Is Automation Good?

As pointed out in a recent article, the oil industry continues its valiant pursuit of technological improvements to provide low cost energy. Imagine moving the entire string of heavy pipe required for drilling wells using robotics rather than back-breaking labor. Imagine drilling fewer wells by doing more horizontal drilling. And imagine operating a well from a safe, air-conditioned office in Houston rather than on an offshore platform or remote location. Hats off to Nabors Industries, ABB and Schlumberger for these developments.

While acknowledging these advances, the main focus of the article is that these technology advances will result in fewer jobs in the oil patch. The implication is that retaining existing jobs should be the standard for judging whether this automation is good.

Technology does result in machines that do the work previously done by many humans. It was true of the loom, the steam engine, the computer, and virtually every technological innovation. Imagine if those advances were curtailed in the interest of saving particular jobs.

Imagine spending your day today waiting for an ice delivery rather than having a freezer and for a wood delivery rather than having gas or electricity, in order to retain the jobs of the ice and wood deliverers.

As described in the article, “more data and information technology specialists also will be needed as the oilfield services sector consolidates and integrates the systems, product, and services of different companies.” This is what capitalism has provided throughout its history. There are more jobs today than ever before and the jobs often require more brains than brawn.

I’m reminded of this story from a non-capitalist country:

The make-work bias is best illustrated by a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an economist who visits China under Mao Zedong. He sees hundreds of workers building a dam with shovels. He asks: “Why don’t they use a mechanical digger?” “That would put people out of work,” replies the foreman. “Oh,” says the economist, “I thought you were making a dam. If it’s jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.” (2007 June 16, The Economist, United States: Lexington: “Vote for me, dimwit”, Page 42, Volume 383, Economist Newspaper, Ltd., London)

1 comment to Is Automation Good?

  • JoMarie Di Iorio

    very interesting examples on ways and why nots
    of halting progress in order to maintain the status quo.