The Second Machine Age

Our National Secretary, Patrick Ahern, reflects on what history can tell us about the possible future impact of mass automation on society.
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In their book ‘The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a time of Brilliant Technologies’[1] Andrew McAffee and Erik Brynjolfsson do a fantastic job in looking at the possible impacts that increased automation could bring. Some of the possibilities that come with mass automation are fascinating and some are absolutely terrifying. They posit that automation will usher in a second machine age with an impact on a similar same scale as the first machine age – i.e. the industrial revolution from 1760-1840. However due to the aggregation effect of advances in many other areas in the meantime, this second machine age could happen at a much faster pace than the first machine age.

The possible social impact of this second machine age can be looked at by asking what might happen when a large proportion of the current workforce are replaced by machines. What could the wider societal impact of this be? What could the implications be for unemployment levels? What could the impact be on our taxation system, public finances, and social welfare system for instance?

For some aspects we can read something into what the societal impact could be by looking at the impact of the first machine age. However for other aspects, such as the structure of both modern social welfare systems, as well as taxation and public finances, many of these structures (or at least their modern equivalents) were introduced after the last machine age with some being introduced as a result of the effects of this first machine age. For example it was predominantly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that an organized system of state welfare provision was introduced in many countries, arguably in an attempt to redistribute the resultant increased wealth brought about by the increase in production capabilities the industrial revolution ushered in.

The Industrial Revolution resulted in the concentration of an enormous amount of wealth in the hands of a small section of the population i.e. the factory owners. At the same time the vast majority of people working in these factories suffered through long working hours in extremely poor working conditions. Over the long term this was not sustainable and so we saw a realignment of politics across many European countries as well as the rise of labour movements demanding better working conditions and a larger share of the fruits of this increased production to be given to workers.

To put it simply, the increased production in the Industrial Revolution resulted for the most part in a major increase in wealth, with this wealth being concentrated in the hands of a minority of the population. Over time the rest of the population took issue with the inequality of the system they now inhabited and through usually peaceful means sought to balance out this massive inequality.

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With recent advances in technology we can see that this cycle may be starting all over again, taking the example of Oxfam’s inequality reports from the last few years. Their report from January of this year found that eighty two percent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth.[2]

[1] .      McAfee, A; Brynjolfsson, E (2014). The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

[2]     Oxfam. (2018). Richest 1 percent bagged 82 percent of wealth created last year – poorest half of humanity got nothing. Available https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2018-01-22/richest-1-percent-bagged-82-percent-wealth-created-last-year

(The views expressed in Left Tribune articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Labour Youth).

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