In recent years, fears of technological unemployment have (re-)emerged strongly in public discourse. In response, policymakers and researchers have tried to gain a more nuanced understanding of the future of work in an age of automation. In these debates, it has become common practice to signal expertise on automation by referencing a plethora of studies, rather than limiting oneself to the careful discussion of a small number of selected papers whose epistemic limitations one might actually be able to grasp comprehensively. This paper addresses this shortcoming. I will first give a very general introduction to the state of the art of research on potentials for automation, using the German case as an example. I will then provide an in-depth analysis of two studies of the field that exemplify two competing approaches to the question of automatability: studies that limit themselves to discussing technological potentials for automation on the one hand, and macroeconomic scenario methods that claim to provide more concrete assessments of the connection between job losses (or job creation) and technological innovation in the future on the other. Finally, I will provide insight into the epistemic limitations and the specific vices and virtues of these two approaches from the perspective of critical social theory, thereby contributing to a more enlightened and reflexive debate on the future of automation.
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