The robot takeover has already begun. Look around: more and more of our lives are being run by increasingly helpful machines. Our schools use complex registration systems, our computers have access to millions of data points, and our printers can turn the artificial to material. All of this technology is fulfilling a role that, 20 years ago, would have required employing hundreds of people–and its doing it better than those hundreds could have dreamt of. This blog itself is a wonderful example. Not long ago, it would have taken dozens more people working together–and being compensated for their time–to create such a project. Today, a single website fills that void. The effects of automation, artificial intelligence, and otherwise accelerating technology are here before us, and not only are they not going anywhere, but the sweeping changes they will soon bring to our society are almost unfathomable to the standard human. It goes far further than not having to steer your car, or schedule your own appointments. It could very well unleash a profoundly disrupting force on our democracy, and may even destroy it. That danger is illustrated well when considering an unlikely character in American democracy: the trucker.
Being a retail worker is the most common job in America, with over four million claiming the title. Following behind that are cashiers, office clerks, janitors, food service workers, and finally, truckers, who total 3.5 million. Every one of these industries is extremely vulnerable to automation. (See here for: retail, food services, janitors, and truckers.) The question is not if, but when these tens of millions of workers will be out of a job, or at least out of 75% of one. The effects of this transition cannot be overstated. But to focus on one microcosm of the larger picture: what happens when millions of truck drivers start losing their jobs?
If your answer is that they can be retrained and simply become coders or software engineers, you may want to look into government retraining statistics. The success rates are abysmally low. The more likely answer to what happens to the truck drivers, the average of which is 55 years old, is that they’ll get seriously pissed off. Recently, truckers in Indiana participated in a ‘slow roll’ — dozens of truckers cruising the highway at painfully slow speeds — to protest federal laws limiting their ability to drive long hours. If this is their reaction to a single burdensome regulation, imagine their reaction when robots replace them, and they are kicked to the curb. It only takes a handful of truckers going to a major city and parking their trucks across the highway to start causing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage to the economy. It should also be remembered that a huge portion of the trucker population are armed, usually with several firearms. It takes only a small amount of extrapolation to start to grapple with the effects it would have on our democracy.
Many theorists, economists, and frankly, harbingers of this robot revolution, believe that past industrial revolutions resulted in job loss, but ultimately led to new jobs being created, and all was well. This fails to consider that, actually, during the Industrial Revolution there were countless violent rebellions as entire industries trimmed down considerably. Politicians and industry leaders were driven from power, and in some cases killed. And this was without the benefit of easy, nationwide communication, massive trucks at their disposal, or, most importantly, being armed with AR-15s.
Herbert Kitschelt, who authored the paper ‘Political Opportunity Structures and Political Protest: Anti-Nuclear Movements in Four Democracies’ would likely agree that the displacement of so many workers, and especially truckers, present the perfect initial conditions for serious, sustained protest. Although the paper focuses on anti-nuclear power movements, he broadly addresses three social preconditions for protest: 1. Whether the movement can draw “coercive, normative, remunerative and informational resources” from its setting, 2. Whether the movement has access to the public sphere and can influence public decision making, and 3. Whether a movement can morph over time with other like-minded movements.
The problem of displaced truckers meets all three criterion. In the first case, truckers will have abundant access to statistics, communities, and individuals that have been crippled by the shift. This information will be disseminated online and across city squares, and methods such as blocking highways and slashing tires will be discussed, satisfying point number two. And third, the plight of truckers will be recognized by millions of similarly disenfranchised food, retail, and janitorial workers. What effect will thousands of angry protestors, some of whom are violent, have on the stability of our democracy? Do we want to find out?
The danger should be evident, but the solution is unclear. For those who don’t dismiss the problem as a simple rearrangement of statistics, and who truly recognize the gravity of millions of unemployed, angry, and armed people, the search for that solution could not be more urgent. The most popular proposition is the implementation of a Universal Basic Income, or UBI, where citizens are guaranteed a certain amount of monthly income from the government. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg have been proponents. But I would argue that this has seriously dangerous pitfalls. Not even to mention the financial burden it would have on our deeply indebted country, it would create an underclass of citizens who feel useless and dejected. The very proposal of UBI would almost certainly lead to the kind of paranoid thinking our country has a long history with, and which Hofstrader discussed in his book “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It wouldn’t take long for theories to emerge, rife with government conspiracy, robot overlords, dystopian futures, and, of course, communism. Not long after, certain politicians would champion these theories to drum up opposition to political opponents. The image of creating a massive government crucial for citizens existence, with wealthy elites cordoned off in gated communities, deploying robots with no regard for human life, speaks for itself. The very proposition of UBI may be dangerous to our democracy. The fact that, still, it may be our best bet illustrates the dangerous path ahead of us.
The solution is not obvious, but ever reaching one means recognizing the threat to our democracy, and then communicating it widely. The example of the Robot Truckers is a good place to start. —-
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA
Really interesting post! I like how you have chosen to highlight the issue of technological acceleration which is generally recognised as one of the biggest challenges facing many well established western democracies in the years to come, but is rarely thought about as a direct threat towards democracy itself. Also, it made me think about Arlie Hochschild’s “deep story” and the election of Trump. Arguably, technological advancement has already led to the disappearance of many jobs in the United States, and perhaps we have already seen something like you describe; a politician eating off of the anger and resentment that arises when many people loses their jobs at once.