Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Projectile Wooden Shoes


Sabotage has its root in the French word sabot, which is a kind of wooden shoe. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution craftsmen would throw their shoes into the gears of factory machines. Skilled labor was being replaced with mechanical production, undermining traditional professions, reducing incomes, and removing the social standing of workers. Wealth flowed up to the people who owned the factories and controlled the levers of political power. Sabotage was a form of negotiation. Industrial production was so incredibly efficient and profitable that the craft guilds had no chance of surviving over the long term. And since the cost of manufactured goods dropped like a stone with industrial processes society wasn’t inclined to turn back the clock. What unfolded over the course of a couple of centuries was a series of social, political, and economic convulsions including revolutions, wars, and mass migrations.




I passed a construction site recently and saw this mobile surveillance pod. This is the beginning of the end of the night watchman. It’s part of the ever expanding panopticon of electronic monitors connected 24/7 to the cloud – complete with facial recognition software and the ability to cross reference an endless number of databases including everyone’s e-mails and geotagged cell phone records. Rent-a-cops are on the way out.





Think this is only a big city thing? Try rural Montana. Same same. The squad car parked on the side of the highway with a radar gun is about to fade away. A far more effective and lucrative series of electronic devices will instill discipline in drivers and generate passive municipal revenue instead. Did I mention aerial drones? First they’re used in Afghanistan. Then along the Mexican border. Then poor high crime neighborhoods. Then your quiet little cul-de-sac in Indiana or South Carolina… The code enforcement people are going to love it.

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How much longer do you think it will be before long haul trucks are fully automated? Autonomous vehicles are cost cutting devices, not the latest upgrade for consumer convenience. What do you think will happen to all the roadside establishments that serve the needs of human truck drivers? Tick tock.


This is Google’s newest gadget. It’s comparable to Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Speak to these machines and they perk up. “Play Bohemian Rhapsody.” Or “Order four AA batteries.” Or “When is my next dentist appointment with Dr. Harris?” These devices search the internet and/or various personal files from your phone or computer and seamlessly give you what you want.



Think you’ll be spared because you’re an educated professional? It’s only a matter of time before more advanced versions of artificial intelligence replace an army of human workers in more skilled positions. Medical centers will swap out administrative staff for a suite of voice activated algorithms. Computer programs will eventually read X-Rays and MRI results and provide preliminary diagnoses. Secure pill dispensing machines are already the norm in many hospital pharmacies. Tech support and customer service jobs will disappear. Accountants and paralegals are on that same list. Think outsourcing overseas was a problem for the former middle class? Think illegal immigrants drove down wages? Wait for what’s coming next.






Here’s a common sight in Silicon Valley. Colonies of second hand RVs parked between a Burger King and a freeway off ramp are occupied by people who have no better option. The middle class tends to write off such populations as alcoholic schizophrenics. I interact with these folks on a regular basis and most have jobs. Some have two or three. They’re adamant that they did nothing wrong, but the larger society has simply discarded them. The median home price in San Jose is $1,085,000. Median rent for a studio apartment is $2,120. Moving to a “cheaper” place like Oakland is no longer an option. Two bedroom apartments there now rent for $3,500 – assuming you can find a vacancy. The minimum wage in these communities ranges between $10.30 and $15 an hour. The numbers don’t add up. There are an awful lot of these homeless camps everywhere these days. This is what a bifurcated economy looks like.

A friend asked me to write about a possible Minimum Guaranteed Income. The concept is simple enough. If an individual or household earns less than a certain amount of money the government will fill the gap with a cash payment. I remember my social studies teacher talking about a “negative income tax” back in the 1970’s so this isn’t a new idea.

My response was short and to the point. Not going to happen. Americans reject wealth transfers and chafe at any hint of “social engineering.” Anti-poverty programs are so deeply unpopular that a Minimum Guaranteed Income is a non-starter. And resistance is strongest from the people who would most benefit – the marginal declining middle class.

The usual solutions aren’t going to work either. Dramatically raising the minimum wage will only encourage more employers to automate more agressively to squeeze labor out of their business models. Jacking up taxes will drive jobs and people out of the state (a process that is already well under way.) Building subsidized housing won’t scale up and is politically toxic. Rent control keeps some people in artificially affordable housing at the expense of their landlords, but does nothing to create new housing – quite the opposite. Reducing regulations and eliminating onerous bureaucracies is structurally impossible since the agencies that administer existing programs are a lot more powerful than the people they’re meant to serve. Moving to Texas works for people who already have a toehold in the middle class, but for those with less skills and no money life in Houston is merely slightly less miserable. The list goes on…




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My best guess is we’ll see the implementation of policies that achieve similar goals to a Minimum Guaranteed Income by other means. But they’ll need to be in keeping with the dominant cultural narrative: The Puritan Work Ethic. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. And they’ll have to be designed to filter out people who are deemed unworthy of inclusion. That’s been the pattern for centuries. The military is the primary model. Cradle to grave socialism is perfectly acceptable – often eagerly embraced – by American society if the wealth transfer is to people who are believed to be deserving. The militarization of domestic affairs is a distinct possibility.



Massive infrastructure building projects are another viable option for employing large numbers of low skill workers. The cost, productive capacity, or return on investment of such projects is essentially irrelevant. Project funding will be allocated by a political process that prioritizes select populations in particular locations. This preserves the existing vested interests – a combination of corporations and big government. Republican. Democrat. Conservative. Liberal. It doesn’t matter. The goal is to allow business-as-usual to limp along for a while longer while mollifying the displaced population. This will work until the feds can no longer borrow and print money. The alternative is a Soviet Union style collapse.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo