An epihany about automation

I always used to be a strong proponent of automation. My line of thinking was: If a task can be automated, it must be somewhat unpleasant to do manually. And I still think that this argument fundamentally holds true. Nobody likes to paint 100 cars a day. Nobody likes to sort metal out of trash. (So, yes, I'm not talking developer automation here, a field in which I co-founded a company, we'll get to that later), etc.

I was also aware that the so-called automation dividend wasn't shared fairly between the owners of the means of production and the workers who now have to do less, or lost their jobs. Quite the opposite – The increasing wealth gap in first world countries is at least partially a function of that unfair share the already rich are putting in their pockets. The oh-so-successful german export industry for example, is mainly built on wages that have more or less been stagnant (in relation to increase in cost of living) for decades.

Sorry, I didn't know better

So, I was aware of all that and still, people who fought against very obvious automations always annoyed me. I had a discussion with a friend of my late father once, who basically, before he finally retired a couple of years back, lost his job at least twice. He was a typesetter until that was not a thing anymore (replaced, finally for good, when DTP became viable) then became a printer and his job once again was replaced as the dominant printing method changed. That being said, he was able to go with the times and work until his retirement. He was very much an opponent of automation for automation's sake and he had good arguments, too. But for me, it didn't make sense. Printers (the human kind) are often plagued with all sorts of illnesses connected to the toxic ingredients in paint (and thinners and everything) and the less humans have to get in contact with these things, the better. Right?

Two tweets from Marijn Haverbeke finally brought me the epiphany I needed:

Capitalists: I want to produce without labor, taking away the last bargaining chip of the capital-less Us, technologists: wow that's an interesting technical challenge, let me see how I can help you with that // tweet with additional context here

(To be fair, some of the same tech could help build fully automated space communism, but given current power relations we don't seem to be heading there.) // tweet here

Yeah, about that...

And then I just realized. The issue is not automation in itself. As Marijn so cleverly stated (the second tweet is a nod to the “fully automated luxury gay space communism” meme as I learned later), it can be used for realizing both a luxurious utopia and the dystopia that's already arrived but is not evenly distributed yet. The reason we're closer to the latter than the former is, for the most part, the power dynamics in politics. The political left is in shambles in many countries, including my own, the conservatives are driven by an increasingly fringe right and while everyone should know by now (at least after The Picketty™ happened) that neoliberal economics will lead to nothing good (to put it mildly), there's no political force right now to really question the current status quo.

All this leads to the conclusion, that I simply wasn't able to make before I read Marijn's tweet: Until these power dynamics are seriously challenged and we're seeing a much more fair distribution of the automation dividend, yes, there's lots of really good reason to oppose any form of automation that automates people out of their job.

We're part of the problem

Which brings me to two things I wanted to mention at the end:

a. I think, we as developers need to be increasingly aware that we are part of the (or at least a) problem. Also, we're, for the most part, part of “the rich”, at least by some definition. b. In our own industry, I think we as developers actually get an unfairly large chunk of the automation dividend in the first place, which makes me feel slightly less bad for building developer tooling that at least has the potential to automate people out of their jobs. (Given the current shortage for developers in most places, it's highly unlikely to have that effect, but I guess it can't hurt to be aware of the potential)


Let me close this with some meta stuff: Some of these political posts I made here recently may seem shoddily written – and they are. This is why they end up here on this new platform and not on my official blog. I used to make these kind of posts (and even more pointed, in much shorter form) on my main blog but that was before twitter. The thing is, if I would not publish them as quickly as I do and try to turn them into more polished gems, I would not publish them, as has happend with countless blog posts in the draft folder of my official blog.

Please tell me if you like these posts or if you notice anything horribly wrong in my reasoning. (Then again, somebody has to do the job of being wrong on the internet, right?)

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