This Land: Appalachia Knows Well The Pain Automation Could Cause America

I read and watched a lot of science fiction as a kid, and remember thinking how cool it would be when robots were as commonplace as I assumed jetpacks and flying cars would one day be. Who wouldn’t want Rosie the Robot doing the laundry and cooking dinner? Or the Lost In Space Robot alerting you to danger, Will Robinson?

But I clearly remember the first time a science fiction novel made me think about the downside to a robot paradise. The novel was Isaac Asimov’s “Caves of Steel.” Early in the book, the protagonist, Detective Lije Bailey, and his new robotic partner R. Daneel, are called to a disturbance at a shoe store.

Customers at the store were objecting because the clerks were robots. The store owner says, “There’s nothing wrong with my men. They’re registered clerks.” One of the customers is livid about this. “Listen to him. He calls them men! What’s the matter with you anyway? They ain’t men. They’re ro-bots! And I tell you what they do, in case you don’t know. They steal jobs from men. That’s why the government always protects them. They work for nothin’ and, on account o’ that, families gotta live out in the barracks and eat raw yeast mush. Decent hard-working families. We’d smash up all the ro-bots, if I was boss.”

I thought of that scene the other day while reading an article about the devastating impact advances in artificial intelligence and robotics could have on American jobs — citing a report estimating that automation could take nearly 40 percent of American jobs by the early 2030s.

The scene was dated, and sexist. A millennium in the future, and people were still buying shoes at a physical store, not online? Unlikely. And only men’s jobs were at risk, presumably because women didn’t work. (The novel was written in 1954.)

But it was one of the first times I’d read or seen anything that viewed robots in a dystopian light, especially economically, and it stuck with me.

Of course, mechanization costing men their jobs wasn’t science fiction in 1954, especially not in Appalachia, where mechanization of the coal mines was beginning to have a drastic effect. Eventually, 100,000 miners would lose their jobs in this wave of mechanization in West Virginia alone. A second wave of job losses would accompany the shift to mountaintop removal mining.

These losses weren’t caused by the kind of robots envisioned by Asimov or by advancements in artificial intelligence that has today’s experts worried even about fields like the law and medicine once thought immune from automation. But Appalachia has seen what happens when a large section of the workforce is no longer necessary.

It is dystopian. Take a look at McDowell County, W.Va. During the coal boom, it was a bustling county with a population nearing 100,000. By 1963, it was a posterchild for American poverty. In a speech that year, President Kennedy remarked, “I don’t think that any American can be satisfied to find in McDowell County, in West Virginia, 20 or 25 percent of the people of that county out of work, not for six weeks or 12 weeks, but for a year, two, three or four years.”

What happens to a place where employment vanishes, where hope of supporting your family disappears? Well, obviously, poverty increases, and along with it problems like crime, increasing drug and alcohol abuse, and rippling economic effects that tear the heart out of a community.

Government finds it harder to function as demands for services go up while revenues decline. Storefronts empty as retailers, restaurants and others go out of business. Empty sidewalks and boarded-up buildings drive depression and despair.

In Appalachia, this was driven by mechanization. Even before the coal economy collapsed in recent years, towns and counties across the region were decimated by the loss of coal-mining jobs caused, not by environmental regulations, but by “hard times and big machines,” as Billy Ed Wheeler put it in “Coal Tattoo” — and it was mostly the big machines. Coal production usually increased even as the number of miners plummeted.

In 1954, the year “Caves of Steel” was published, coal companies mined around 390 million tons of coal with 283,000 miners (down more than 200,000 just since 1950 thanks to mechanization). Last year, the industry mined 743 million tons — with fewer than 50,000 miners.

Can Appalachia teach the rest of America anything as the nation faces its own potential jobs apocalypse? I don’t really know. There were a chorus of voices in West Virginia in the 1990s and earlier calling for state political leaders to prepare for a “post-coal” economy. No one listened.

Current national leaders don’t seem any more inclined to think realistically about the future. Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said last week he wasn’t “worried at all” about the mass displacement of U.S. workers by technology. “It’s not even on our radar screen,” he said, predicting that wouldn’t be a problem for “50-100 more years.”

That is as stupidly optimistic as the coalfield politicians who, to this day, think they’re one more tax break or regulation repeal away from revitalizing the coal industry. An Obama-era White House report warned that advances in machine learning could severely disrupt labor markets within 10 to 20 years.

Trump wants to blame “bad trade deals” for the loss of factory jobs, ignoring that more American jobs have been lost to technology than to China.

We are looking at a future where it isn’t just manufacturing jobs that are lost to smart machines. In a utopian vision like Star Trek, that would mean people freed from the shackles of work to pursue personal enrichment and the betterment of humanity.

I don’t think our current political and economic system, though, is capable of achieving that type of vision — and most of those currently in charge would view it as the victory of the moocher class.

I’m not sure what the solution is. But I know that turning a blind eye to the problem and pretending it will go away won’t work.

It certainly didn’t in Appalachia.

Radmacher is former editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette and The Roanoke Times. This Land is a weekly column produced by Appalachian Mountain Advocates.