We are all going to be replaced by robots, right? We are at last on the cusp of the leisure society or, by another analysis, about to enter a new era of serfdom where we are all beholden to our Silicon Valley/Chinese/robot overlords.

Or are we?

A very similar narrative played out in the 1970s with the rise of the micro processor. Back then we were all about to be put out of our jobs by The Chip. Computerisation was going to make us all redundant. 

And yet, 40 years on, unemployment is at record low levels and if you look in most offices you’ll see people tending these machines that were supposed to set us free.

The reason? Well maybe, just maybe, creating technologies that increase the capacity to do something just result in more and more of that thing happening.

Take, for example, road building. The more capacity we build, the more we want. Anyone who has spent an evening stuck on the M25 can tell you that.

Take, for example, email. The technology that dramatically increased our ability to send messages had resulted in us spending more and more time dealing with the avalanche of information which we now receive. Sure, we don’t need postmen to deliver those messages, but it’s hardly destroyed the need for human workers.

This week’s Freakonomics podcast In praise of maintenance spoke about how this phenomenon had occurred in household labour. The time-saving devices like washing machines that were supposed to free us from domestic drudgery have instead created just as much human work. Whilst the physiological effort required to actually wash clothes has dramatically decreased, the result has been that we just wash things much more often (with all of the associated machine tending as a result in the form of folding, ironing and packing away).

Automation has never reduced the need to work. It’s just changed the sort of work that we do as we consume more and more of the automation. Spreadsheet junkies might not use slide rules to calculate, but as a result they are just building ever more complex models to explore their numeric fantasies. The rise of the automobile decimated the need for stable staff, but we aren’t all destitute as a result. And so it will be with the next generations of technology.

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