There’s a concept in my field of study called technological momentum. It’s a nice compromise between the overly simplistic positions that technology shapes society, or that society shapes technology. According to historian and theorist Thomas Hughes, technologies in their earliest stage of development are a bit like a ball that has just been nudged off a ledge: It’s only starting to speed up, and it’s comparatively easy to stop it or redirect it, as often happens. Technologies in a later stage of development, however, have begun to amass a collection of related technologies, infrastructures, policies, consumer habits, and cultural connections. They are like a ball at the bottom of a slope: It is moving much faster, and is thus much more difficult to stop or redirect, and can in fact knock into other things and move them around. What this means, in a nutshell, is that in the early history of an important technology, its development is influenced by society; while in the latter stages, society is influenced by the technology.
This has interesting implications for techno-utopians like myself: If we want new technologies to be a force for good in the world, then we have to get at them early, when we have a better chance of influencing the form and path that they will eventually take. It means that activist groups wanting to use technology as a political strategy need to get out ahead of it, adopt it, and consciously shape it into something that can have a positive social influence once it gathers more momentum. Imagine, for example, what might have happened if the Luddites, rather than breaking the new industrial machines, instead adapted them for their own purposes could use so that they, rather than wealthy capitalists, could benefit from the increased productivity. It might not have been possible, but had they pulled it off, the last two centuries of history might be a lot less miserable.
With that thought-experiment in mind, I’d like to turn your attention to the subject of cooperative grocery stores. Personally, I’m a big fan of them. I am an enthusiastic customer of Unicorn Grocery-a very middle-class organic grocery shop in my part of Manchester. It’s a bargain compared to most other organic grocers, and it’s generally a much more pleasant place to do one’s shopping than in a gigantic supermarket. Plus the produce is fantastic, and they’re the only place I’ve found where I can buy tempeh.
Don’t worry: I haven’t been captured by Big Grocery Cooperative, and this is not going to be a 1000-word glowing review of an organic grocer in South-West Manchester. But I had to introduce them because I’m interested in here is the conspicuous lack of technology that has become nearly ubiquitous in British grocery stores: automated checkout machines.
The phrase “automated checkout machine” might give you a bit of a shudder. The machines are still pretty flawed, to the point that the sentence, “unexpected item in the bagging area” has become a minor internet meme. So I don’t really miss the presence of checkout robots at Unicorn. The opportunity to talk to a human cashier is generally worth the slight loss of convenience. And of course, eliminating jobs through automation doesn’t exactly fulfil the mandate of a worker’s cooperative very well.
But sometimes when I’m waiting in the queue to pay for my groceries, I find myself wondering what Unicorn’s end-game is on this matter. The big supermarket chains, and indeed most businesses, are going to be pursuing more and more automation in the coming decades. Other businesses, such as fast food will probably follow. It’s not implausible that cashiers could be phased out altogether in some places. The rage-inducing problems with the checkout machines will eventually be ironed out, the machines will look more and more like a time and money saver, and less and less like a malfunctioning nuisance. Customers will adjust their habits accordingly, and come to expect to interact with a robot when they buy their groceries. They might even become uncomfortable with the idea of a human cashier. In other words: Automated checkouts are about to gain a whole lot more technological momentum.
This prediction might make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. But while it’s not guaranteed (I’ve never claimed to be a technological oracle), it’s definitely plausible. If it does come to pass, what will become of the grocery workers’ coops that have thus far eschewed automation? They might be able to hold on to enough of their old customers to stay in business. I personally don’t expect to be wooed away from Unicorn by automated checkout machines. A growing mass of consumers, however, who are becoming more and more more accustomed to the automated approach, will start to become more hesitant to use cooperative grocers. This will make it hard for the cooperative movement to grow, which would be fine if the goal of the movement was to establish a few sustainably and cooperatively run grocers in local neighbourhoods. Cooperatives, however, are often presented as a model for a kinder and more just economy, and this can only be the case if the movement expands its appeal. Can we expect that to happen if these businesses intentionally keep themselves behind the technological curve?
There’s a pretty compelling counterargument to what I’ve just said, of course. What good will it be for the cooperative movement to gain the world but lose its soul? We can’t continue to see cooperatives as ethical businesses if they start firing their staff wholesale in order to embrace automation. My answer to this is that automation does not necessarily have to be a destroyer of livelihoods. That’s where technological momentum comes in. The people who have shaped automation technologies in the past have typically been aggressive capitalists, with no interest in the welfare of the workers that their technologies displace. But what if somebody else, with more of a conscience, took a more proactive role in deciding what automation looks like and how it is used? Could there be a different outcome?
Suppose, for example, grocery workers’ cooperatives introduced a few automated checkout machines into their stores, but did not lay off any employees. Instead, with some workers freed up from the need to man the till, they could use the same number of employees to do less work. That means easier work for the same pay. The time savings, meanwhile, could attract more customers into the store, resulting in more dividends for the workers as well as a little extra boost for the cooperative movement. I’m not an economist, and I’ve never worked in a cooperative, much less managed one, so there are probably serious flaws in the plan I’ve proposed above. Coming up with a real, socially just plan for automation has to be a job for people with more business and technological expertise than me. What I’m saying is that it’s not a discussion we’re having, and that needs to change. The best business minds of the cooperative movement should be thinking about this question. Maybe I’m wrong, and automation is inherently bad for workers. If that’s the case, I’d like to see a detailed argument as to why.
It’s actually quite a bizarre thing that our society is so skeptical of automation. If we lived in small communities based on local economies and cooperation, then any way to automate our daily tasks would be hailed as great news, heralding less work and more stuff. It is only because of the social and economic institution of employment, in particular the view that it is necessary as a precondition for survival, that makes us want the business of running our society to consume more person-hours, rather than less. If, as I have argued previously, the very idea of jobs is going obsolete, then we might be able, once again, to see automation as good news. We just have to find the right way to implement it. Automation isn’t going to go away. Too many powerful people are actively pursuing ways to eliminate more and more human workers for that to happen. If, however, we can find a way to make automation happen on our terms, then it could actually be good news.