“ We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”— John Maynard Keynes, 1930 , Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren
There are many students these days who, although supposedly trained in rational disciplines and taught what is often called “critical thinking,” are nevertheless deluded, imagining a future that will not appear.
In the summer of 2014, while speaking on automation, robots, machine intelligence, and the future of employment at the annual Smoke Farm Symposium, Blaise Agüera y Arcas of Google asked and answered his own question: “Whose jobs are going away? All of ours.” His comments followed a highly cited 2013 Oxford study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne on the future of employment that suggests 47% of US jobs are at “high” risk of being replaced by computerization or automation in the next decade or two, while an additional 19% of US jobs are at “medium” risk.
When I moved to India in 1985 (to squander grant money for two years while marginally engaged in the study of Vedic culture), I couldn’t figure out what time the mail arrived each day. I slowly discovered the source of my confusion: the mail came three times daily. When I told Mrs. Dutta (my 70-year-old land-lady) how remarkable that was, she looked at me sadly and lamented: “Yes, it’s too bad how some things change. When I was a child the mail was delivered five times a day.” It was my first cultural lesson while living at 13 Barakhamba Road in New Delhi.
I recalled my conversation with Mrs. Dutta this summer when I read about India’s transport minister telling reporters that driverless cars would not be allowed in India. “We don’t need it,” the minister said. “Each car gives a job to a driver. Driverless cars will take away those jobs.” When I lived in India waiting three times a day for a cheerful mailman to arrive (with no letters for me), he was riding a bicycle. But the point is the same: It might be unnecessary and inefficient to send mailmen out on three (or five) rounds per day, but it definitely provided more jobs.
In the US, driving jobs collectively represent the biggest employment sector, including taxi drivers, all manner of delivery drivers, chauffeurs, bus drivers, and, of course, truck drivers. In 29 states, truck driving is the most common job. According to Morgan Stanley’s head of global auto research, Adam Jonas, the driverless utopia will arrive between 2023 and 2026, with truck drivers and other commercial drivers hit first. Where will the drivers go? Will they retrain to compete for your job?
Since the Industrial Revolution we have watched the slow and steady unfolding of the successful marriage of capitalism and technology, replacing workers with machines, while making the means of production more efficient. But unlike machines, people still need work and to be able to feed themselves. While living in Mrs. Dutta’s sprawling Lutyens-era bungalow, part of our agreement was that I would be directly responsible for hiring two servants (a cook and a “bearer”) and would contribute toward the monthly salaries of another four (two sweepers, a gardener, and the chowkidar—a kind of night watchman who had the annoying habit of announcing his presence at all hours of the night by pounding his staff on the stone pavers as he patrolled the perimeter of the bungalow compound). Mrs. Dutta had her own excellent cook; a driver; and a clerk who handled the house finances, received the mail, and performed other duties from his small office on the front veranda. There were probably about a dozen servants employed full-time, most of whom lived at the back of the property in small, primitive structures lining the wall.
Like most middle-class Americans, I had no training in living with servants, nor did I desire servants. I found my private space had become strangely, uncomfortably public. (And indeed, ever since that experience, I have had nothing but pity for poor rich people who are forced to surround themselves with servants and domestic help.) I also quickly realized that I was a novice in these domestic matters, having taken on the work (peculiar for a 29-year-old) of directing several servants under my charge. Through Mrs. Dutta’s hints and interventions, I slowly learned aspects of my new unwanted role. I needed to invite people to lunch and allow Sham Lal, my cook, a chance to show off his talent. I hardly knew anybody in New Delhi, so I was now on the alert to meet people, even tourists, inviting virtual unknowns home for lunch or dinner. It was a highly inefficient way to live. But from another point of view, my life on Barakhamba Road was an interesting accident, an encounter with a form of life that opened me to the needs of others, beyond the fetishized private life of the bourgeoisie.
When Mrs. Dutta learned that I had fired the 16-year-old bearer for stealing money from the locked cabinet in my bedroom, she admonished me and patiently explained that I had failed, that of course a boy in his position would steal from rich people—how could I not understand that? It was my responsibility to find a way to work with these challenges and to support and work with people who needed help. The boy’s mother was one of the sweepers at the house, and whenever I saw her, my conscience reminded me of my failure.
Today’s profit-driven realms of technology, economics, and business often obscure the dehumanizing contradictions in their successes. If we don’t feel concerned for the well-being of fellow humans who have been pushed to the economic and social margins, then we too are suffering the dehumanizing influences of the current economic system.
Mrs. Dutta died in 1993 and, according to the terms of her husband’s will, 13 Barakhamba Road was left to an orphanage, to help care for some of the most vulnerable and needy children in society. As our current disruption unfolds we will need to find new ways to care for each other, including the techno-orphans of the future.