In a previous post I mentioned some articles and books about the possibility that the “Luddite fallacy” is no longer a fallacy, that we may finally be entering an era where computing eliminates more jobs than human inventiveness can create as replacements. The idea seems to have caught on, and The Economist has published a long article about it, which may officially make it conventional wisdom. The whole thing is fascinating because, while we can’t predict the future, there is a genuine possibility that we’re on the verge of a great restructuring. The article mentions a previous restructuring that occurred when machines were able to take over much of the work of farming, and suggests that the modern white-collar office job may go the way of farmhands:
In many ways, the white-collar employees who man the cubicles of business today share the plight of agricultural workers a century ago. In 1900, nearly half of the adult population worked on the land. Thanks to tractors, combine harvesters, crop-picking machines and other forms of mechanisation, agriculture now accounts for little more than 2% of the working population.
Displaced agricultural workers then, though, could migrate from fields to factories and earn higher wages in the process. What is in store for the Dilberts of today? Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (“Program or Be Programmed” and “Life Inc”) would argue “nothing in particular.” Put bluntly, few new white-collar jobs, as people know them, are going to be created to replace those now being lost—despite the hopes many place in technology, innovation and better education.
Two final points and I’ll let this subject go: one, this is primarily a discussion about the future, and the ongoing trends. Though the article ties automation to the current high rates of unemployment, there doesn’t seem to be a direct one-on-one relationship between the two. Not yet anyway. And two, this may well sound more alarming than it will really turn out to be; discussions about what comes next, or what ultimately will replace automated jobs, tend to be circumscribed by what we know. Maybe there is a sector in which new jobs will be created (some have suggested that as information becomes cheaper and natural resources become scarcer, work will head in that direction) but if we knew what it was, we’d be out there buying stock like crazy.
Finally, if this subject goes mainstream, South Park might revive its greatest catchphrase once again and do an episode where robots take everyone’s jobs.