This article is part of a continuing series leading up to Gigaom Change, which will be held in September in Austin, Texas.
Humans have always had a love/hate relationship with labor saving devices. Generally speaking, the owner of the device loves it and the person put out of work by it hates it. This tension periodically takes the form of violent rejection of industrial technology in all of its forms.
The cotton gin “did the work of twenty men” which meant that after it was installed, one fella loved it, but the nineteen newly-unemployed workers probably shook their fists at the infernal gin, wishing all manner of evil to befall that Eli Whitney troublemaker.
While this “technological unemployment” has been cited as the cause of our economic woes for two centuries, the issue has taken on a new sense of urgency as there has emerged a general fear that the wave of technical innovation we are currently in will capsize the economy and produce a new category of workers: The permanently unemployed.
Is this another example of the “boy who cried ‘no jobs’?” or are we witnessing a true transformation in our economic world?
The question is fundamentally unknowable because it hinges on three independent factors, each of which is also unknowable.
The three factors are:
1) How many jobs will the robots/AI really take?
2) How quickly will that happen?
3) What new jobs will be created along the way?
Let’s dive in:
The tipping point of widespread permanent unemployment is thought by many to be the driverless car taking all the jobs away from the truck drivers:
But at the same time, there is a chorus of voices urging calm and pointing out that in spite of radical transformations of virtually every industry, the US has maintained near-full employment. How can this be?
Two interesting questions that need to be addressed when approaching these issues are:
1) Why are there still good-paying jobs in the West? Why hasn’t mechanization put everyone out of work?
2) A century ago, Keynes predicted that in the future, due to labor-saving devices, we will only work 15 hours. Why hasn’t this in fact happened?
The widespread fear of substantial, permanent joblessness has caused the topic of a universal basic income to move to the mainstream. How would this work?
Finally, it may simply be that in a post-scarcity world, “working for a living” just doesn’t have the moral imperative that it used to. We might regard what Buckminster Fuller had to say on the topic:
“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”