A More Optimistic View on Automation and Jobs

Frank’s earlier posts about technology and employment (or lack thereof) raise many provocative questions for me, given that I write about “Virtual Work.”   The issue of automation and job loss is certainly not a new one.  I remember, as a child of the 1980s, reading news stories concerned with robot labor and overseas work.  While those concerns dealt with manufacturing, the new concern is the professional and high skilled jobs that are at risk.  And so, as Frank points out, the old mantra of learning new skills is not helpful in this context as meta-solution. 

If technology is exacerbating the job loss trend, will technology also help us find a solution?  As Frank notes, the dark side of virtual work is the one represented by micro-tasking and micro-labor – breaking tasks down to their lowest common denominator and farming the work out in a crowdsourced race to the bottom, often among third world denizens.   It’s true, my research assistant and I failed to make minimum wage on crowdsourcing websites, and performing tiny tasks quickly on a piecework basis is not anyone’s dream career.

But there’s an optimistic side, too.  I am hopeful that new technologies will create jobs and perhaps allow workers to have more humane work schedules through productivity gains.  I’ve written earlier about how, through gamification, technology could make many boring jobs more fulfilling, perhaps even fun.   Indeed, the promise of virtual work is that it might free us from drudgery and lead to more fulfilling work.  As John Adams wrote in a 1780 letter to Abigail Adams, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”  I would make a similar analogy for virtual work:  it has the potential to free us to become more creative.

In my view, then, technology is not the problem, per se.  The problem is that our economy, as currently constituted, is based on consumption, production, and spending – no matter how bad that unchecked consumption might be for any number of constituencies, including the environment.  As for job growth, I’d like to see more job growth in the areas of technology, green, and sustainable businesses.

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4 Responses

  1. Barry says:

    “I am hopeful that new technologies will create jobs and perhaps allow workers to have more humane work schedules through productivity gains. ”

    We’ve been waiting for decades now.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    The irony is that firing workers, whether because of new technologies or otherwise, is what is regarded as a productivity gain (anticipation of same or more profit, divided by fewer people). That’s why share prices go up when layoffs are announced. And since (i) executive compensation is tied to share prices, and (ii) the combined annual real trading volume on the NYSE and NASDAQ has exceeded US real GDP every year since 1997, even despite the 2008 crash*, the dynamics of share prices are more likely to influence management policies than being humane to workers. So perhaps more than the problem being that our economy is based on consumption, production, and spending, the problem is that finance — even just the equities sector by itself — is much bigger than that economy.

    *Source: time series data from US Office of Management & Budget (2013 Historical Tables) and World Federation of Exchanges (WFE). This mathematical inequality is possible because capital gains aren’t included in GDP.

  3. Frank says:

    I hope that you are right. However, I think it’s all about the incentives and society’s ability to, in a Walzerian way, hedge off certain sources of values from the competitions for money and power that technologies now dominate.

    The ultimate dystopia: technology so colonizes our process of values-formation that future persons cannot even perceive the value of a better world. I describe that possibility a bit in this essay:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1002463

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Speaking of dystopias, even utopias can be dystopic: the narrator in Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos: The Sirian Experiments at one point attributes her planet’s intragalactic colonizing activities to her people’s malaise from growing up in a world where productivity improvements relieved people of the need to work for a living, and their loss of any sense of meaning to their lives.