Automation and Economics: what exactly are muggles good for?

By Aran Rees. Jul 12

I came to the Harry Potter books just as Rowling was finishing of The Deathly Hallows. Peak Potter you might say. But it was only when I saw the films that I began to have some misgivings about this magical world.

I know that I risk being called out by those who think it odd that I can accept the existence of wizards and magic but that I have deep concerns about the underlying economic system, but I’ll just get it out there and have done with it. In a world where you can essentially create matter from nothing, cause energy to come into existence from nowhere, you’re going to have some major issues with rampant deflation and widespread unemployment.

I’m not an economics professor but I think I understand enough to know that when supply is essentially unlimited, and when energy is free, stuff gets cheap. When one guy with a wand can magic a house out of thin air what happens to the building trade? If heat and light can be summoned at will, what happens to energy prices? A magic spell can fix broken glasses so surely a similar spell can fix any broken item. What then happens to manufacturing?

Yet people in the Potterverse still seem to have jobs and engage in economic activities. And they are clearly differentiated by income and economic class. It makes about as much sense as the rules of Quidditch. Seriously - what’s the point of all the rest of it when the team that catches the Snitch is virtually guarunteed to win? It’s worth 150 points! It’s just silly.

All of this is a long winded way of saying, I’m a bit concerned about Siri Shortcuts.

Slippery-slope me all you like, but we’re approaching a watershed moment in consumer electronics and Siri Shortcuts in iOS 12 is the guy stumbling down the street in his underwear, waving a battered sign in the air and yelling “the end is nigh!”

Up until now automation has been the preserve of the nerd. But when Apple, the world’s largest technology company, puts user defined automation at the heart of their most important software product, it’s obvious that the nerds will need to get used to company. Automation is going mainstream.

Those of you still following this circuitous tirade might be wondering what in the name of he-who-shall-not-be this has to do with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Well, I’ll tell you.

Magic may not be real but, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When humans first figured out how to make fire I suspect many thought it magical. Later we made glass which was pretty magical too. Now we build things from individual atoms and kill cancer cells with lasers. We have wizards walking among us. Until now they’ve been the privileged few. But it seems that Hogwarts is about to send out letters to a whole lot more of us. The Muggles are headed to Diagon Alley and Mr Ollivander is in for a busy day.

Yes, you’re absolutely right - being able to automate a few tasks on your phone isn’t going to alter the fundamentals of our economic system. But this is the thin end of the wedge. If this kind of automation is now easy enough and powerful enough for the everyday folks, what does that tell you about what’s happening elsewhere? In those dark places still the reserve of only the nerdiest of nerds?

Just as we might question the economics of a world in which magic is possible, if we take a moment to think about the world we live in and how automation, robotics, and thinking machines are already making human work redundant even within well paying, high skilled jobs such as law, investment, and medicine, it should give us at least a moment’s pause.

I’m no Luddite. I don’t want to hold back the technological tide. The fact that I’m writing this here should tell you that I’m an enthusiast. But those of us who are enthusiastic about the power of technology would do well to spend a little time thinking about the kind of world we are building and how humans will find a meaningful place within it.

My day job, running Sabre Tooth Panda, gives me an interesting vantage point from which to think about the role of humans in the world of work. And I find that many of us have lost our playful curiosity, our inventive streak, our aesthetic senses - those areas in which machines still can’t touch us. That’s largely because we’ve spent a good century or so mechanising the workplace and in that time we’ve increasingly found that humans make very useful cogs.

Humans have been trained to do what machines could do but weren’t ready to do yet so is it any surprise that we’re starting to see the machines catching up? Mowgli may have been raised by wolves but he was never great at being one. It was only when he embraced his human side that he was able to defeat Shere Khan. Yeah, when I can’t find an analogy in Harry Potter there’s usually something in Disney.

This isn’t supposed to be scary. In fact, what I hope to do is encourage you, as you explore what machines can do for you, to take on a parallel task. As machines free you from the drudgery, think about how you can use that time to reconnect with the things that make you most human. It’s fine to automate tasks but if we end up spending the time we save doing more busywork then what exactly is the point? Instead, as the machines liberate us from the pain of repeatable, mundane tasks, lets take that time and invest it in art, beauty, learning, friends, and play. One day that may be all that is left for us. Whether that future is a utopia or a dystopia is up to you.

Previous Post