The history of the future of automation – lessons from ed tech

I’ve been re-reading the excellent essay by Audrey Watters: Driverless Ed-Tech: The history of the future of automation in educationI really recommend reading it!

Following on from the vague points I made in my last post about an automative imaginary – one way of getting at this is a sort of classic (political economy) critique, which Watters very adroitly takes in relation to ed-tech and MOOCs (etc), and which she write really clearly – so, here is snippet:

“Put me out of a job.” “Put you out of a job.” “Put us all out of work.” We hear that a lot, with varying levels of glee and callousness and concern. “Robots are coming for your job.”

We hear it all the time. To be fair, of course, we have heard it, with varying frequency and urgency, for about 100 years now. “Robots are coming for your job.” And this time – this time – it’s for real.

I want to suggest – and not just because there are flaws with Uber’s autonomous vehicles (and there was just a crash of a test vehicle in Arizona last Friday) – that this is not entirely a technological proclamation. Robots don’t do anything they’re not programmed to do. They don’t have autonomy or agency or aspirations. Robots don’t just roll into the human resources department on their own accord, ready to outperform others. Robots don’t apply for jobs. Robots don’t “come for jobs.” Rather, business owners opt to automate rather than employ people. In other words, this refrain that “robots are coming for your job” is not so much a reflection of some tremendous breakthrough (or potential breakthrough) in automation, let alone artificial intelligence. Rather, it’s a proclamation about profits and politics. It’s a proclamation about labor and capital.

More specific to education, Watters highlights the logic offer by Udacity, one of the big MOOC start-ups:

“We want to be the Uber of education,” Thrun told The Financial Times, which added that, “Mr Thrun knows what he doesn’t want for his company: professors in tenure, which he claims limits the ability to react to market demands.”

In other words, “disrupt” job protections through a cheap, precarious labor force doing piecemeal work until the algorithms are sophisticated enough to perform those tasks. Universities have already taken plenty of steps towards this end, without the help of algorithms or for-profit software providers. But universities are still bound by accreditation (and by tradition). “Anyone can teach” is not a stance on labor and credentialing that many universities are ready to take.

[read all of Watters’ argument here.]

One of the areas in which what I’ve called the automative imaginary/imagination overlaps with wider stories about digital tech disruption and the widespread creed of that disruption being normatively good, if not admirable, is where automation overlaps with the ‘gig economy’. As we can see, via Thrun, one of the models in play here is not to ‘destroy’ jobs but rather to decouple them from some of the elements that make them valuable and either reallocate or automate those and then offer the remaining tasks as precarious work – which you have to sign up for through a proprietary system as a contractor, rather than an employee.

The ways we are invited to see ‘automation’ by some are over-coded with strong narratives of ‘disruption’ and the breaking down of established employment rights into a two their system in which the ‘taskers’ (as Guy Standing calls them) take the precarious work for relatively meagre earnings and the tech company owners and a few they bring along with them hoover up the profits.

An alternative to such narratives might be ‘accelerationism‘ but I remain skeptical at present (but I’ve not read enough to form an opinion really). It seems to me, we (geographers, social scientists, citizens?! … well, me anyway!) really do need to talk and think about work.

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