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Technology Could Inadvertently Disrupt Our Politics

Our political systems are deeply fractured, and tech innovations threaten to shatter them completely

Casey Moore
Casey Moore

In October, a self-driving truck traveled 120 miles to transport 2,000 cases of Budweiser from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Colorado Springs. The delivery was executed by Otto, an autonomous-vehicle startup launched less than a year ago and acquired by Uber in August. For now, Otto’s technology is implemented only on highways, where driving patterns are highly predictable, and not on more chaotic city streets. A human driver was on board the vehicle, in case anything went wrong, but the self-driving software managed the trip without a hitch. “We view self-driving trucks as the future, and we want to be a part of that,” James Sembrot, senior director of logistics strategy for Anheuser-Busch, told The New York Times.

Like many tech innovations, the self-driving truck will be great for corporations, which stand to save millions in expenses by firing truck drivers (or paying them less if they’re manning a truck on autopilot, and thus doing less work). It could be good for consumers, too, if savings in shipping costs lead to lower prices for goods. But it will almost certainly be bad for one of the few 20th-century middle-class occupations that hasn’t yet been disrupted into near-obsolescence. And that disruption could have far-reaching economic and political implications, whether you ever hop into a big rig or not.

Skeptics have been proclaiming variants of “The robots will take all our jobs!” for centuries. They’ve always been proven wrong — historically, innovations that seem to threaten one occupation tend to create new ones, or even expand the threatened job in unexpected ways. The invention of the ATM would seem to render bank tellers useless — in fact, we have more of them than ever as banks have opened more brick-and-mortar branches.

But the specific breed of artificial-intelligence-powered products dreamed up by Silicon Valley today poses a bigger threat to traditional employment than past innovations, academics and technology researchers argue. Pew Research Center found that about half of the 1,896 experts it surveyed believed that AI and automation will displace more jobs than they create by 2025. And these experts were polled in 2014, when the idea of a robo-truck delivering Bud Heavy still seemed a long ways off. “In some instances, the technology is progressing even faster than the folks we spoke with a couple of years ago anticipated,” says Aaron Smith, a Pew researcher who helped conduct the study.

What’s happening with shipping trucks, though, is simply an example of what’s going on in a variety of markets. Researchers point to two reasons tech advancement and labor growth may not be aligned in the future. Unlike some past innovations, AI has the potential to knock out many occupations at once. Algorithms aren’t learning only how drive like a trucker — they’re also learning how to plan your day like a secretary, offer you insurance like an agent, and review contracts like a lawyer. “Technology is going to displace different people, and that’s where the shock is going to come from,” says Brian Butler, the senior associate dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. “We’ll expect more out of individuals. There probably, in most organizations, will be fewer people.”

The other reason has to do with one of our key advantages over machines: the simple ability to say no. Henry Ford’s assembly line was one of the great innovations of its day, but like some of today’s most successful entrepreneurs, he paid his workers a pittance for tiring, monotonous labor. The job sucked — and because it sucked, turnover rates were high, adding the expense of constantly hiring and retraining new workers. Ford eventually bumped workers’ pay to $5 per day to keep them on the line. “The efficiencies that were driving down the price of the cars enabled a chunk of the money that was saved to be given to the workers, which created a virtuous circle of expanding the pool of people who could buy cars,” says Tom Haigh, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee who studies the history of computing.

Is there a “virtuous circle” for self-driving trucks? It’s possible, but it won’t hinge on the trucks themselves refusing to do the work (we hope). Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that should robo-trucks take over the job, former truckers could work on repairs, route planning, or other logistical issues if they’re displaced from driving. “It could very well be there’s an actual increase in employment because of this,” he says. “Logistics costs will be lower, prices are lower, output is increased. That helps the economy.”

“It could very well be” is not a guarantee, though, and there is still a possibility truck drivers — and others — will be out of jobs. It’s an outcome that could lead to greater political instability. Twitter user @griph shared a graphic shortly after the presidential election comparing the electoral map to an NPR map of the most common job in each state. Truck drivers remain common across the country, totaling 1.7 million according to the Los Angeles Times. What happens in a decade if all these people, whose current occupation doesn’t require a college degree, are suddenly out of work?

Donald Trump, a political outsider, is now our president-elect in part because he leveraged anxiety about the future, both racial and economic, to woo voters with promises of drastic change. His candidacy thrived on confusion over a changing world, a confusion that technology can help exacerbate. “I think a lot of what’s going on is that people are part of large systems that they don’t understand, they’re not sure if they believe it will work out for them,” says Butler. “Technology complicates that because technology is another thing that people kind of only sort of understand. The challenge you face is making sense of the world, and then someone throws in self-driving cars, and you’re like, ‘Oh … what to do with this?’”

The manufacturing jobs Trump has promised to restore to the U.S. economy probably aren’t coming back, and tech innovations could displace even more people on top of that. Our country already has a large number of long-term unemployed and people who have given up looking for jobs lurking beneath our healthy employment rate. If the number of jobless Americans swells under President Trump, who will they turn to next, and what base emotions will that candidate choose to stir up? “Although people were talking a lot about this being a change election — I think that’s going to be the basis for a lot of people thinking about electoral politics over the next three decades,” says Alex Halavais, director of the master’s in social technologies program at Arizona State University. “As our economy is shifting … very quickly, they’re going to need government to shift quickly as well.”

There are some solutions to this potential crisis being bandied about. Retraining workers to fix or work alongside robots is a common refrain. And universal basic income, a plan to issue a monthly living stipend to all citizens, is gaining traction in Silicon Valley (the ongoing debate over the minimum wage may just be a preview of tough conversations to come about how to ensure people can earn a living).

But before we hand over our jobs and our political fortunes to the robots, it’s worth sincerely asking a question about each potential innovation: Is this the future we actually want? “Tech” has become an overbroad term that a wide variety of companies use as a shroud of benevolence. And even when their stated mission sounds positive — Facebook’s mission is to “connect the whole world” — the final result isn’t always so rosy.

“We act like tech is this kind of autonomous force beyond human control that has its own will and its own destiny,” says Haigh. “The problem is that this kind of discourse about technology and progress and efficiency has come to make … traditional political concerns with things like unions and workers’ rights and tax policy and whether we should encourage a system in which more and more of the benefits of capitalism are going to a smaller number of people have come to seem boring or old-fashioned or irrelevant when really they’re not.”

Change is coming, in the White House and on the highways. But the arc that change will take is not inevitable. “In lots of cases, technological change is embedding particular kinds of political or moral choices,” says Haigh. “Most of the people who kind of work on tech would honestly believe what they’re doing is making the world a better place — and maybe it is. But they’re assuming things that you shouldn’t assume.”