Automation Ethics

By 2018-10-14 No Comments

A couple of years ago, I read on Hacker News about a developer who wrote scripts that automated 100% of his job and he hadn’t done any ‘real work’ for years. Literally. He spent his days on Reddit and playing games.

The question is… is it ethical?

The Atlantic just published a piece exploring this and a few other developers who have hacked the system.

You might be able to guess my take on this.

I think it’s brilliant.

At face value, it definitely looks ethically muddy (secrets + deceit are usually ethical red flags). There’s a tacit agreement that when you work, you’re dedicated somewhat to helping the employer grow. Doing the bare minimum (automated or not) isn’t compatible with that bond.

But there’s more to it than being simply right or wrong.

Really, it’s about the clash between the industrial asses-in-seats model of work and an evolving post-normal way of doing things.

But there isn’t a switch that takes us from one era to the next. It’s a slow fuzzy transition that society will have to wrestle with.

The industrial model loves efficiency – standardising a product or process into reproducible parts, and finding a way to do it faster and cheaper. When the work is done by humans, you need to standardise them too, so we spent the last 200 years inventing standardised job titles that humans can pick and train for. We became specialists – accountants, train drivers, project managers.

But now, supercheap supercomputers have given us an efficiency amplifier that can do the standardised repeatable work faster and more accurately than any human – the algorithm.

And for anybody with the intellect and disposition to write code that does their job better than they can, turning that idea into reality is the natural progression.

It’s not an act of rebelling against the system of work, it’s the logical and inevitable outcome of the industrial system itself. The system was designed for efficiency and it ended up working better that anybody had planned for.

It’s the evolution of work.

The traditional model of employment is one where work is dictated top-down, rewards accrue asymmetrically to the employer, and the worker gets paid a nominal sum based on the time they committed to do the work. Asses in seats.

Workers are not rewarded for creativity because the systems have already been designed – companies just wanted people to push the buttons and pull the levers and pack the boxes. Just as they were told. And fast.

For the creative individual who can replace themselves, the tricky part is navigating the politics and policies in a way that doesn’t make them obsolete.

As well as labour (asses in seats) and efficiency (standards + speed), the industrial model operates on IP and companies basically own anything you create as an employee.

So if you write an algorithm to replace yourself, and tell the company about your genius, they’ll probably fire you because they can now use your code to do your job without your ass in a seat.

So you keep schtum because you like getting paid.

And technically, the work the company assigned to you is still getting done (perfectly and on time) as a result of your labour. Just that your labour was a one-off thing and isn’t needed to keep producing the work.

If your job is to send 100 letters to your customers and you do a mailmerge or use an autoresponder to automate the messages, is that ethical?

If you use a 2 minute screen-capture to record a training video instead of getting 500 co-workers on a webinar, is that unethical.

Clearly not. You’re just being efficient, and efficiency is the organisation’s MO.

The ethics isn’t about automation, it’s about degree and transparency.

The incentives that the company put in place are stacked against you. To protect your employment, you could offer to automate other jobs and make the company even more efficient, but now you’re risking your teammates careers too. And they can mortgages and families.

So you keep Schtum.

In traditional organisations the minefield is too risky to navigate.

Some organisations love asses-in-seats regardless of productivity because the mantra of the industrial age was that work itself is virtuous. That somehow sacrificing the days of your life for a wage makes you a better person.

This creates workplaces where you don’t even have to be productive. You just need to be there.

But there’s an opportunity cost to being at work. Einstein was at work at the patent office for years before figuring out how gravity works.

There are too many bullshit jobs. People miss out on the amazing lives they didn’t live because they were at work. Busy doing nothing. This isn’t just the individual’s loss, it’s society’s too.

Bottom line, we have all of this amazing technology that we can use and we’re still paying people to do algorithmic work that a computer co do faster and more accurately.

…Clearly a suboptimal way to unlock the best of humanity and reach our potential.

The new era of work is one that rewards creativity. We’d be better off solving challenging problems that need human intuition and curiosity. And innate human things like playing together, exploring, learning, teaching, caring.

So for the guy who automated his job, it’s not necessarily unethical. But is IS a wasted opportunity to do more interesting things than playing computer games.

We all know that automation is coming.

It just manifests in different ways.

The adventurous engineer who writes an algorithm to make their corporate life easier is one manifestation.

Self-driving cars and self-serve shops are another.

But the most exciting manifestation is the solo hackerpreneur or independent studio that uses automation to build the entire company. Instead of hiring people to run algorithms, they automate the algorithms.

This way, you don’t need to work at one of the big 4/5 tech companies to build an automated business that makes 7 figures per employee. You can build a company of bots instead.

There’s a rising trend of hackerpreneurs who are all over this, remixing open-source code, connecting APIs, best-in-class platforms, and proven business models to make million-dollar companies of 1 and employing lines of code rather than people.


Thanks to Andre Chaperon, Tim Jones, Jake Sheridan, Martin Messier, Tom Langan, And Vinish Garg for feedback on the draft. Sign up for early drafts (and a free issue of Hackerpreneur Magazine).