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Automation on the Job

Computers were supposed to be labor-saving devices. How come we're still working so hard?

Brian Hayes

The Problem of Leisure

In 1930 the British economist John Maynard Keynes published a short essay titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” At the time, the economic possibilities looked pretty grim, but Keynes was implacably cheerful. By 2030, he predicted, average income would increase by a factor of between four and eight. This prosperity would be brought about by gains in productivity: Aided by new technology, workers would produce more with less effort.

Keynes did not mention automation—the word would not be introduced until some years later—but he did refer to technological unemployment, a term that goes back to Karl Marx. For Keynes, a drop in the demand for labor was a problem with an easy solution: Just work less. A 3-hour shift and a 15-hour workweek would become the norm for the grandchildren of the children of 1930, he said. This would be a momentous development in human history. After millennia of struggle, we would have finally solved “the economic problem”: How to get enough to eat. The new challenge would be the problem of leisure: How to fill the idle hours.

Decades later, when automation became a contentious issue, there were other optimists. The conservative economist Yale Brozen wrote in 1963:

Perhaps the gains of the automation revolution will carry us on from a mass democracy to a mass aristocracy.... The common man will become a university-educated world traveler with a summer place in the country, enjoying such leisure-time activities as sailing and concert going.

But others looked at the same prospect and saw a darker picture. Norbert Wiener had made important contributions to the theory of automatic control, but he was wary of its social implications. In The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) he wrote:

Let us remember that the automatic machine... is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor. It is perfectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present recession and even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke.

A. J. Hayes, a labor leader (and no relation to me), wrote in 1964:

Automation is not just a new kind of mechanization but a revolutionary force capable of overturning our social order. Whereas mechanization made workers more efficient—and thus more valuable—automation threatens to make them superfluous—and thus without value.

Keynes’s “problem of leisure” is also mentioned with much anxiety throughout the literature of the automation era. In a 1962 pamphlet Donald N. Michael wrote:

These people will work short hours, with much time for the pursuit of leisure activities.... Even with a college education, what will they do all their long lives, day after day, four-day weekend after weekend, vacation after vacation...?

The opinions I have cited here represent extreme positions, and there were also many milder views. But I think it’s fair to say that most early students of automation, including both critics and enthusiasts, believed the new technology would lead us into a world where people worked much less.

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