Tim Gossling says that automation means the old capitalist model is no longer viable; Albert Beale writes that our drive for ‘efficiency’ is creating an increasingly inhumane world; plus letters from Keith Flett, John Wilson and Christine Weaser
The Institute for Public Policy Research seems to think it is expounding some new ideas on the dangers of future technology (Poorest to fare worst in age of automation, 28 December), but in fact these ideas are half a century old. Norbert Wiener pointed them out in his book on Cybernetics, written in 1947 and published in 1948. His argument, in paraphrase, was that the first industrial revolution – the coming of steam power in the late 18th century – represented the devaluation of muscle, so that humans only found purpose as controllers of machines, in factories. The second industrial revolution, in the last century through automation and the digital economy, represents the devaluation of the human brain. If you devalue a man’s (or woman’s) muscles and also his brain, what has he got to sell in terms of his labour?
The consequence is, as the IPPR points out, a hollowing out of the world of work. We shall still need design engineers, computer programmers and brain surgeons; we shall probably still need people to clean offices, streets and toilets. It is the middle-ranking jobs – the much derided “back-office jobs” – that are going. Does the Guardian still have a typing pool, I wonder?