The Robots Won’t Save Us Until We Control the Means of Production

Automated robot landlords are here to make the wealthy even wealthier, reminding us that advances in technology always benefit the rich. But it doesn’t have to be that way — with workers at the helm, technological gains could be distributed equally.

An employee checks robots used for customer services at a factory in Lianyungang in China's eastern Jiangsu province on December 4, 2018. (STR / China OUT /AFP via Getty Images)

A few years ago, I decided to take seriously the question of whether robots would save us. In short, they will not. In the nineteenth century, Marxists considered the power of industrialization and automation, and Karl Marx himself thought the labor freed up by developing processes could serve the liberation of the working class. As I wrote at the time, roughly a century after Marx, Herbert Marcuse believed humankind was approaching a point at which this transformation was possible, given certain conditions. But those conditions never materialized. Instead, the capitalist class has ratcheted up every advance in automation — the latest being artificial intelligence and algorithms — to more effectively suppress worker rights, wages, and collective organizing capacity.

In the past, the technological edge enjoyed by bosses tended to pool around sites of actual production. But keeping with broader trends in the economy — the displacement of manufacturing by way of financialization — the machine invasion increasingly pervades the world of finance capital, too. Stock trading is well known for this, but a more recent alarming, and increasingly representative, case is robot landlords. The technology behind these robot landlords allows them to buy up and rent out property, turbocharging the process of housing commodification — a process that was well underway before now.

The growing technological edge in finance capital does not mean that we should give up on fighting for the power of machines as tools for worker liberation. But the fact is, the owners own the machines. This is where Marx’s vision for automated liberation gets jammed up. It only works if the workers have control over the tools that are used to oppress them. Now, as in Marx’s time, they typically do not. Capitalists hold factories, as it were, in the palm of their hand, leveraging computing power to dominate workers and markets alike.

At the heart of the housing crisis in Canada and similar jurisdictions that face high prices and home shortages is the commodification and financialization of a fundamental human need. Shelter is a nonnegotiable part of each of our lives, but that doesn’t stop the market from hoarding, gambling, and exploiting the housing, nor does it stop the state from permitting that sort of behavior. Even when there’s a glimmer of hope things might improve, there tends to be a cloud on the horizon. In Ontario, conservative premier Doug Ford is aiming to boost the province’s housing supply — by cutting up and destroying parts of the Greenbelt, a protected natural swath of land just over eight thousand square kilometers large. Ford’s proposed plan will be a major boon for developers — who happen to be Progressive Conservative donors. Ford has also tossed the industry a big ole soup bone by slashing development fees, which will cost cities big time, despite what the premier says.

We often hear that new technologies and their emerging applications will “transform” industry. We call this “innovation” and celebrate it as a feat of human ingenuity. Greater efficiency in production is worth celebrating — when the benefits are evenly distributed and when workers are protected. Roughly century ago, for instance, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted future workers would put in about fifteen hours a week thanks to developments in productivity. That workweek never materialized. Efficiency gains were funneled back to owners. There is nothing to celebrate about exacerbating old problems by smoothing out whatever bumps may sit along the road to exploitation. The uneven manner in which technological gains are distributed has led some thinkers to claim that we will soon enter a period of techno feudalism.

The rise of automation, algorithms, and artificial intelligence should be forcing us to again ask who these tools belong to and how they will be used. We will find that they belong to the same people who own the things we rely on to survive — which means the bulk of the good that comes from “innovation” will go to the few while the many are left to struggle. Same as it ever was.

None of this is to say we ought to resist technological development. The anxieties expressed in stories like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice have a firm grip on our collective psyche. But the inevitable outcome of new digital development does not necessarily indicate the rise of Skynet and our own destruction by our own hand. Rather, every development is potentially dangerous and ought to be evaluated on the terms of who controls the thing and to what end.

Automated vehicles sound like a fine idea until we come to grapple with the fact that car culture and car-based infrastructure militate against dense, walkable, cyclist-friendly cities that are home to safe, frequent, convenient, and affordable public transportation. In the same way, robot landlords are not designed to serve tenants — to help them find the right home, submit an application, get approved, move in, and get any repairs done they may need once in the space. Robot landlords are about reducing the workload and costs of property owners who want to maximize their revenue. The application of this technology to housing is utterly dystopian. A healthy society is one in which the distribution of abundance ensures that its members have basic needs met — and housing is one of the most fundamental. Robots entering the real estate game is a sign of a deeply unhealthy society.

As I argued in the Boston Review in 2018, “With automation, the plutocrats get the increased efficiency and returns of new machinery and processes.” And what about the rest of us? We get “stagnant wages, increasingly precarious work, and cultural kipple.” As I suggested then, and which only seems truer now, the struggle we face isn’t about technology — of the tools we use — it is about application. It is a struggle to change relations of production. As new and headline-grabbing technologies emerge, and as their applications become more enticing and widespread, we ought to remember what this is all about and keep our eye on the prize. We can imagine a future in which the robots are owned by and work for the many instead of the few.