The Onset of Automation

— Georgie Nettell


Currently, automation threatens all routine work, with forecasts of widespread
unemployment in the West as soon as 2030. Job polarization will
produce tiny elite sectors of “creatives” (in the industrial sense) at one end
of the employment spectrum, and at the other, very low paid manual labor
that is too unpredictable or not profitable enough to automate (e.g., care
work), with very little in between. Those engineering the technology that
will bring about these shifts do not seem worried. According to them, new,
better jobs will be created. Depressing, dehumanizing work will be replaced
by self-motivated, entrepreneurial activity. Humans and machines will work
in harmony, and everyone will be free to spend their time doing only what
they truly love. However, workers at both ends of the spectrum will be competing
for fewer and fewer opportunities—so really it is the low success rate
and high emotional cost of creative freelancing that is being extended to
everyone rather than any possibility for self-actualization. Since creativity is
currently the thing robots are least good at, and so far, as they do not have
selves to express, a career as a blue-sky creative is starting to look less risky
and as normative as being a broker or estate agent—once secure jobs that
are on the way to becoming obsolete. Past ideals of somehow liberated or
alternative lifestyles, defined against a nine-to-five mainstream, don’t really
exist anymore.
One of the only potentially realistic solutions to impending mass unemployment
is a universal basic income. Although it sounds socialist, the concept
has been advocated especially forcefully by conservatives and libertarians as a
way to achieve an ideal market economy composed entirely of atomized,
competitive individuals.[1]
A basic income would also encourage a more dynamic labor market, as it would
offer an “economic cushion for all types of entrepreneurial activity.”
[2] This last point seems
to acknowledge that such activity is only really possible if you are
financially supported. Perhaps it is obvious that wealth enables creativity, but conservative ideologies try very hard to obscure the fact behind myths of individual brilliance.
It has long been observed that an art career is a form of entrepreneurship,
and the art world is a field that depends on and normalizes social and immaterial labor.
It is no coincidence then that the art world is made up of “brilliant individuals”
who, more often than not, enjoy an economic cushion soft enough to significantly
reduce, if not totally alleviate, the material risks of their chosen life path.
On one level, the fantasy of an automated future where everyone can
express themselves creatively seems like a good thing. It would at least be
“good” if a more diverse range of people were cushioned in a way that allowed
them this possibility. However, few insiders would view the art world as a
useful model for a future utopia. Although it appears that artists are very
spoiled—enjoying a level of freedom far in excess of most other people on
the planet while still finding reasons, both existential and petty, to bitch
about it—the cynicism of those involved in the art world is not without
reason. The winner-takes-all market model results in a majority of participants
being excluded, while a select few are milked to the point of apathy.
This, combined with the emotional cost of expressing yourself to an audience
that is searingly critical and either seeking to exploit or else in direct
competition with you, produces a specific cocktail of neuroses: artists and
other art-workers in creative roles, rather than menial/managerial, are self-obsessed
and paranoid. Their friendships are destroyed by rivalries, and even
when they are doing well, their anxious minds invent more and more absurd
ways to feel undervalued and excluded. Anyone competing in this system
has moments of crisis, panic, bitterness, and resentment. A fair few break
down under the pressure. Yet “society” promotes the idea of individual brilliance
over all else. Even people who should know better internalize these
myths and also project them onto other people. The fragility of such illusions
and the impossibility of ever living up to them may be the root cause
of the mental health problems characteristic of artists. The shifts brought
about by automation look likely to increase these kinds of pressures. When
creativity becomes compulsory, the liberatory potential of self-expression
takes a dark turn.
Arguably, creativity and individualistic self-expression have been corporatized
for a long time, and the belief that these activities represent anything
more noble is hopelessly retro. Also, while it may appear as though the art
industry runs on that which could never be automated—i.e., creative juice
and selfhood—already-existing journalistic content aggregators seem suited
to the work of contemporary art. It would not be hard to use this software
to collate whatever subject matter, aesthetics, or positions are trending at a
given moment into an artificially produced practice. Plenty of successful art
made by humans, then enthusiastically platformed and consumed by other
humans, already appears formulaic in this way, while work made that does
not conform to the industry grid is ignored. Currently, even the most regularized
practices are tied to a “brilliant” human author who claims to express
their own life experience or perceptions. It seems unlikely that human experience
could become fully obsolete, but if the modes by which subjectivity
is expressed can be successfully simulated, maybe that too will be devalued.
No one really knows how automation is going to impact society, with some
predicting total breakdown. But in an automated future where your humanity
really is the only thing left to sell, the stakes—which are already dangerously
high—can only get higher.

  1. [1] “The assurance of a certain minimum income for
    everyone, or a floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide
    for himself, appears not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against a risk
    common to all, but a necessary part of the great society in which the individual no
    longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into
    which he was born.”’ Friedrich Hayek quoted in Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots:
    Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
    (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 257.
  2. [2] Ford, Rise of the Robots, 266.