Humans, Computers, and Telecommuters

Let’s discuss two sets of three: the land-labour-capital trinity of conventional economics, and the human-computer-telecommuter set that may soon become the three main categories of labour.

To state the obvious, the key relationship during the past generation has been the “capital” of North Atlantic economies (whether that capital be military power, technological innovation, or consumer demand), chiefly that of the United States, and the labour and “land” (most notably, the fossil fuels in that land) of Asia, chiefly that of the Chinese.

Even in recent years, this relationship between North Atlantic capital and Asian land and labour has arguably continued to intensify. Specifically, if we characterize “land” as being the type of energy production that has the greatest impact on local environments — if, for example, we define it as coal production, coal consumption, and the building of massive hydroelectric dams — then we can see that in recent years the employment of Asian “land” has continued to grow at a rapid pace relative to that of the North Atlantic economies.

This has been the result of a number of different significant trends: the growing “green economy” of Europe, the coal-to-gas electricity switchover in the United States that has been the result of shale gas production, the growth of coal and gas consumption in Japan as a result of Fukushima, the growth of hydroelectric power in China (though China’s coal industry growth has been flattening), and the growth of coal industries in southern Asia.

We know that poorer Asian populations in countries like China and India hold the weaker positions in this trade relationship. They supply the labour and “land” chiefly because the wealthier economies of the world mostly do not want to allow large-scale immigration or domestic environmental despoliation, yet are not able or charitable enough to furnish poor countries with capital wealth without demanding labour and natural resource wealth in return.

We also know that this global trade relationship might soon decrease to some extent, whether because of automation or protectionism in capital-rich countries, aging labour forces in Northeast Asia, or an attempt to reduce pollution in China.

The view of world trade decreasing because of automation and protectionism has become especially popular during the past year, because of political developments in both the US and China. Upon closer investigation, however, a reduction in trade may not actually be likely. The hitch here is the limitation of automation in wealthy economies. While computers and computer-run machines may now be excellent at doing tasks that humans are bad at — like being a grandmaster at chess or driving a truck for days without taking a pit stop — they are still terrible at a task that even human children find easy: manipulating objects.

The result of the limitation of automation may be the second set of three mentioned above: a human-computer-telecommuter division and cooperation of labour. Imagine, for example, an industrial or commercial site in the US that employs not only human labour, and not only machine labour, but instead a combination of a small number of on-site labourers, a large number of autonomous machines, and a large number of machines controlled by lower-wage labourers working remotely from poor locations in foreign countries.

In one sense, every party involved would gain in this relationship: rich countries would gain access to cheap labour without needing to outsource, poor countries would receive wages, and both would be allowed to harness the productive power of machines without having to wait until robotic technology is good enough to allow machines to replace labour altogether. Or without having to deal with the economic and social consequences of that day finally coming.

On the other hand, “telecommuters” might further income inequality within wealthy countries, by forcing labourers in those countries into even closer competition with labourers in poor countries. Moreover, it might make it more difficult to ignore the unfairness that exists as a result of real wages in rich countries far exceeding those of poor ones.

The effect of telecommuting — which includes, but is not limited to, a worker being able to control a machine that is located thousands of kilometres away — may be to make labour much more easily tradable across long distances. Since “capital” is easily tradable too, this may leave “land” as the odd man out. Land considerations, for example the location of cheap and/or clean electricity, or of ports capable of importing natural resources from abroad, may therefore become more important, at least relative to labour considerations, when choosing where to locate a new industrial or commercial site.

A place like Iceland, for example, which has abundant and clean power, difficulty in exporting that power directly because of its island location, ports proximate to North America and Europe, and yet no real labour force to speak of, could use a combination of autonomous and remotely-controlled machines to become a major industrial or commercial production site. A similar thing may be true of economies like Quebec, Norway, Manitoba, or British Columbia.

Remote-controlled machines do not get very much press — even if you Google it, you will probably not find much, with the exception of medical tele-surgeries — when compared to discussions of a far future in which widespread, wholly autonomous machines run the labour force. What is so scary, or exciting, about the possibility of remote-controlled machines, and of telecommuting labour forces in general, is that we may not have to wait until the far future for them to become widespread.




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