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Telephone Switch Automation Not the Happy Story Vox Wants It to Be. - Metaphors Are Lies

Telephone Switch Automation Not the Happy Story Vox Wants It to Be.

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Dylan Matthews has an … interesting take on a new paper that demonstrates how the automation of telephone switches affected telephone switch operators and, most intriguingly, the cohort of people who would have been expected to be operators in the next working generation. Matthews seems to think that the paper is a good story about the effects of automation. It is, unsurprisingly, not that rosy a picture.

Matthews focuses on two aspects of the paper to paint his story of automation being, if not a good thing, at least not a bad thing for most workers. First, he points out that the people who would have been operators stepped into other jobs and second, the other jobs created were not tied directly to the productivity introduced by the switching machines. Neither tell the happy story about automation that Matthews seems to want to tell.

First, some caveats. This is, as the authors point out, only one study. It is a good paper in my opinion, as it presented something of a natural experiment. An entire job category disappeared in discreet geographical locations in a very short time. Second, the study would lack randomness as almost everyone involved was a white woman in either one of two demographic categories (singe and under 25 or married and over 26. You either worked this job until you married, it seems, or you turned it into a career before you married and stuck with it.). It is hard, then, to discuss any aspect of the situation in absolutes, and Matthews does mention these caveats. I am not trying to claim sloppiness, just an odd rose-colored emphasis.

Matthews calls the fact that the economy created jobs for the cohort of women who would have likely been switch operators “magical”. The fact that the jobs did not come directly from productivity gains from the automation tells Matthews that the money saved from wages went back into the economy and since there were now more young women around, businesses tried out new roles for them. Those aren’t bad explanations but taking them to the next step— that those factors will show themselves in our era — seems not as sure an argument.

It goes without saying, but the country is already significantly more automated than it was in the 1920s. It doesn’t get mentioned much in arguments about automation, but the workforce participation rate for high school educated men — the group that has been most affected by the last round of automation (as well as outsourcing, so the connections can be murky) — has declined since the 1950s. Automation, then, has already not worked entirely like the destruction of switch operator jobs.

The counter argument is that the jobs are present but require higher education. Or that men need to get over themselves are move into jobs our society has coded as female, such as health care. While there is some truth to both points, it should be noted that labor force participation among women, who tend to be better educated than men, and among people with degrees overall has also slipped. This at least has to cast some doubt on the notion that the mechanism that created jobs for the would-be operators would act in the same fashion in our age. Especially when you consider that the latest automation craze is focused on knowledge jobs — art, writing, programming, etc. As automation moves up the economic value chain, it is not unreasonable to wonder where people can capture value in a capitalist society.

Which leads to the other problem with Matthew’s optimism. While neither he nor the paper state this outright, the end result of the automation was that the demographic group most affected by it ended up worse off, not just in the working generation that was displaced but in the working generations that came later. As the paper notes, the women displaced directly by the automation tended to drop out of the workforce at even higher rates than people left the job normally and those that remained in the workforce were significantly more likely than other workers to be in lower paying positions.

The picture is somewhat less clear for the future cohorts, but even there, the kinds of jobs that were available were not overall better than the switch operator jobs. The next generation worked more in lower paying waitress jobs, especially in large cities where they could have been higher paid switch operators, than before the automation. In other words, they had jobs, but the jobs tended to pay worse in many situations. Taken together, the experience of the affected cohorts was one of higher unemployment and lower overall wages. Even if you look only at the future cohort, their overall wages were lower than before automation and they arguably had more physically demanding jobs. Not, I think, the happy story Matthews wants to tell.

Okay, so what is the point of this? One writer has a too-happy interpretation of an academic paper. First, the paper itself encourages this reading. By focusing on the presence of jobs and not the quality of jobs, it encourages a reading, intentionally or not, that implies everything will be fine.

Second, and more importantly, Matthews is representative of the notion that things will be fine all by themselves. That pain from automation is fleeting and temporary and worth it in the long run. Matthews himself ends his paper with this paragraph:

The telephone operators’ example gives me some reason to think the next generation of would-be truck drivers, or radiologists, will be able to sort into new work. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we can avoid existing drivers getting hurt the way existing telephone operators were.

“If we are lucky….” Mate, anyone who knows a thing about labor history knows that luck has nothing to do with it. Forcing the gains from the industrial revolutions, for example, or the initial round of automation in manufacturing in the early 20th century in the United States, to be shared was the long, hard work of generations. People had to wrest the fruits of their labor from capital and capital often responded violently.

Pretending otherwise, pretending that there is some law of economics that works the same way as the law of gravity and will ensure that our younger siblings, at least, will be okay in the face of automation, is to, at minimum, seriously misunderstand the history of labor and capital in the modern world. It is more accurately described as a political position — one that privileges capital over people.

There are real benefits to technology and automation. I work in technology and would not trade many of the modern technologies we have for anything. I am well aware of how much better our lives our than those of our ancestors. But that did not happen only because of technological advancements. That happened because people demanded those benefits be spread amongst society. It is a constant struggle. By refusing to see that struggle, by writing up papers that show automation decreased the economic well-being of people affected by it, people like Matthews make it more liekly this generation will lose that struggle.

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