On Fences and Scarecrows

I was thinking about low-tech automation this morning.

My walk to the Post Office sometimes takes me past a school. There’s a big fence around the playground but I can hear the kids running around like hellions inside.

I had a reflexive curmudgeonly thought that it’s a shame we can’t see the kids playing because there are baddies in the world who spoil it for everyone but of course the kids need to be protected, etc.

When I was that age (in the 1980s) we didn’t have tall fences around the playground and we’d regularly talk and be cheeky to passersby. There were playground supervisors to make sure we weren’t too cheeky and that we weren’t kidnapped.

The fence, it strikes me today, is a form of low-tech automation. A fence around a school playground removes the need for (or at least reduces the workload of) so many supervisors.

We generally think of digital technology when we talk about automation, about how so-called AI is dispensing with the need for copywriters or how robotic appendages reduce the need for assembly line laborers. But a fence is a sort of automation too.

So is a scarecrow. AI’s just another name for a turnip on top of an old duffel coat really. It keeps the crows off so you don’t have to.

I’m not entirely sure what to do with this thought. Seen one way it says “don’t sweat, automation has been going on for years” but you could also use it to say “AI is just the latest threat in an ongoing war against wages.”


Personally, I’m still in favour of using automation to get rid of the sort of mindless jobs that corrode the soul, but I recognise the problem of how we can all pay for our lives when there’s no more entry-level work. The longterm solutions seem to be either UBI (in which we’re paid for leisure) or bullshit jobs (in which we’re paid to waste our life). The latter destroys life and gives birth to Escapology. The effects of the former remain to be seen, but subsidising the basics sounds like a badge of civilisation to me.

Another option nobody’s talking about is that we just set up a whole new economy separate to the old one. Start again basically. When people talk about books being “written by” AI, I sometimes think “great, how about making some bots that will read the shitty things as well.” While AI’s talking to AI and while buying and selling just happens between AI systems, maybe we can all just get on with real things. Like writing and reading and talking to each other and feeling the sun our faces.


New Escapologist will never, ever be automated. It’s written by humans for humans. Get your copy here.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at wringham.co.uk

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