I love the idea of Uber, since I’m not a traditional taxi driver working within the old paradigm, but it upsets me that the ultimate goal of this company is to join the rush to replace human drivers with robots. As a Sci-Fi guy, I ought to be thrilled as pie over the prospect of autonomous robot cars taking us where we want to go–visions of retro-futuristic transparent capsules whisking us through tubes from one place to another come to mind–but I’m weary of the profit-driven philosophy of eliminating good, honest workers from the dynamic.
I jest, but not really. It would be great, if the goal was to lift us all into some sort of morally elevated “post-economics” economy where folks are freed from the necessity of earning money and able to pursue livelihoods as passionate pursuits rather than life or death struggles for shelter and sustenance, but we all know that robot Yelp cars are not being made so poets can be poets, singers can sing songs, and scientists can toil, free from funding concerns, to right the wrongs of a few centuries of egregious consumption.
Uber robot cars are being made so taxi drivers can lose their jobs, and their former salaries can land in the oversized pockets of wealthy investors. There is no thought or concern for the welfare of the displaced, and that’s a bad thing. Uber cars are also not going to do a damned thing about the real transportation problem, which is that too many of us have too many cars, a problem we can only fix with improved mass transit or, preferably, birth control. Lots and lots and lots of birth control.
Now, you’re thinking: listen to the mealy-mouthed socialist ranting about economic justice; but you’re wrong. I’m a money grubbing materialist just like the rest of you–the difference is that I’m fundamentally lazy and just unwilling to do a lot of the stuff I’d need to do in order to have the cool stuff I covet. The result is the same, however: a life mostly unencumbered by commerce.
What is bad about Uber, and all the other technologists laboring diligently to trade manpower for money, is that none of them exist in a vacuum and when these advancements reach widespread implementation the cumulative effect will be staggering, as the wages of first tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, pool in the pockets of a few score of speculators and “innovators.” Now, if you believe in the gospel of trickle-down economics, you may not be concerned, but the years have shown me that those pools are deep, with almost unlimited capacity, and only a fraction of what goes in actually drips out.
When Henry Ford began implementing his assembly line factory in the early 1900s some of his fellow industrialists were put off by his insistence on paying his workers a salary far closer to a living wage than was common at the time. They argued that other workers would demand similarly “unreasonable” treatment, but Ford shrugged them off, not out of any great fondness for the utterly replaceable men whose sweat and blood comprised the building blocks of his fortune. No, he simply recognized that if he wanted to sell his automobiles there would need to be sufficient prosperity in the middle class for enough people to be able to actually buy them.
It is happening already, though we don’t see it. Take two primary extraction industries whose howls of government persecution and vilification at the hands of tree-hugging liberals, if you will. I won’t bother with the details here, but I invite you to compare the number of coal mining jobs lost to environmental regulation with the number of reductions caused by automation in that industry as well as the significant effects of competing energies–largely natural gas–in which increased efficiencies, many of them labor-saving, have resulted in more competitive pricing. On the west coast, ten times as many jobs in the timber industry have been lost to automation as have been lost to environmental concerns, like the infamous Spotted Owl.
That’s where we’re heading with each labor-killing step towards automation: an economy in which the only viable industries will be built around servicing the super-wealthy, a flawed and dangerously unstable prospect. I can’t be alone in thinking that we’d be better off incentivizing technology that elevates people and creates jobs–and solve real social and environmental problems, rather than rewarding those who revolutionize the time-honored tradition of filling our pockets with the contents of others’.