Our bottom-line economic system seems designed to marginalise people out of the economy. At some point, we’re going to have to find a way to inject people back into the mix.
Back in the 70s and 80s Japan gave the world robots.
Conceptually it goes back further than that. Astroboy first appeared in the 50s. But practical, economic robots emerged much later.
Soon, assembly line robots, particularly in automotive manufacturing, became the norm. If you didn’t have an army of robots, you just could compete. Soon, the whole industry was revolutionised.
And the robots were great for the bottom line. You didn’t have to pay them. You didn’t have to give them breaks or organise daily calisthenics sessions. You could work them around the clock if you wanted to.
It was the dawn of the robotics age.
And for the first time humanity had a vision of a future where robots did everything. There’d be a dishwasher, microwave and a George Jetson robotic maid in every home.
Manual labour would soon be a thing of the past. Not just in factories, but in road works, transport, farming, you name it.
Apart from cafes, is there a single industry that hasn’t felt the helping hand of the robotic age?
And some level it sounds like some sort of golden age for humanity. A life free of labour and changing your own pants.
But many people were worried. They saw that unless we radically overhauled our economic system, the robotics age would plunge us into a death spiral.
Say a robot replaces 10 people on a factory floor. That’s great for that firm, but from an economic perspective. 10 people are now unemployed. 10 wages have disappeared out of the system. 10 people and their families are now consuming a lot less.
And a world without work is also a world where nobody’s getting paid.
And so you’d have super efficient production emerging at the same time as you hollow out the consumption base.
“Who’s going to pay for all this stuff?”
And it becomes a vicious circle. The more wages are reduced, the less firms can charge, the more efficient they have to become. The more efficient they have to become, the more they replace their workers with robots, and round and round it goes.
No body wins. The firms, the workers, the robots. We all end up in the unemployment line.
Of course, this isn’t how it all played out… at least yet.
The robotics ages gave way to the digital revolution and a brave new world of electronic commerce opened up.
But the internet in its way probably destroyed as many opportunities as it created. (We’ve still got the same amount of unemployment right? If not more…)
And in Australia we talk about the death of retail. Online shopping just goes from strength to strength.
And I mean I love it. I’m as bad as anyone. I wanted to buy some fridge magnets for a friends kid for their birthday. I found a 12pc set, made in China, for $1.
How is that even possible?
And so we’re looking at the ‘death of retail’. But think about that for a sec. We’re talking about the death of getting together to buy and sell stuff. That’s huge.
And the hollowing out of manufacturing in the developed world goes on at phenomenal pace. This is the fading sunset of Australian automotive right now.
Personally, I think we’ll be fine, somehow. We’ll find jobs for people. There’s never a shortage of things to do.
And the human to-do list is only limited by the human ability to imagine and come up with new and interesting ways to spend our time.
And that capacity is infinite.
But not everyone’s tech optimist like me.
And right now, here is Greece, you can feel the pessimism lurking the streets. Here, they’ve had decades of miraculous technological advance, the dissolving of centruies old political and national differences, and an integration into the Star-Trek vision of intergalactic cooperation that the Euro Area is.
And where did it get them?
Now Greece is broke. Now they’re going cap in hand to the very people they think are probably, at least partly, responsible for the mess in the first place.
And the Greek people are being told that they need to make money. They need to fire up the economy, and earn enough to pay off their debts.
But how exactly?
You can’t compete with Asia on manufacturing. You can’t compete with the Swiss on banking multi-nationals. You can’t compete with Australia on dirt.
Greece has built a name for itself in international shipping. But now the ports are being sold off and privatised – and gobbled up by foreign interests.
Ask young people what they’re going to do, and they’ve got no idea. What does the world need? What does the world want?
What can we do better than robots?
Greece is feeling this pain acutely right now, but I don’t think Australia’s immune to it.
We’re good at digging stuff up and selling it over seas… but what else do we do??
It’s about a vision for an economic system that is more than a winner takes all race to the bottom.
This is Greece’s challenge for the moment. And I welcome it. When Greece finds its way through, it will be stronger for it.
But this is everyone’s challenge. We’ve ended up with a system that values robots over people; production and profit over meeting people’s needs.
At some point we’re going to have to take stock and figure out how to make it work better for everybody. And Australia will have its time too, sooner or later.
Greece was the birthplace of democracy. Perhaps it will end up being the birthplace of a more human economics as well.
Do you feel confident about our robot-driven future? What gives you hope?