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Smart Machines and Service Work

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Smart Machines and Service Work

Automation in an Age of Stagnation


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Productivity decreases as the economy stagnates.

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The media seems to herald dystopian and utopian visions of an automated future: In some scenarios, robots take all the human jobs; in others, automation ushers in a new era of wealth and productivity. These futurist predictions, writes Jason E. Smith, harbor multiple false assumptions. The economy actually suffers massive stagnation as innovation investment in the tech industry declines and most wealthy nations’ productivity growth rates hit near-historic lows. Smith asserts that the future Big Tech now shapes will likely feature exacerbated socioeconomic class struggles.


Automation is not triggering productivity growth or wealth creation. 

Tech industry proponents frequently assert that the automation of service work will transform society in utopian ways, ushering in a new age of wealth creation and an explosion of productivity. Other commentators caution against increased joblessness as dystopian machines replace human workers. Each of these predictions spring from the false assumption that today’s workplaces will experience a transformation similar to that of post-war American factories embracing advanced assembly-line technology.

Today’s technological developments exist in a completely different context. Labor productivity and GDP have dropped in most advanced global economies since the 1970s. The Bank of England declared the years between 2008 and 2018 to be “the worst decade since the late 18th century” in terms of productivity growth. Automation has demonstrated a negligible effect on workplace labor productivity, while economies show few signs of escaping ongoing stagnation.

Businesses lack incentives to invest in automating production as long as workers...

About the Author

Jason E. Smith contributes to Artforum, Commune, Brooklyn Rail, Critical Inquiry and Radical Philosophy.

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