“Four Futures”, by Peter Frase, is the tale of two factors, robotic automation and climate change, and how they will basically be the deciding components in the future (or lack thereof) of capitalism. One of his main points is that both of these elements have the capacity to make things, in layman’s terms, very good or very bad for a large number of people, depending mainly on who has control of the circumstances.
A highly resonating line from Frase suggests, “who benefits from automation, and who loses, is ultimately not a consequence of the robots themselves, but who owns them.” One of the major themes Frase continually repeats throughout this excerpt is the direct association between robotics technology and how, currently, their main goal is to in some to, in some way, shape, or form, function only to serve political/economic interests. When there is a shortage of human workers due to rising labor costs, corporations turn to automation to fill their spots, but this is if, and only if, the cost of labor becomes so high that it ultimately exceeds the cost of implementing automation technology. Basically, what Frase is suggesting is that under capitalism, robotics and automation are only viable options if they benefit the political and economic goals of those at the top, the ones who ultimately control the technology.
This led me to think back on my brief research assignment over automation within the garment industry. The True Cost is a documentary that provides a full disclosure look at the fashion and garment industries and the humanitarian issues that plague their very existence. According to their website there are roughly 40 million garment workers in the world, with 85% of them being women. As it stands, automation in the garment industry is still very much under development, and definitely not on massively large scales that would be needed for full industry automation. Under that notion, one might say it is safe to assume that these jobs are not under immediate threat. But more than anything that lead me to wonder, what does safe in this case?
While doing the initial research on these upcoming technologies, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “whom is this really going to be benefiting?” The two developers I looked into were both western based, and one specifically, SoftWear, limits its technology exclusively to U.S. based companies in order to promote “homegrown” production. Essentially, they hope to provide affordable, labor-free means of production, so American companies can stop relying on overseas workers. I think this illustrates a perfect example of how the benefits of automation, specifically in a capitalist system, only apply to those who control the technology, and those beneath it are left to work that much harder.
What I assume this might mean is that if this technology was implemented only in Western factories, where the goal is to ultimately be able to pull all of their money out of the Asian labor market, they are subsequently cutting jobs without producing any clear benefit or for the workers they are ousting. As suggested by Frase, there are many economists who claim that there is a natural cycle to automation: that eventually new, better jobs and opportunities will come about in the absence of a position now fully automated, and those who find themselves unemployed as a result will easily come to fill them. But in this case, the automation process is taking place in a completely different environment from where the jobs are that it will ultimate be replacing; American jobs are not being replaced with American automation, low-paying, exploitative jobs in under-developed countries are being replaced with American automation.