Do Factories Dream of Organic Humans?

Automation and everything it promises is the Schlaraffenland myth of the 2020’s – The Utopian Production site-dreamworld where everything will be solved by the combined forces of hardware and software in a concrete box. The excess will be wished into existence and we kill “capitalism”?

Here is the thing: The automation process itself is fairly straight forward. It’s used millions of times per day, all over the globe. The question is how big can you scale it before it stops making sense. The problem isn’t automating the process, the problem is the receivers of the output itself.

No factory is an island. There are several inputs that need to go into the factory for it to do what we want it to do. It needs raw materials it can turn into products – The resources to build a car, for example, isn’t grown on a factory floor. It needs to be mined and transported to the factory itself.

Perhaps the raw materials need a stop somewhere in the middle and turned into a more refined version before our “Automatic” factory can turn it into something we can use, like mixing iron and carbon to make steel. Of course, the other ingredients you need to bake a car need a slightly different version of this.

Its a bit trickier to automate mining (and other forms of extraction) than it is to robotize a controlled environment like a factory where you make the rules of space and time. Not impossible, just harder. It requires a lot of computation power and engineering. It is a certain amount of processes that need to be figured out. The transportation of raw materials between mine, refinery, and factory is probably easier to automate than mining. If we just removed those pesky humans occupying the road, it would be even easier. (Let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that we have access to all resources that we need for our factories in our geographical area to not involve third parties here).

There are more inputs to a factory than just building blocks to construct stuff; energy needs to be flowing in so the robot arms can assemble the pieces and supply raw data of the progress to the factory overseer. Factories don’t only produce useful things that people want, it produces waste as well – Another problem to be solved somehow. Another problem that can be part of the automation process flow chart, of course, but can’t be ignored.

No. the problem isn’t the automation part. It’s the plan of what the factory supposed to make and at what quantity that is the tricky part. Once you get over the engineering problems and processes, the social aspect of trying to figure out who needs what and when is impossible. If you think you can democratize a whole nation’s factories and have a smooth ride you can’t possibly understand how bumpy and inefficient bureaucratic processes are.

If you think the same kind of people in charge of DMV should decide when you get a new sofa, I can only wish you good luck and hope you enjoy standing in a line.

“Ah, but Alex! We have super computers and algorithms! We can allow it to calculate itself into the perfect production.”

Sounds good. Won’t work. The coder(s) can’t possibly know every input to they need to add to the algorithm to get desirable results, not even rough ones. The proposed Hammer and Sickle code can’t adapt in real-time or see into the future so any small change in the web of information will tear up the whole “Societal Plan”. Entrepreneurs and markets can’t do this either, of course, but what they opt instead for is taking the losses themselves if they fail to make accurate predictions or use resources wastefully. Our Central Planning Computer Vanguard doesn’t, its everyone’s burden and cost, and if it makes error everyone suffers.

Michael Giberson wraps up this Hayekian Knowledge Problem concept neatly at his blog: “Decentralized economic activity does a better job than centrally managed economic activity because it does a better job of mobilizing the knowledge relevant to the decisions that need to be made.

A ‘Resource Based Economy’ is an idea from the Venus Project, which relies heavily on the concept of automation and is basically Communism on steroids. Two and a half-decade have passed since the start of the project and they haven’t even automated a microwave. Any day now, I’m sure.

“The Truck regarded them calmly, its receptors blank and impassive. It was doing its job. The planetwide network of automatic factories was smoothly performing the task imposed on it five years before, in the early days of the Total Global Conflict”

From Philip K. Dick’s short-story ‘Autofac’ (Read at Archive.org or get it for your bookshelf by buying Selected Stories from Amazon

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