Is Automation Racist?

machine-no-brainThe Atlantic is carrying an article on How Automation Could Worsen Racial Inequality. It stops short of decrying self driving vehicle technology as racist, but not by much. That said, I find myself agreeing with the author’s conclusions.

All across the world, small projects demonstrating driverless buses and shuttles are cropping up: Las VegasMinnesotaAustinBavariaHenan Province in ChinaVictoria in Australia. City governments are studying their implementation, too, from Toronto to Orlando to Ohio. Last week, the Federal Transit Administration of the Department of Transportation issued a “request for comments” on the topic of “Removing Barriers to Transit-Bus Automation.”

Transit, with it’s predictable routes, does seem an obvious first place to implement driverless vehicles. In Vancouver, our elevated train system, begun in 1986, has always been driverless. Sharing the road with pedestrians and other vehicles is much harder, but it seems that technology has almost reached the point of automating buses.

The document is fully in line with the approach that federal and state regulators have taken, which has promoted the adoption of autonomous vehicle technology as quickly as possible. Because most crashes are caused by human mistakes—and those crashes kill more than 30,000 Americans per year—self-driving-car proponents believe that the machines will eventually create much, much safer roads. For example, some researchers contend that fatalities could drop 90 percent, which would be a public-health triumph.

The safety argument does not hold as long as only transit is being automated. The author has conflated automating transit with automating all driving. In fact, the referenced article is titled “Self-Driving Cars Could Save 300,000 Lives Per Decade in America”, and doesn’t even mention transit.

As people consider the negative repercussions of such a change, the obvious problem is that many people drive for a living. Much of the discussion has focused on truck … drivers. The truck-driver discussion slots nicely into the white working-class narrative around automation… White, male truck drivers might be pushed out by self-driving big rigs.

How is truck driving a racial issue? Is the author racist against truckers?

But, in the specific case of driverless buses and the general case of employment, the African American experience of automation is specific, distinct, and important to consider. Not all job displacement is created equal.

What the hell? How is automating buses specific to African American’s? They may be overrepresented in the bus driving profession, but its hardly specific to them.

Scholars like historian Donna Murch, author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, have integrated the introduction of mechanical cotton pickers into the story of the Great Migration in which 6 million black people left the rural south for urban areas in the the west and north. Murch argues that while a complex set of factors, including the push of Southern racism and the pull of wartime jobs, touched off the migration, agricultural automation accelerated it. As black workers began to leave, big farmers turned to machines to fill their labor shortage.

Surely it was the other way about. Even the first mechanical pickers (produced in the 1940’s) could replace 40 workers. Farmers turned to automation to reduce costs, and workers were forced to leave to find other work, not the other way around.

A second wave of automation decreased the need for black labor, and what manufacturing outfits survived began to relocate out of the urban core. So, at the exact moment that the civil-rights movement was opening up industrial unions and jobs, many factories were closing in the places where black people were forced to live. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, that meant factories closing in Oakland only to reopen in the (nearly) all-white suburbs to the south.

All working class people were affected by factory automation. Factory locations are generally chosen to take advantage of low rents and availability of a labor pool with the appropriate skills. Factories opening south of San Francisco (i.e. in Silicon Valley) were typically making high technology products, and so needed people with very specialized skills. They opened up in places that had lots of cheap (at the time) land, then attracted high tech workers to live in those areas.

Given all these conditions, black people turned to civil-service jobs as a stable and un-relocatable source of employment for black people. Government jobs were less discriminatory, too, with a smaller wage gap between black and white workers than the private sector. In 2011, the scholar Steven Pitts at the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that black workers were 30 percent more likely than other people to be government workers. Add it all up, and Pitts declared: “The public sector is the single most important source of employment for African Americans.”

The overrepresentation of blacks (who make up roughly 15% of the overall US population and a mere 7% in the Bay Area) in the civil service likely correlates with their overrepresentation in manufacturing industry jobs that fell to automation. No doubt other demographics made similar transitions from manufacturing to the civil service.

“Automation poses a disproportionate threat to the economic well-being of black America because this social group is predominately employed in low-skilled occupations that are vulnerable to workplace technological innovations—like those employed in the manufacturing, trucking, retail, and the telecommunications industries,” Katrinell Davis said. “Now, workers employed by public transit authorities, their unions, and their patrons must contend with the introduction of driverless coaches.”

As she says, though this issue disproportionately affects black Americans, it is an issue for all transit workers.

At least one union, in Ohio, has tried to get ahead of the issue. “It would be devastating in the African American community as predominantly the bus drivers are African American,” the president of the local, Andrew Jordan told the local NPR affiliate. “And to displace the well-paid middle-class jobs in those communities would be devastating.”

I would characterize it as elimination rather than displacement. It will certainly be a painful transition.

For Davis, the sociologist, the unions no longer hold the power they once did. Over the last couple of decades, as more black people have obtained government jobs, civil-service workers have been painted as “lazy, unreliable, and undeserving of wage increases.” For Davis, it’s this “history of mistreatment” that “paved the way for machines to take over.”

Well, many civil servants are indeed undeserving of the wage increases they’ve been given. Where I live, civil service wages have consistently increased by more than private sector wages. Because the government is free of competition, its workers often are lazy and unreliable. There is a reason that no one likes going to the DMV. I fail to see how this “paved the way” for automation.

“I think that driverless technology is an extension of the economic oppression that has been in place since the African slaves were emancipated and free to sell their labor,” she concluded.

How is this “economic oppression”? Presumably, cities will take the savings from automation and reinvest it in other services. Possibly, some may even be returned to the tax payers, who will then grow the economy by spending, creating jobs, and perhaps even starting new businesses. Automation is merely change. Change is sometimes painful, but always inevitable.

As self-driving technology moves closer and closer to actual deployment, it will cease to be solely a fascinating technological story about machines’ capabilities. Once it escapes the lab, the real reckoning of how and where autonomous technology should be deployed will begin.

It’s hard to believe that once the capability of self-driving buses is proven and there is evidence that they save money, a social movement could hold this back. I expect any municipal government that resisted such a cost saving, once it became clear, would be pretty quickly voted out. Cities will surely adopt the technology if it reduces the burden on their tax payers.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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