“Automation is not our enemy. Our enemies are ignorance, indifference, and inertia. If we understand it, if we plan for it, if we apply it well, automation will not be a job destroyer or a family displaced. Instead, it can remove dullness from the work of man and provide him with more than man has ever had before.”
-Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964, remarking upon the creation of The National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress.
Forty-seven years of technological progress later, automation is a much more pressing issue, and yet I haven’t overhead much about it in the way of public political discussion.
Our current president has mentioned automation on only one occasion I’m aware of. In June of this year he said to NBC news:
“There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate. So all these things have created changes.”
This statement seems to have raised the ire of right-wing commentators, who apparently find the notion of “evil ATMS” threatening jobs completely laughable. Obama has since switched to the somewhat contradictory stance (to the additional delight of conservatives) that automation is actually the key to creating jobs. The Associated Press reports:
“President Barack Obama says technological innovations such as robots can help pump jobs into the economy and spur growth in clean energy and advanced manufacturing.”
As someone who doesn’t think robots are evil, but also thinks it’s crazy to ignore their disruptive impact on jobs, I actually quite like Lyndon B. Johnson’s framing: “Automation is not our enemy” is a great way to restart a necessary political conversation. It’s important that we not think of technology as the enemy. And yet we need to start confronting ways that technology is threatening the status quo, and had better start making a conscious effort to adapt.