The Bogey of Automation

In discussing automation, it may be useful to keep in mind an old Jewish saying: For example is no proof. Often the argument about automation is carried on by citing spectacular examples—such as new control equipment, sensing devices and the like—rather than focusing where it should be focussed, on the aggregate effects of automation on the economy as a whole. In other words, even though many jobs have been eliminated in particular industries (e. g., printing or coal mining) the question remains whether the present phase of automation really poses new and wholly unprecedented problems for the economy.

In the past year there has arisen a new “school,” the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution, which has argued three propositions: 1) That automation—or, to use Donald Michael’s phrase, Cybernation—represents a radical break from previous kinds of mechanization in its economic effects; 2) That the pace of technological change in recent years has been accelerating; and 3) That the immediate, visible consequences of the first two propositions are demonstrated by the continuing high level of unemployment which, this year for the first time since 1957, has dipped below the 5 per cent mark.

In this essay, I shall argue that the first proposition is false; that the second proposition is unprovable and, if one narrows the idea of technological change to the specific measure of an increase in the rate of productivity, probably false as well; and that unemployment is and remains a serious problem, but not because of automation.

The Ad Hoc Committee has made its claims in sweeping terms:

A new era of production has begun…Cybernation is already reorganizing to meet its own needs…As machines take over production from men, they absorb an increasing proportion of resources, while the men who are displaced become dependent on minimal and unrelated government measures—unemployment insurance, social security, welfare payments.

Donald Michael, in his book The Next Generation, predicts that “in the next ten to twenty years cybernation will disrupt the whole labor market, from executives to menials.” The basis for these conclusions is the idea of a revolution “brought about by the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine.” In short, what is “new” is not simply additional mechanization but the threat that computers will take over much of the work of production throughout the economy.

The difficulty with this reasoning is that it is based on speculation, not fact. As Charles Silberman pointed out in the January 1965 Fortune, “ten years after computers started coming into use, no fully automated process exists for any major industry in the U.S. Nor is there any prospect for the immediate future” (his italics). Furthermore, when the Department of Labor recently made a study of the probable effects of automation during the coming decade, it found that there was no likelihood of “computerization” in sixteen of the country’s thirty-six largest industries. Of the remaining twenty, six would be able to use computers …

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Letters

Automation November 25, 1965

Automation November 25, 1965