The place of sociology in the Second Machine Age

We’ve recently seen an emerging discourse of the ‘second machine age’ considering the potential implications of advances in robots and computational technologies for employment. In a recent London Review of Books essay, John Lanchester offers an insightful overview of this issue:

What if that’s where we are, and – to use the shorthand phrase relished by economists and futurists – ‘robots are going to eat all the jobs’? A thorough, considered and disconcerting study of that possibility was undertaken by two Oxford economists, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, in a paper from 2013 called ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?’​4 They came up with some new mathematical and statistical techniques to calculate the likely impact of technological change on a sweeping range of 702 occupations, from podiatrists to tour guides, animal trainers to personal finance advisers and floor sanders. It ranks them, from 1 (you’ll be fine) to 702 (best start shining up the CV). In case you’re wondering, here are the top five occupations:

1. Recreational Therapists
2. First-Line Supervisors of Mechanics, Installers and Repairers
3. Emergency Management Directors
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
5. Audiologists

And here are the bottom five:

698. Insurance Underwriters
699. Mathematical Technicians
700. Sewers, Hand
701. Title Examiners, Abstractors and Searchers
702. Telemarketers

The theme is clear: human-to-human interaction and judgment is in demand, routine tasks are not. Some of the judgments seem odd: is it really the case that choreographers come in at 13, ahead of physicians and surgeons at 15, and a long way ahead of, say, anthropologists and archaeologists at 39, not to mention writers at 123 and editors at 140? Nonetheless, the paper’s methodology is sober and it makes clear just how far-ranging the impact of technological change is in white as well as blue-collar work.

Leaving aside any specific problems we can identify with the methodology here, it nonetheless raises important questions about the future of capitalism. What makes Lanchester’s article so commendable is his insistence that this tendency is not inexorable and he calls for what might be described as a repoliticisation of an issue that has been (self-interestedly?) rendered as narrowly technical. The hyper-capitalist dystopia of vast unemployment predicated upon robotics is something which has haunted popular culture, coming to be represented in everything from 2000AD to the more recent films of Neill Blomkamp:

What Lanchester suggests is that we need to move beyond dsytopic imagery in order to flesh out our heretofore entirely speculative understanding of what might happen if 47% of jobs are lost in two decades. We also need to recover the latent promise that robotics and computation might prove emancipatory, creating new possibilities for human flourishing in a world liberated from mental and physical drudgery:

A great deal of modern economic discourse takes it as axiomatic that economic forces are the only ones that matter. This idea has bled into politics too, at least in the Western world: economic forces have been awarded the status of inexorable truths. The idea that a wave of economic change is so disruptive to the social order that a society might rebel against it – that has, it seems, disappeared from the realms of the possible. But the disappearance of 47 per cent of jobs in two decades (as per Frey and Osborne) must be right on the edge of what a society can bear, not so much because of that 47 per cent, as because of the timeframe. Jobs do go away; it’s happened many times. For jobs to go away with that speed, however, is a new thing, and the search for historical precedents, for examples from which we can learn, won’t take us far. How would this speed of job disappearance, combined with extensive deflation, play out? The truth is nobody knows. In the absence of any template or precedent, the idea that the economic process will just roll ahead like a juggernaut, unopposed by any social or political counter-forces, is a stretch. The robots will only eat all the jobs if we decide to let them.

It’s also worth noting what isn’t being said about this robotified future. The scenario we’re given – the one being made to feel inevitable – is of a hyper-capitalist dystopia. There’s capital, doing better than ever; the robots, doing all the work; and the great mass of humanity, doing not much, but having fun playing with its gadgets. (Though if there’s no work, there are going to be questions about who can afford to buy the gadgets.) There is a possible alternative, however, in which ownership and control of robots is disconnected from capital in its current form. The robots liberate most of humanity from work, and everybody benefits from the proceeds: we don’t have to work in factories or go down mines or clean toilets or drive long-distance lorries, but we can choreograph and weave and garden and tell stories and invent things and set about creating a new universe of wants. This would be the world of unlimited wants described by economics, but with a distinction between the wants satisfied by humans and the work done by our machines. It seems to me that the only way that world would work is with alternative forms of ownership. The reason, the only reason, for thinking this better world is possible is that the dystopian future of capitalism-plus-robots may prove just too grim to be politically viable. This alternative future would be the kind of world dreamed of by William Morris, full of humans engaged in meaningful and sanely remunerated labour. Except with added robots. It says a lot about the current moment that as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.

This all raises the question of the place of sociology in a second machine age. It seems to me that we are strongly positioned to make a unique contribution to our understanding of possible futures (e.g. what might happen if 47% of jobs are lost in two decades) as well as, alongside other social sciences, fleshing out our knowledge about the conjunction of factors which might lead to each such possible future. This will involve going beyond the traditional repertories of scholarship and communication. It might benefit from the embrace of design fiction:

Design fiction is a term first coined by Julian Bleecker and popularized by SF author Bruce Sterling, who describes it as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” and that it “attacks the status quo and suggests clear ways in which life might become different.”

Design fiction isn’t science fiction, it’s not just a telling of stories in the future or trying to make predictions of the future, instead it is a way of trying to envision and interrogate possible futures based on research data, current trends, and/or technologies. Originally, primarily used by product designers as a cheap alternative to prototyping new products, it has found traction as a critical tool allowing us to see through the fog of hype and digital evangelism.

There’s an example of the form such a future-orientated sociology might take in a recent event with Deborah Lupton and John Urry at the Hawke Research Institute in Australia. In Catastrophic Futures they addressed the question of what kind of future we can expect by 2050, as well as some of the methodological and political questions posed for sociology by such an investigation. There’s a podcast available here and it’s really worth a listen. It also suggests a need for sociological thinkers to help ‘join the dots’: linking together what we know across a range of fields into broader synthetic accounts that accurately convey conceptually opaque aspects of our present situation and highlight potential trajectories. John Urry’s recent book Offshoring is a good example of what this might look like:

It seems obvious to me that sociology could make an important contribution to the repoliticisation that John Lanchester calls for but it’s not obvious to me that it will. Not least of all because the audit driven logic of the university mitigates against forms of sociological inquiry which by their nature would both transcend specialisation and include a speculative component that resists codification in ‘internationally excellent’ journal articles.

But if the worst does happen, if we see a catastrophic slide into hyper-capitalist dystopia driven by these technological advances, what place would there be for sociology then? It occurs to me that much of sociology could probably thrive quite well in a world where, as Lanchester puts it, “human-to-human interaction and judgment is in demand”: the obvious risk is that it would be an instrumentalised sociology, robbed of any critical impulse, with sociologists reduced to technicians of human capital attendant upon the social relation of those still in employment and directed towards the problems caused by those condemned to perpetual unemployment. There might be a place for corporate ethnography but not for critique, for bounded theorising but not for expansive theory. Contrary to John Urry and Deborah Lupton in the aforementioned podcast, I think we should begin to talk about dsytopias while we still can.

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