International Labor Day Post: The Machines Are Coming! Thank God!

machines coming

Recently Zeynep Tufecki wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “The Machines Are Coming.” Hers was a warning about the devastating effect of technology on the job market. Machines have eliminated jobs across the board, she lamented – from secretarial positions to auto workers to medical diagnosticians and college professors.

Unlike Tufecki, I see this as good news — a promise of more free time and leisure.

In fact, many more jobs than Tufecki indicates might also be eliminated – and probably should be. Think weapons manufacture, the military itself, the advertising industry, call centers, insurance companies, fast food, and (above all!) Wall Street jobs connected with financial speculation. None of these occupations are truly necessary or even productive. Face it: they are mere busy work.

Still other jobs are on their way out. Remember what happened to Encyclopedia Britannica that didn’t see Wikipedia coming. Think of the music industry involuntarily “downsized” by file sharing.

And what about newspapers? They are currently in crisis because of the advent free news websites. They’ll soon be history. Similarly “distance learning” is having its own impact on higher education as bricks and mortar campuses sun-set whether or not their trustees see the coming train wreck.

Again, all of this can be good news.

Energy industries will be especially affected. According to Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization, new technology will soon drive climate-changing oil and dirty coal out of business too.

This is not a pipe dream. Surplus energy can already be stored in hydrogen cells. And the energy produced will soon be shared person-to-person across a “smart grid.” Again, the model here is file-sharing.

The European Union’s ideal is to turn every building’s rooftop into a solar energy power plant.

Think of the jobs that will be eliminated as a result – including those required by the energy wars that will be rendered superfluous.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t productive work crying out to be done. Green technologies in general and public transportation are obvious needs. The number of potential jobs connected with them is substantial. But there are not nearly enough green jobs to replace the ones that have been eliminated by technology and those that should be discarded because they are environmentally destructive and morally unsustainable.

So what should be done about all of this? Here is the hopeful part. Rifkin showed the way years ago. So did Juliette Shor (The Overworked American).  J.W. Smith (Economic Democracy: the Political Struggle of the Twenty-First Century) was even more articulate about the path ahead: SHARE THE WORK.

The good news is that none of us has to work that hard unless we want to. Thanks to the new technology, we could work four-hour days or three-day weeks, or for only six months a year, or every other year. And with military spending reduced by 75%, we could still make a living wage — retiring by 40. And this is possible world-wide.

It is all now within our grasp. We just have to recognize that and get the subject on the political agenda.

No one needs to be reminded that we are entering the election season. I wonder what Hilary and Jeb think about all of this.

Be sure to ask them.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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