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.