One of the big banks in South Africa recently announced that it was going to close most of its brick-and-mortar branches and move the majority of its operations to the cloud. The immediate result will be lots of job losses, but cheaper products for the consumers. The consumers will stand to benefit, and the bank will remain competitive. A win-win for everyone except the retrenched workers. That got me thinking: when it comes to disruption and disruptive technologies, could it be that we have gone a little too far?
Theories and practice are two different things. Good theories are founded on solid logical principles. If you are thinking clearly, and your starting points are sound, then your theories will also be correct. But when it comes to the actual doing of things in the real world, where it is all about prudence and right judgement, then the main guiding principle is that of the golden mean. Put simply, the good, beneficial action is normally in the middle ground between two extremes.
The theory of the division of labour was popularized by Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations.” Note the use of the word “theory.” The theory states that if workers are to produce more, and therefore have a surplus for sale or export that will result in more wealth, tasks need to be split into the smallest possible units. The workers then need to focus on those specific tasks. As a result, they will work faster, produce more, and be able to discover automated machine-driven ways to get those tasks done.
The theory has been translated into practice quite effectively over the last three centuries since Adam Smith popularised it in his seminal book. We have seen the rise of the machines. Things have been automated. Processes have been streamlined. And efficiencies have gone up as people started using machines more and more across the different industrial revolutions.
But every revolution has its pros and cons. Some cons that immediately comes to mind about the first Industrial Revolution, was the increase in the carbon footprint and the formation of “poor houses” in Victorian England. Another downside that quickly followed was the watering down of education. As more and more people were sent to school to learn to read and write so as to enable them to work, the quality of education offered drop. Classical subjects such as philosophy and rhetoric — subjects which elevate a person’s mind — were scrapped simply because they seem to play no role on the factory floor.
There might be another con that we are not aware of.
Study after study shows that the gap between the rich and poor is growing. Is it possible that the rise of the machines could have something to do with the enrichment of capital and the impoverishment of labour? Is it even remotely possible that we have pursued wealth so single-mindedly, that we have taken automation and the division of labour to such an extreme that we have departed from the beneficial middle ground? That would be tragically ironic. So tragic that it is almost funny. Because we have so badly wanted to be rich, we have become poorer. We are like the boy in the fable who got his hand stuck in the jar because he was unwilling to let go of the cookies. The pursuit of wealth could have made us less wealthy. And the greatest irony of it all is that it has been driven by the people Adam Smith termed “the capitalists”. In other words, the business owners, not the workers. Smith’s theories of free trade and the division of labour were precisely meant to enrich the entire populace, at no one's expense, and to cut down the exploitative practices of the “the capitalists.” But it seems that “capital always finds a way,” doesn’t it?
Human labour has an inherent dignity that machine labour simply does not have. The pair of hands and the brain that design, dispense or deliver tend to reflect an ever-changing soul — a human soul — that is absent in machines. The University of Pretoria Library recently introduced a robotic librarian named “Libby.” Think of it as Siri on wheels, with the ability to give you directions and other useful bits of information about the library. I doubt I will ever be able to look Libby in the eye and see if she’s had a bad day, and give her a smile of encouragement, or vice versa. I doubt that Libby will be able to bump into me at the shopping mall one day and strike up a conversation about an area of interest that has nothing to do with the library. I doubt I will be able to form a relationship with Libby, beyond the purely transactional. This is part of the dignity of human labour. It creates relationships that go beyond the product. Imagine walking into your favourite airline and finding that all the stewardesses have been replaced by robots? No robotic smile will ever match the genuine human smile that a good flight attendant, or bank teller, or waitress is able to give you.
By taking disruption to an extreme, we could be losing two things: human labour marked by its unique dignity, and good old fashioned employment. With unemployment in South Africa reaching staggering levels, it is worth considering Aristotle’s consideration, that unemployment is the greatest evil a human being is capable of experiencing. It robs the person of the opportunity to develop the virtues needed for a happy life. This, in Aristotle’s opinion, is the main value of work.
We may have gotten to the stage where we have lost our own dignity as human labourers, in the pursuit of automation, productivity, and wealth. And this has resulted in an impoverishment of the common worker and the manual labourer. We have forgotten the great dignity that is inherent in the work that is done with both hands and minds combined, which no machine can ever possess.
This is not an attack on capitalists and industrialists. This is merely an appeal to consider the possibility that we may have veered to the extreme of the division of labour and the resultant disruptive technologies. Perhaps it is worth considering slowing down, holding back, and not investing or pursuing some disruptions because they will undermine human labour. We and our leaders always strive to look ahead, to have foresight. But to make prudent decisions, we also need to look around and have some circumspection.