OPINION - Dylan Jones: Welcome to our new world of automation replacement anxiety

New York’s infamous Studio 54  (ClassicStock)
New York’s infamous Studio 54 (ClassicStock)

When Ian Schrager used to run the infamous New York nightclub Studio 54, back in the late Seventies, it was the epitome of decadence and grandeur. Where people arrived semi-naked and half-cut, and where the ice buckets were big enough to bury small dogs in.

After he went to jail for tax evasion, he reinvented himself as a hotelier, with big brands like Morgans, The Royalton and Paramount. In 2011 he opened Public in Alphabet City, the formerly dodgy area in New York’s East Village. This ushered in a new era of hospitality, primarily as there wasn’t any: no reception, no concierge, no bellboys etc. Everything was pretty much done digitally, so you could walk from your cab straight to your room without a soupçon of human interaction. If you wanted to eat you simply ordered food from the restaurant next door, and if you wanted any kind of room service you pressed the digibox on the wall.

This was an obvious manifestation of targeted automation, delivering luxury on the cheap, but the hotel was also designed that way because people liked it. In a world where Airbnb, Uber and Amazon make it possible to live completely free of sentient friction, light-touch living thrives. Technological development has made human interaction an optional alternative, much like a menu substitution. As the entertainment industry has transfigured systems that allow us to tailor our cultural choices to an almost granular degree, so our desire for virtual communication has been rewarded by the way in which everyone from McDonald’s to the local energy supplier now treats us as a series of numbers. We’re now at a stage in our development when to actually be forced to talk to another human is viewed as a massive inconvenience.

This is the fear we’re soon going to wake up in a world where there aren’t any jobs

Obviously, this presents us with its own set of problems because as this light-touch sensibility becomes the norm, it makes the complex nature of social propriety a nightmare for those of us who only really interact with our devices. After all, you don’t need to say please to an iPhone 14.

But as we embrace automation, because of the media hysteria surrounding AI, all of a sudden we’re becoming fearful of it. Because while we publicly worry about the existential threat to creativity, a bigger, neo-Luddite movement is coalescing around the argument. Welcome to Automation Replacement Anxiety.

Which in a nutshell (no doubt just a fancy hologram) is the fear we’re going to soon wake up in a world where there aren’t any jobs. Or, more fancifully, find ourselves in a world where there are owners, overseers and producers, buttressed by, on the one hand, small swathes of “artists”, and on the other a gigantic army of the unemployed living a virtual reality addicted to drugs, pornography and gambling.

Of course, during the industrial revolution, when the Luddites famously destroyed machinery in an attempt to stymie automation, in the end industries such as textiles grew fiftyfold, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. But there is a growing fear we might not be so lucky this time around.

The term “Luddite fallacy” is used by economists about the fear that technological unemployment inevitably generates real unemployment and is therefore macroeconomically injurious. However, recently, there has been increased support for the view that the benefits of automation are rather more worrying.

Regardless, what is certainly true is that human contact is increasingly becoming a thing of the past as far as consumers are concerned. And while we all like automation when it works — the ease with which we can buy train tickets or rent hotel rooms, and the way we blithely accept the small miracles of Shazam, Spotify and Vivino — the joy we get when we actually get to speak to a real person when we call our bank, doctor’s surgery or preferred retailer can no longer go unrecognised.

In fact, so rare is human contact becoming that it is already a highly sought-after USP. And the kind of thing you only read about these days in newspaper columns.

Dylan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of the Evening Standard