Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Truth About Jobs

Despite all of the hair pulling over "job-killing legislation" and blame-throwing about sending jobs overseas in our national discourse lately, you'll notice that no one has any real plan for getting people back to work. I suspect the reason for this is that unemployment these days has less to do with tax codes or trade agreements than it does with something we tend to like - Innovation.

The thing about innovation is that it is driven by a desire on the part of the innovator to Do Less Work. To be fair, it is also driven by a desire to improve safety and efficiency, but the pressure to come up with new ways to do more with less is ancient. Whoever built the first water-driven mill wanted to save time and strength previously devoted to grinding grain by hand, feed more people, and make more money. It worked. Mills grew into elaborate (and often dangerous) enterprises used in all kinds of manufacturing during the Age of Industrialization, and pressures from labor costs and safety measures drive the need to replace human workers with machinery. That pressure has increasingly driven the story of the past century or two, and isn't going away any time soon.

I'm not here to tell you that the continued and accelerating mechanization and automation of our world is "good" or "bad" - just that it's inevitable. And these are just a few of the obvious ways it's going to change in the next decade or two:

Truck Driving - I've talked with my friends about the Google Car, and how I think that within 5 years of hitting the open market, it will become unreasonably expensive for a human to afford the insurance needed to operate their own vehicle. Many people are skeptical that these self-driving cars are even possible, or that independence-minded Americans would "go for that" - but the technology has been growing up around us for at least a decade (sponsored by DARPA) and Americans have proven time and again that they'll buy anything if you convince them it's "safer" than what they have.

And while driving jobs won't go away overnight (there are nearly 1.5 million Teamsters Union members who will fight it), when it comes down to time, safety, and fuel costs, they won't be able to compete with the progeny of a Roomba and a TomTom in a Peterbilt. My guess is that long-haul cargo trucks will go automatic first, and local Fed-Ex or UPS delivery folks will hold out longest. And somewhere in there Zipcar will launch the first Johnny Cab.

Manufacturing - We've already gotten used to the idea of factory jobs disappearing; it's cheaper to pay a machine that doesn't worry about health insurance and retirement benefits to make stuff, after all. But a relatively simple innovation in 3D Printing is set to take even that away - or decentralize it and put manufacturing into every home. I guess it depends on your point of view.

This is one of those ideas that no one seems to see coming. Applications in food design and medical techniques have begun to creep into the public eye, first; and since plastic is already pretty easy to work with, it's likely that the marketing angle that hooks most of us is that you'll never need to run out to the dollar store to pick up little plastic doodads - just download them on the web, and print them out here. There's even a Makerbot on the market already.

Soldiering Surely this is a profession that will ALWAYS need people, right? Or have you been paying attention? Surely, you don't think the "future" isn't already here?

Just don't tell the U.S. military in Iraq... or the mercenary manufacturers. If that doesn't make you feel safe and secure, remember that they'll always need pilots to remotely guide these robots in the battlefield... oh, wait. Forgot about the Google Car.

Sales - Yeah, you might tell me that the ship has sailed on this one. The whole "Internet will replace stores" thing was debunked in a 1995 Newsweek article, wasn't it? (So, Mr. Stoll, what do you say these days about Amazon, eBay, and PayPal?)

But buying is just the end point of sales; won't we always need people to explain products to people and convince them to buy? Probably not. If anything, the runaway success that Google and Facebook have had in just the last five years ought to make you reconsider that career in retail. Some will still be able to make a living scripting and filming the adverts, but the sales floor will be your house, and when you click the PayPal button your new product will either print out on your 3D printer, or catch the next Johnny Cab to your door.

So what will we be able to do? Are there any jobs left? Are we going to let the robots take over? What will we do?

Small-scale, specialty farming is already a hobby in many places - perhaps more people will do things like this Garden Pool in their yard? Energy generation will likely continue to be profitable; getting decentralized, small-scale solar, wind, and geo-thermal will not only run your fridge and game systems, but provide you with income. Of course, maintaining those things is work, and it wouldn't surprise me to find that most people would rather leave that to machines, too, eventually.

So what's left? Reading, writing, music, gaming; we seem to have an endless capacity for entertaining ourselves. Will all of this mechanization and free time finally provide for everyone and tame our conflicts? Will we start taking serious steps into space? Or will we devolve into one of the many dystopian possibilities?

I don't know. I hope for the brighter visions. But in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy what I do.

Update: If you read this far, you really need to check out this post from Casaubon's Book: Efficiency, Substitution and Innovation isn't All It is Cracked Up to Be.


Tad said...

Another look at how quickly technology and culture have changed: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2011/05/03/135950239/bracketing-bin-laden-9-11-and-the-new-global-now

Tad said...

Ha! Another angle: http://scienceblogs.com/digitalbio/2011/05/funding_dreams_and_writing_adv.php