Mass Automation And Mass Surveillance: The Debate

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There’s been a lot of recent debate on mass automation and mass surveillance – questions on automation taking away jobs and surveillance killing our privacy have assumed center stage, yet again. It’s not a new debate.

The truth is that while these may seem like modern day issues, questions about mass automation and mass surveillance have existed for the last few centuries. The debate has transcended ideological boundaries, disciplines, and even reality – with literary luminaries like George Orwell writing fictional accounts of the role of surveillance in the future. Even philosophers like Karl Marx questioned the role of mass industrialisation (automation) in the 1800s when the world was on the brink of the industrial revolution – writing about its impact on politics, society, and people.

We take a look at the arguments – both for and against the two issues, as well as examine the prospects of both mass automation and mass surveillance in the Post-COVID world.

Basics first - what do the terms exactly mean?

Automation, simply put, refers to the use of machines in performing tasks, typically with the purpose of minimising human intervention. The term’s roots can be traced back to about 1946, when it was used to describe the heightened use of automatic devices in mechanised production lines. Today, however, automation has spread far beyond the manufacturing context: transport, marketing, medicine, and defence are prominent examples of its influence. And this influence is only likely to expand, as the technology becomes increasingly sophisticated.

Surveillance, as the word suggests, refers to the act of monitoring behaviour, activities, or information, usually by law enforcement agencies for the purpose of detecting crime. Mass surveillance is the same practice on a large scale: essentially keeping a watch on an entire or significant part of a population. While this is usually done by the state, we’ve seen it being carried out by tech giants, such as Facebook and Google. (more about privacy later in the article)

First, a quick back story on the rise of machines

Mass automation or mechanisation first began in the United Kingdom in the 18th century, when the economy transformed from being dominantly agrarian and artisan based, to being controlled largely by machine production. The nature of society and ‘work’ changed completely – new kinds of material was considered valuable, new skills were required, and new systems of production, sale and consumption were put in place. Although the process of mechanisation began almost two hundred years ago, the debate surrounding it still persists – if anything it’s seen a bit of a comeback.

Let’s hear it from both sides. The arguments in favour go first

For the proponents of mechanisation, three large advantages persist.

To begin with, the use of machines provides shorter production time, which means higher productivity, and therefore, greater output. Apart from a rapid increase in the rate of production, automation also leads to a lessening requirement for human labour – since human jobs are now done by electrically operated machines. This is a win-win for the capitalist bourgeoise, since there is a decrease in the cost of labour, and less liability and responsibility for the employer. Then there’s the question of quality – because machines perform tasks with greater efficiency and less discrepancy, the products are of better quality.

Second, since goods are produced faster and cheaper due to automation, it allows them to become more widely available, less expensive, and more accessible for the general public. This logic is extended to argue that automation improves the quality of life for those who would otherwise not be able to afford or access handmade goods.

Finally, there’s the ultimate, does-it-take-more-jobs-than-it-creates argument.

Those in favour of mass automation say that while the use of machines creates less need for humans to be active in all parts of the production process, it provides for increased employment opportunities for both skilled and unskilled labourers. Greater automation leads to more production jobs, more sales jobs, and greater need for people to help transport the goods. It also requires skilled labour in terms of those who know how to run the machines, those who can fix the machines, and managerial positions supervising output. Proponents also then use this line of argument further, asserting that the need for skilled position also creates a need for those who teach such skills, therefore generating even more employment opportunities.

The other side of the debate – capitalism is the bad guy

While these may seem like convincing arguments, there are social and ethical consequences that cannot be ignored.

The most famous critique is the Marxist argument against increasing capitalism and industrialisation. When production and profit become the driving factors for employers, the human aspect is often ignored, and the people involved in the process of production as seen almost as liabilities. Workers get paid minimum wages, are made to work extensive hours, and are often provided with no safety or security in conditions that Marx argues are ‘alienating’ and inhumane. We’re seeing examples of this today, as right of workers become more diminished.

Meagre payment for workers increases the wage gap, with the rich getting richer and the poor staying poor, or getting poorer. Further, the transition to mechanisation leaves a number of people unemployed and displaced, with almost no job or social security. Another humanist argument made along the same lines is that human work is devalued, which then leads to a loss of artisanship and craftsmanship – both not only provide income, but also are a defining part of many cultural identities.

Then there’s the environmentalist critique.

Mechanised industries require natural resources to function. This has lead to a rapid depletion of said resources, and has, in turn, created a number of environmental problems like, air pollution, water pollution, and the generation of fossil fuels. As the population grows and industries across the world continue to mechanise, the environment seems to be bearing the brunt of its consequences.

The final argument against mass automation is an economic one. Critics argue that machines and equipment required to run these industries require a large capital to invest in the first place, and then require high expenditure to maintain these systems.

Big Brother…

Surveillance is arguably a more precarious issue than automation.

At the level of the state – it provides an intricate ethical dilemma – is it ‘okay’ to give up a part of one’s privacy, and information about oneself, in the interest of national security? Those who believe in mass surveillance argue on a few fronts. For one, they claim that data collection and monitoring activity is the one of the only ways that the state can keep its citizens (and the integrity of the state itself) safe. Watching movements, collecting information, and tracking communication and activity allows the state to detect those who pose a threat to the country.

In the same vein, a justification given by proponents is – ‘if you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide.’ They argue that due to the possibility of national and international threats, citizens need to give up part of their privacy for the larger (and to them, more important) issue of safety. As an extension of this, it is argued that the mere existence of surveillance technology serves as a deterrent to potential criminals – even the perception of being watched is scary.

Next, they argue that the existence of surveillance technology also helps in providing real-time accounts of events. Surveillance technology can be installed almost anywhere, and helps officials track activity. It can also be used retrospectively – for example, as evidence in criminal trials.

Finally, the information that is collected through surveillance technology can also be used to create new schemes and policies for public welfare – this argument is often used to defend the Indian Aadhar card against critics.

The privacy debate

While these reasons may be enough to convince some, others’ beliefs lie on the opposite end of the ethical seesaw. Surveillance, they believe, is a big step on the ladder towards authoritarian control. The implementation of mass surveillance will create a dystopian Orwellian state, with no space for personal privacy – a place where the government has an eye on all its citizens’ activities. The Right to Privacy, they argue, is a crucial human right (even enshrined in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Thus, mass surveillance is inherently undemocratic – it makes citizens surrender their right to privacy by providing a false choice between privacy or security. The state must have reasonable doubt to curtail one’s privacy, and cannot use ‘national security’ as a blanket reason to spy on its citizens. The use of mass surveillance creates a constant state of suspicion, where all citizens are treated as potential criminals, and the democratic ideal of innocent until proven guilty is done away with. This in turn curtails people’s freedom of speech online – since they feel they are constantly being watched.

Finally, the information collected by these mass surveillance programmes is not always safe. For one, government databases aren’t difficult to get to, and are always liable to insider abuse – Edward Snowden is a prime example. Apart from this, there exists the threat of the government (or those with access to this information) making it available to private actors, and this could then be manipulated to target them as consumers, or used against them in some way.

But it’s not about the government alone. Tech giants who have access to user information have aloso have been known to misuse or mishandle it. Facebook’s data leak is a case in point. A database containing personal details of more than 300 million Facebook users – like phone numbers and names was left unprotected on the web for anyone to see. Then there’s the question of how the social media giant helped the US election by using AI to place certain kind of content to its users and thus influence their decision.

So what will automation and surveillance look like in a post-COVID world?

The coronavirus crisis has had a major impact on democratic governance worldwide. Several countries have imposed states of emergency, and many populist leaders have used the crisis to enhance their surveillance systems to use it to track the virus and its carriers. In India, for example, the government has launched an application that uses smart phone location data to track people who are suspected to have been exposed to the virus – using measures such as making those in quarantine constantly upload pictures of themselves onto the application.

In Hong Kong, people who have recently entered the country are being made to wear location tracking wristbands. While such surveillance measures could be defended in the wake of a pandemic, they also carry the risk of being abused by their governments – particularly if they are imposed during states of emergency. In existing authoritarian states, the pandemic has become an opportunity for their leaders to impose stricter surveillance measures – including but not limited to extensive facial recognition software and monitoring of internet and social media use.

With regard to the future of automation, there are likely two possibilities.

On one hand, supply of labour will increase in most parts of the world, since millions have faced unemployment and economic ruin over the last few months. Due to the impact of the virus on the economy, wages are likely to go down – and a mass supply of cheap labour could mean employers relying on people by paying the bare minimum, as opposed to investing in expensive, inflexible machinery. Having said that, the lack of adequate protection and vaccination against the coronavirus proves to be a significant obstacle in having people work closely together. Experts warn that this may not be the last pandemic the world sees in this century, and the unprecedented nature of COVID-19 could have employers becoming more far-sighted, and turning to automation to pre-empt the economic damage another such circumstance may cause. In the event of another coronavirus-like situation, mass automation would mean work can still continue, particularly in industries where working from home isn’t possible (manufacturing and production).

We’ll be debating it for ever

Even as we debate the pros, cons and myriad issues of automation and surveillance, the truth is that the future, particularly after the coronavirus, seems to be gearing towards a world where mass surveillance and mass automation are everyday realities.

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