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The Automation Issue and the Presidential Race

Presidential candidates (and downballot candidates) should be talking about the issue of automation now, as the next term will require some changes to deal with it.

While Donald Trump softens (or curdles, depending on the perspective) on immigration, while folks question whether Hillary Clinton is a particularly articulate zombie, automation looms like a tidal wave. Neither candidate has touched on the issue very much, which is a shame because it will likely begin striking during the next administration.

Automation is the process of making stuff happen without humans doing it. Self-driving cars (and trucks) will be one example of automation, but so will robotic cooks at fast food joints. Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) were an early victory for the robots, way back in the 1960s. But technology has come a long way since then, and I understand they will have ATMs for Bitcoin any day now.

There are some big concerns with automation (which isn’t AI, although AI is an important subject in its own right). One of the biggest issues is how you deal with job losses to machines. Some say this won’t be an issue, claiming that new jobs will be created to take up the slack. These people are both correct and wrong.

They’re right that humanity will figure out how to deal with the startling reality of no longer being needed to sweep floors, drive cars, weld, do taxes, cut hair. They may be right in the idea that we’ll find new employment doing creative tasks, but that remains to be seen. We may invent alternative modes of employment, instead. We may implement a universal income system, or pay people for activities, or shorten the workweek. Where they are wrong is the idea that we shouldn’t worry about it. Looking back at previous transitions, we should definitely have plans in place to protect people from the worst of automation.

The problem is, we’ve never done very well with transitions. We suck at integrating military service members back into society. We suck at integrating ex-convicts back into society. We fail to make adequate plans to rapidly retrain workers losing coal mining jobs or oil jobs when the price drops. And so on.

We fail with the people we like best, veterans. We fail to help women have children, despite the fact that everybody loves babies. There’s no reason to think goodwill has anything to do with it. We’re just bad at helping people transition.

Instead of facing automation, we’re trying to tackle issues that will be mooted by it. The outrageous cost of health care, a real and pressing problem, will likely evaporate as automation makes everything from basic tests to elaborate surgeries cheaper and safer. The main issue there will be regulatory: how to get a body like the FDA in shape to tackle changes to equipment coming at breakneck speeds.

A similar story will play out in education. While college is currently way too expensive, automation will probably lead to the elimination of all but the most historied campuses.

Now, many of these changes will take decades to fully develop, but the first wave of automation is likely to begin in the next four years. While it’s not an issue that will likely sway voters, it would be nice to see some discussion of it. Oh, global warming, too. Automation—figurative tidal waves; global warming—literal hurricanes.

Web English Class

Writing (English composition) classes should include web writing (comments, etc.) given its new primacy in written communication.

Web literacy isn’t just about understanding how the web and internet work. It’s also about how to participate. It seems reasonable that school curricula be shifted to reflect the changing communication media of the day. One of the key changes in modern reading habits is, now more than ever, we’re reading amateur writing.

Primarily, comments on websites are written by amateurs, and they make up a substantial portion of our reading diet, at least online reading. But what percentage of us has ever been formally educated in how to write comments online? Putting aside astroturf groups, the number is likely very tiny. Modern education should focus on the use of language where it is most common, and that should undoubtedly include online commentary.

Now, there are probably folks who did learn how to write an e-mail in school at some level. It’s not clear how well the advice and instruction they received matches the actual use of e-mail. But online writing requires some instruction of its own.


One of the biggest issues with online writing is how links are formed. In too many cases, links have non-descriptive text. These days not so much “click” type labels, but often things like a raw link to a YouTube video that doesn’t give you any indication what it is. Or links to pictures that describe the person’s reaction rather than the content (“OMG!!!!!”).


In the same vein, article submissions that contain editorial titles, and other similar faux pas, are common. While this common issue teaches well the aphorism, “you can’t judge a link by its title,” it doesn’t lower the friction of online discourse. English classes should emphasize proper title construction.

Smartphone typos

The boom of odd phrasing will hopefully be short-lived as technology improves. But, for now we see quite a lot of word substitutions that are due to smartphones.

The boom of of pain will hopefully be short lived as technology improves. But, for now we see quite a lot of word substitutions that are die to smartphones.

At issue here is the interface friction required to correct (or see) typos. Not sure what English classes can do except to encourage care in writing.

Tone of comments

Forums can turn ugly pretty quick. Maybe English teachers can find some way to teach the youth not to devolve into screaming barbarians as easily? I don’t know, but it’s worth a shot. Of course, the other side of that is building a standard set of comment tools to empower users to avoid fraught conversations online.

And so on. As so much of our daily reading is now in the form of comments, it would be nice to see the form taught in schools. On the other side, it would be interested to see some studies about online culture and inculcation into the norms of a new online subculture.