy for generations. Most of the town works at the pie factory, and they make a pretty decent living. The community looks out for each other. It’s the kind of place you could grow old, eating pies and chatting about the weather with Jon Hamm.
But then one day a stranger comes to town. He’s got a fitted suit and slicked-back hair, and as he steps out of his car you see his briefcase says “Pie-o-Matic” on the side. You and your neighbors look at each other. You knew this day had to come.
John Hamm calls a town meeting in the high school gym, so that everyone can hear what this well-dressed stranger has to say. The whole town – every single Hammburger – comes to listen.
“I hear you people make some pretty decent pies in this town,” he croons. “Well, Pie-o-Matic can help you take your business to the next level. Our automatic pie making machines do all the work that humans used to do – and they do it better! They work 24/7, don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t use the bathroom. They don’t need health insurance and they don’t ask for raises. And the best part is – when one of them dies, you can just buy a new one!”
“Now, I’m here to speak with the owners of your little pie factory; I think I can really help them trim their unnecessary costs. Now, which one of you fine people is the owner? Could the owner of the pie factory please raise their hand?”
Every single person raises their hand. Even the babies. Even Jon Hamm. They’ve each got a huge smile on their face. They’re so excited that this day has finally come.
Because, just like every small town, Hammburg has a secret.
The Hammburgers are all communists.
Full-automation luxury communists, to be precise.
Why are Jon Hamm and the Hammburgers so excited? This slick stranger wants to put every single one of them out of a job. He wants the pie factory to go from employing the whole town, to employing no one. The robots have come for their jobs, their livelihoods. They should be upset, terrified of the impending financial collapse of Hammburg.
But they’re not. They’re excited. Because for the Hammburgers, automating the pie factory doesn’t mean that they wont be able to work. It means that they wont have to work.
Lets take a step back, and explore why the rest of the blue-collar world is scared of automation. If you live in a blue-collar town like Detroit – where many of the jobs are in manufacturing and most people aren’t full-automation luxury communists – then jobs are available on the market.
Someone else owns the factories and the assembly lines, and they are ‘buying’ your labor when you work for them. Put another way, you exchange your labor for a wage. If more people start to look for jobs, then the supply of labor outstrips the demand and the ‘price’ of your job – the amount of money you get for your labor – goes down.
When the man with the slicked back hair shows up with his production robots, you’re essentially undersold. A robot can work harder, faster, and longer than you – it can sell more labor in exchange for a smaller ‘wage.’ Unless you can somehow out-compete a machine that was designed specifically to do what you do in the factory, you are out of a job. The factory owners love this, because cheaper labor means a larger profit margin. You don’t, because you can’t afford food or shelter and are starving to death on the street.
In effect, having your basic needs met is contingent upon you working harder, better, faster than a robot. You must buy your livelihood with your labor. And if you can’t afford it, then you can a) sell your labor in a different market (by switching jobs or industries), or b) get used to living without an income. No wonder automation makes blue-collar workers shudder.
However, Hammburg is different. The Hammburgers are communists. They seized the means of production (the pie factory) long ago, shortly after that one copy of Das Kapital showed up at the public library.
As owners of the factory, they all benefit equally from profits that they make selling pies. And therefore they’re incentivized to do what they can to make the pie factory more profitable. Rather then selling their labor for a wage and working in someone else’s factory, they’re using their labor to make their own factory run better, and more profitably. The goal is to maximize the productive output of the factory while minimizing the amount of labor each individual has to contribute. Because at the end of the day, they’re not selling labor – they’re selling pies.
This is the fundamental difference between the workers in Detroit’s factories and those in Hammburg: Detroit’s factories are owned by people other than the workers; Hammburg’s factory is owned by the community that works in it. In Detroit, people’s livelihoods depend on them being able to work and sell their labor; in Hammburg, people’s livelihoods depend on people being able to sell pies.
That difference – selling pies vs selling labor – is what makes the Pie-o-Matic salesman a friend to the Hammburgers, rather than a foe. Automation means that it will require less labor to make pies; and that in turn means that the Hammburgers can look forward to spending less time in the factory, and more time doing things like playing the lute and high-fiving Jon Hamm.
This is where the ‘luxury’ part comes in. Before, the pie factory’s output – and therefore the town’s wealth – was constrained by an upper limit: the number of pies they could make by hand. With automation, though, there is no upper limit to their productivity. The better the robots, the more pies are produced, the more prosperous Hammburg is.
Jon Hamm knows this. The townspeople know this. They see a future of leisure and luxury, one where they work less and less and enjoy more and more, where benevolent, highly adept robots take care of their livelihoods while they languidly pursue fulfilling activities like writing poetry or mastering the 18 string lute.
Like the spaceship in Wall-E, but without the mandated consumption. This is communism, after all. Fully automated luxury communism.
I hope that this parable helps you think about automation, and what it means that more and more of the jobs that used to require humans are being accomplished by robots.
The way the conversation is framed, there often seems to be only two possible positions: Pro-automation, or anti-automation; naïve techno-optimist, or backwards-looking luddite. But like all technology, automation isn’t inherently good or bad. The outcomes depend on how the technology is used.
When implemented in a system like our fictionalized Detroit, automation leads to one outcome. When implemented in a system like Hammburg, it leads to another outcome. The technology is the same. What changes is the social context in which it is used.
So next time you hear on the news that so-and-so technology has put so-and-so out of work, recognize that the pain is real. But don’t blame the technology. Blame the society that uses that technology to the detriment of it’s members.