Monthly Archives: August 2015

Automation and social skills

Something to add to my “Do the Robot” post. This paper by economist David Deming makes the case that because of automation, “the labor market increasingly rewards social skills.” Translated out of economist-ese and into a language critical of capitalism rather than complicit with it, that means the point of exploitation is shifting, moving deeper into the human personality and turning more of life’s nonwork and leisure into exploitable labor. Social interaction is tamed and subsumed, so that it can’t be oppositional to capital but is a “human resource” within it. 

Deming notes that “high-skilled, difficult-to-automate jobs increasingly require social
skills,” by which he means jobs that require “tacit knowledge” and the ability to read other people’s behavior and put yourself in their shoes. Jobs, that is, increasingly involves empathy as a discrete form of labor, empathy as competitive advantage, empathy as something bosses can compel and manage. 

This will have the effect of codifying the empathy process, making it ultimately amenable to automation itself. The rising value of social skills increases the capitalist desire to automate it, save on labor costs, and then push the point of exploitation to some new and deeper level of human behavior. 

The commercialization of empathy, the reification of it as a skill, also gives incentive to workers who must exhibit it on demand to optimize the effort it takes: This entails becoming emotionally simplified and demanding emotional simplification in others. It means contriving situations, work processes, in which “the other person’s point of view” is constrained to only a few conceivable ”rational” options. It means reducing empathy to routines. It means self-robotification among workers in hopes of streamlining what it takes to see from the other person’s point of view. This does the work of translating “social intelligence” into something ultimately code-able. 

The model of workplace skills and team building that Deming creates for the paper actually serves as a kind of blueprint for how this could proceed: “This paper should be viewed as an attempt to extend
and formalize the definition of one particular dimension of “soft” skills – the ability to work
with others,” he writes. 

These soft skills don’t resist automation so much as exist higher up the automation chain. But the work of automating social skills isn’t a matter of more sophisticated computer programming; it’s a matter of reducing the scope of typical human behavior — and the range of empathy that people are capable of and expect — to something that can be programmed