Recasting the policy narrative of labor-substituting technological change

–Developments under the rubric of AI (artificial intelligence), including machine learning, Big Data, and algorithmic management/decisionmaking, are often deployed to reinforce a longstanding narrative: Important forms of technological change are labor-substituting by displacing workers and their livelihoods. Given the issue has always been complex, evidence continues to be provided both in favor of or against the narrative. In fact, new articles on “the impact of automation” repeatedly rehearse the same arguments for and against.

What is less recognized, I believe, is that specifics are often erased or palimpsested over by continuing to maintain versions of the generalized narrative. This matters when the specifics of earlier debates—particularly, options and insights offered but not followed up–can, if resurfaced, question and recast in useful ways the current debate.

–Here’s one illustration. Schlögl, Weiss and Prainsack (2021) undertook a review of relevant literature from 2013 – 2018 on the policy topic, “Future of Work,” concluding in part:

Our findings show the dominance of a specific narrative within the grey policy literature on [Future of Work]. It starts with the assumption of unprecedented, rapid technological advance that, embedded in demographic and ecological transformations as well as globalisation, creates opportunities and risks. The main opportunities are gains in productivity, new jobs and higher living standards. The risks are new inequalities, pressures on social security systems, and the costs of transition and disruption for various groups. The answer to these challenges lies in the re- or upskilling of the workforce and adjustments to social and labour market policies [according to the document review].

Assume this storyline is correct as far as it goes.

The problem is that narrative discrepancy, “unprecedented,” in the preceding quote. This technological change is not unprecedented. The unprecedented is happening all the time when it comes to this narrative. The authors themselves point out that “U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson even set up, in 1964, a ‘National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress’. Transformations and crises of work as a result of technological progress are a recurring theme throughout modernity.”

Therein, I submit, lies one clue to rethinking the policy narrative of unprecedented change and recurring impacts on labor.

–If you actually go to the referenced final report of that National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress, Technology and the American Economy, you’ll find the labor-substituting narrative in terms that still resonate even when in outdated terms, e.g., “technological change would in the near future not only cause increasing unemployment, but that eventually it would eliminate all but a few jobs, with the major portion of what we now call work being performed automatically by machine.” (If in doubt about the continuing salience of the latter, search the web for today’s “fully automated luxury communism”.)

It’s not however the report’s resonances, but specifics that are striking. On the downside, the report is full of terms and references to no longer existing programs. On the upside—and this is what I want to emphasize—it offers up specific proposals that read more like “lost modernities,” i.e., pathways to addressing the narrative in ways that we no longer think about today:

We recommend that each Federal Reserve bank provide the leadership for economic development activities in its region.  The development program in each Federal Reserve District should include: (1) A regular program of economic analysis; (2) an advisory council for economic growth composed of representatives from each of the major interested groups within the district; (3) a capital bank to provide venture capital and long-term financing for new and growing companies; (4) regional technical institutes to serve as centers for disseminating scientific and technical knowledge relevant to the region’s development; and  (5) a Federal executive in each district to provide regional coordination of the various Federal programs related to economic development.

Nothing came of this recommendation as far as I can determine (a few commission members, from the then right and left, objected to it). But just think about the “what if’s”!

What if the recommendation had been adopted and implemented then? What if it were enacted today, in light of the Fed’s now longstanding mandate for promoting price stability and maximum employment? (The US Fed was legislated to promote maximum employment in 1977.) Even with inevitable caveats about politics, dollars and jerks, the question still compels: What if, indeed!

–The point is that one consequence of keeping the dominant policy narrative in general terms is to willfully avoid specifics where counternarratives, if they exist, are to be found. The starting assumption must be: For any complex policy and management issue, counterexamples are to be expected. The duty of care is to read closely and find them.

Principal sources

Schlögl, L., E. Weiss, and B. Prainsack (2021). “Constructing the ‘Future of Work’: An analysis of the policy discourse:. New Technology, Work and Employment: 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/ntwe.12202

U.S. National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress (1966). Technology and the American Economy, Vol 1. Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. (Accessed online on July 17 2021 at: https://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/images/ourwork/blockchain/Equitable_Futures_Lab/National_Commission_on_Technology__Automation_and_Economic_Progress_1965.pdf)

Blog entries under the topic, “Policy palimpsest,” including: “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states” and “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II”

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