The Third Machine Age Could Destroy Us

There have been one and a half machine ages already. The first began in the nineteenth century, with machines taking over manual labor. Then in the twentieth century machines began taking over mental labor (they still are). When the third age comes, says one sociologist, we're doomed.

Photo by the American Psychological Association

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written an interesting article in response to the idea that we need robots to do "emotional labor" like caring for children and the elderly. She identifies the third machine age as one where machines take over the realm of emotional labor, whether that's teaching Kindergarten or working as a nurse. Basically, she's using emotional labor as shorthand to describe a broad range of caretaking professions, especially in heath and medicine, that are currently booming.

Though she worries about handing over this deeply human kind of work to machines, she makes a deeper point about why this third machine age may be the last. Because it continues in the tradition of our previous machine ages, which have all eliminated jobs and created massive unemployment and social unrest.

Writes Tufekci:

What's left is deep emotional labor: taking care of each other.

And emotional labor is already greatly devalued: notice how most of it is so little paid: health-aides and pre-school teachers are among the lowest paid jobs even though the the work is difficult and requires significant skill and emotional labor. It's also crucial work: economists estimate a good kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year, when measured as adult outcomes of those children she teaches. (And yes, devalued emotional labor is mostly a female job around the world—and the gendered nature of this reality is a whole other post).

And the argument, now is that we should turn care over to machines as well, because, there is a "shortage of humans".

What are seven billion people supposed to do? Scour Task Rabbit hoping that the few percent who will have money to purchase services have some desires that still require a human?

Turning emotional labor to machines isn't just economically destructive; it's the very description of inhuman.

In my view, warehousing elderly and children—especially children with disabilities—in rooms with machines that keep them busy, when large numbers of humans beings around the world are desperate for jobs that pay a living wage is worse than the Dickensian nightmares of mechanical industrialization, it's worse than the cold, alienated workplaces depicted by Kafka.

It's an abdication of a desire to remain human, to be connected to each other through care, and to take care of each other.

Essentially she's asking why we should replace this kind of work with robots when there are many humans who are desperate to do it. Though experts say these robots are coming in because there is a "labor shortage," Tufekci points out:

Of course we have enough human caregivers for the elderly. The world ... is awash in underemployment and unemployment, and many people find caregiving to be a fulfilling and desirable profession. The only problem is that we – as a society – don't want to pay caregivers well and don't value their labor...

Modern shortages of "labor" are almost always a shortage of willingness to pay well, or a desire to avoid hiring the "wrong" kind of people.

And there's the problem. It's not that there's a labor shortage and we need caretaker robots. It's that many people would rather buy robots than hire immigrants or the poor. The third machine age, as Tufekci sees it, may be the first act in a class war that won't end with a robot uprising — it could end with a human uprising that's far more tragic in the long run.

Read Tufekci's entire article here.