For some time now, we have been hearing about unemployment, outsourcing, computer-based automation, and such things. I recently read a book entitled The Second Machine Age, — Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. The Authors are Erik Brynjolfsson, the director of the MIT Center for Computer Business, and Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at the Center. It is listed in the recommended books list on the left. They also were the coauthors of Race Against the Machine. Both books have gained considerable notice.
It is packed with interesting information, but I also found it interesting because it contained several different messages. The first part of the book consisted of raves for the amazing accomplishments of digitization, and all of the things that computers can now do that only humans used to be able to do. It admits there will be problems as computers become more and more powerful, but miracles will be accomplished and individuals have no choice in going along with this. The authors also deny becoming technological determinists (if we can think it up, it will happen). But for a while I thought “oh no, not another born again computer book”.
But societies have choices—there are such things as, regulations, labor movements, legal challenges, revolutions etc., and they are beginning to happen over issues such as privacy and the quality of life—or in other countries censoring the internet. And we hear of autonomous automobiles, but much attention to the possibility of autonomous trucks and we would hear from the teamsters union again.
Happily, in the second portion of the book, the authors bring up the downsides of digitization, and one of course, is the effect on work (labor and jobs). And I think we have only seen the tip of this iceberg.
Most people in business and economics focus upon jobs as a way to move money around, and believe that as computers take over more and more jobs, others will appear. But will they? An article entitled “Closing the Gap”, in the Feb 15-21, 2014 issue of The Economist, suggests that the present decrease of unemployment may be due to the fact that the U.S. labor force is permanently stunted by people leaving it for reasons ranging from early retirement to giving up on finding jobs. I think there is another reason to worry, and that is the quality of jobs. People who have worked in a highly skilled job they love, are hardly satisfied with any old job. I have a highly educated friend who is a farmer. He requires being out of doors and hates computers—period. He would be a pretty unhappy tax accountant (a job, incidentally, which computers are taking over).
Brynjolfsson and McAfee obviously like to think about difficult problems, read scholarly articles, follow the news in the media, and write books. I do too, but I too am an academic. I don’t think we are typical. I clearly remember being in high school and none of my friends liked to do such things. Many of my present smart but non-academic friends do much of such things.. Can it be possible that most people are in that category? Do people like a bit of manual labor to use the hands and muscles that have so carefully evolved over time in some context other than a health club? I grew up on a farm. The work was hard and the sun was hot, but at the end of the day one could collapse and see what had been accomplished, My father was smart, found farming highly satisfying, and would not have liked an inside job without heavy lifting. In fact he once wrote me a letter, and it was the only example of his handwriting I ever saw—and he wrote beautifully. Later I worked in a large machine shop, and it was more fun than farming, and to me even more satisfying. The people were bright, amusing, and took rightful pride in what they were accomplishing. They were highly skilled, and not only could they see progress during the day, but the output was not something just anyone could do. And they could compete to see who did better work.
I also worked on a work-over rig in an oil field for a spell. The crew was high in spirits (emotional and after work alcoholic), full of jokes and pranks, once again skilled (mistakes could kill people), and at the end of the day could see what they had accomplished. Even farming gave one pride and a sense of contributing when a bit more mechanized, and like farming, oil field work was outside—an important element to a lot of people. I don’t know to what extent computers are now ”helping” the crews, but it’s coming. And it is interesting to consider a classic roughneck working in an office, especially wearing a suit.
Later still, when I worked at GM and JPL, I also worked closely with even more highly skilled shop people, because I was designing prototypes which needed custom parts made extremely precisely often from exotic materials. I was by then an engineer, but when agonizing over a difficult problem I would sometimes wish I still worked in the shop, because the feedback was faster and the people seemed happier, healthier, and more entertaining.
Such jobs have been disappearing in the U.S.. As an example, computer aided design and manufacturing, coupled with very precise machining centers, do not require high salaries and do a totally predictable job. Do you suppose that people who liked doing that kind of work by hand would be fulfilled sitting and watching a number of such machines doing the work while they were being paid very low wages to be bored?
So it isn’t just the number of jobs. It is the fit of the job to the person and the sense of contribution and accomplishment that accompanies it. One problem is that despite the efforts of many people, males are still with an inheritance of competing, showing off, and talking trash (as are women, but they play different games). Watching a computer, or even running one, doesn’t do it for many. I had a lovely phone conversation yesterday with a woman who works for A.T.&T. My land line phone was doing things that weren’t covered in the web site, so I called the number with my cell, and after waiting several minutes while the phone told me the call would be recorded for quality purposes (do you suppose anyone ever listens to the recordings?), that they were receiving an unexpected number of calls, and that I shouldn’t hang up because they valued my calls, all the time playing me crummy music, an actual nice person came on the line, and solved my problem. After I told her how wonderful she was compared to a web page, we had a long conversation on A.T.&T’s dime and I forgave them. Had it not been for the human contact, I would have put another notch on my frustration with the company. The power of real humans!
I’ll bet the elders who told you where to find things at Walmart would like their jobs back, and I wish they could get them, but I am afraid we are in a system too much captivated by cutting expenses and increasing profit. But the backlash will come. I think I’ll go join a union. And quit buying things over the internet. And plant some corn in my back yard.
But maybe nobody knows what’s going on with employment. In the February 16, 2004 New York Times there is an article by Fred Andrews entitled “The Case for Swapping Roles with China”. Steven Roach hass just written a book entitled Unbalanced— The Codependency of America and China. I haven’t read it, but he apparently claims both of us are getting in economic trouble, and the only solution is for us to swap roles. We should go from consuming to producing, and China should do the opposite. Maybe I can get a job in a shop, while people in China all go to work buying and selling things over the internet and speculating on investments.