It’s impossible to discuss the seismic shift toward automation without a conversation about job loss. Opponents of these technologies criticize a displacement that could someday result in wide-scale unemployment among what is often considered “unskilled” roles. Advocates, meanwhile, tend to suggest that reports of that nature tend to be overstated. Workforces shift, as they have done for time immemorial.
During a conversation at SXSW this week, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered another take entirely.
“We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work,” she said in an answer reported by The Verge. “We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”
The response to an audience member’s question is a take that doesn’t too often get repeated in broader conversations about automation. Oftentimes industry spokespeople will discuss technology’s potential to replace jobs that are deemed “dull, dirty and dangerous” — menial tasks that many roboticists will suggest no one really wants in the first place.
Ocasio-Cortez’s answer, on the other hand, speaks to a viewpoint more in line with her own Democratic Socialist views. It’s a suggestion that, if harnessed correctly, such technologies could one day liberate workers from a capitalist system where being a worker is inexorably tied to one’s identity and livelihood.
The newly elected congresswoman elaborated on her position by pointing out the benefits that automation could bring to a society.
“We should be excited about automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in,” The Verge quoted Ocasio-Cortez as saying. “Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.”
And Ocasio-Cortez cited Bill Gates’ suggestion (first floated in a presentation on Quartz) that a robot tax might be a way to make that vision real. “What [Gates is] really talking about is taxing corporations,” she reportedly said. “But it’s easier to say: ‘tax a robot.’ ”
Her response to the automation question has met with applause from some writers who have been notably prescient about the future.
“This [is] just such a shockingly intelligent thing for any politician to say,” novelist William Gibson said via tweet. It is, at the very least, a fresh perspective on a well-trod topic and the kind of outlook that could breathe some life into a vital conversation about our collective technological future.
Automation will have an unquestionably profound impact on jobs in the coming decades — we’ve already seen much of that already, for roles in places like warehouses. Every study on the subject acknowledges this, with jobs “destroyed” numbering in the tens of millions and above, while jobs “created” are often a fraction of that massive number.
The congresswoman’s comments, however, suggest that, independent of those numbers, perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong question all along.