The technology around us is changing rapidly. Living in the digital world right now requires us to adapt to the emerging technologies, either as a user or a maker. Technology creates benefits by automating repetitive or impossible tasks (if done solely by human beings). But, is automation really good for humanity?
What is Automation?
Automation was started in the late 19th century where assembly lines were introduced for massive production in manufacturing companies, which was also called the second industrial revolution (IR). The automation then was transformed to the era of the third IR since the 1960s with the introduction of the mainframe and personal computer, and finally the internet. With the current velocity, volume, and variety of data around us, supported by smart and powerful sensors and algorithms, we are now entering the fourth IR.
Automation utilises the features of communication, computation, and control in digital technologies to reach specific social purposes. The goals of automation include boosting labour productivity, enhancing managerial control, and advancing capital accumulation. However, we need to ensure that automation does not only benefit the capital providers and shareholders but also for the common goods.
Challenges and Concerns of Automation
Several social issues were observed from the rise of automation, such as inequalities in the future of work. There is unfairness in the increasing gap of wealth between people who own the capital, and those who do the labour. In addition, automation produces harmful consequences on the environment and ecology. For instance, energy used in the transportation sector becomes one of the fastest-growing sources of emissions, which contribute to global warming and climate change.
Another challenge comes from technological sovereignty. Although it helps to track important data for the country, for example in tracing the infected citizen during this Covid-19 pandemic, people might be concerned about data privacy and surveillance. There is a troubling sense of losing control and being controlled.
Researchers from the University of Sussex proposed a new term called Post-Automation to overcome the challenges of automation. While automation forces social adaptation to technology, post-automation insists the citizens play a more constructive rather than merely adaptive role in the development of digital technologies. It explores socio-technical and democratic approaches in digital technologies by (1) enhancing human creativity, not excluding them, (2) caring for more environmentally sustainability, and (3) caring for socially equitable development.
Grassroots innovation is one of the examples of post-automation that scrutinises democratic participation. It offers a platform for cooperation and peer production. Decentralised manufactures like hackerspaces and makerspaces can help everyone to innovate, not only those who have a large capital.
Are automation and post-automation having different trajectories? Post-automation might be considered more feasible to be implemented in developed countries, where the emerging technologies are already mature enough. How about in the developing nations like in Southeast Asia? The region is still absorbing new knowledge in Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and blockchain, but at the same time, community-led innovations keep growing. Currently, there are around 58 digital fabrication laboratories (FabLabs) in 7 out of 10 Southeast Asia countries. This proves that automation and post-automation can run in parallel.
Automation improves human lives, but we should make sure it is being harnessed ethically so the goals can be achieved sustainably.