Automation as received wisdom

For your consideration – a Twitter poll in a sponsored tweet from one of the UK’s largest management consultancies.

Why might a management consultancy do this? – To gain superficially interesting yet fatuous data to make quick claims about? Perhaps for the purposes of advertising? Maybe… Perhaps to try to suggest, in a somewhat calculating way, that the company asks the “important” questions about the future and therefore imply they have some answers? Or maybe simply to boost the now-prevailing narrative that automation is widespread, growing and will take your job. Although to be fair to Accenture, that’s not what they ask.

In any case, this is not neutral – though, I recognise it’s a rather minor and perhaps inconsequential example. Nevertheless, it highlights the growth in pushing a narrative of automation from management consultancies, like Accenture, Deloitte and PWC, who are all writing lots of reports suggesting that companies need to be ready for automation.

A cynical analysis would suggest that it’s within the interests of such companies to jump on the narrative – it’s been in the press quite a bit in recent years, then ramp it up, and offer to sell the ‘solutions’.

What I find particularly interesting is that, while newspaper articles parrot the reports from these consultancies, there appears to be (in my digging around) scant serious evidence for this trend. A lot of it is based on economic modelling (of both past and future economic contexts) and some of the reports when they do list methods seem to use adapted versions of models that once said something else.

A case in point is the recent PWC report about automation that claimed up to 30% of UK jobs could be automated by the early 2030s, widely reported in the press (e.g. BBC, Graun, Telegraph), which was based upon a modified (2016) OECD model – the original model suggested that only 9% of jobs in OECD countries were at relatively high risk (greater than 70% risk in their calculation) of automation with the UK rated at just over 10% of jobs.

I’m working my way through this sort of stuff to get at how these sorts of narratives are generated, become received wisdom and feed into a wider form of social imagination about the kinds of socio-economic and technological future we expect. I’m hoping to pull together a book on this theme with the tentative title “The Automative Imagination”.

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