Automation and Technological Unemployment in 1932

Automation and Technological Unemployment in 1932

In Prase of Idleness is a classic essay made all the more relevant by the rise of automation and technological unemployment, you can read it for free right here (approx 25–30 min read time), and it’s absolutely worth the half hour or more it might take you to get through it.

Although first published in 1932 the message is more relevant now than ever, especially considering the jobs we are, or are very nearly, automating away (which, in this developer’s humble opinion, we absolutely should — why force humans to complete tasks that a machine can do more effectively?).

The issue of automation and technological unemployment is admittedly a contentious one, but when (brace yourself, incoming name drop!) Andrew McAfee thinks there is cause for concern I would rate his opinion as a damn site more reliable than that of the Steve Mnuchin’s. What’s more, Andrew is not alone in holding that opinion: Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have all weighed in on the issue of technological unemployment as a result of automation.

The problem, therein, is not with automation per se, but with our attitude towards work, an attitude Russell was right to cast doubt on partly in response to the industrial revolution.

This problematic attitude is essentially that we think of work as “good”, as a morally good thing worth pursuing, and it is perhaps best captured in the infamous pin analogy contained in the below excerpt from the essay:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still over

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