People and Power – The Technology Threat

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A two-part Al Jazeera documentary examines how technology is hollowing out former mid-range skill, middle income jobs, and how that process is set to intensify over the coming decade. My brother and sister-in-law, who are both in outsourcing, say the studies they’ve seen on the number of jobs expected to be displaced come up with mind-bogglingly high estimates.

The documentary acknowledges that Luddites in the past have worried about workers being threatened by the march of technology when in fact growth has led to more jobs. But things aren’t that simple. The first two generations of the Industrial Revolution led to lower standards of large swathes of the population. And the prognosis for lower and even many higher skilled workers now is grim, with experts saying that they see the potential for substitution of workers as far greater than in other periods of technological advances.

Needless to say, these forecasts explain the reluctance of the top wealthy to continue to support public education. They don’t anticipate needing as many skilled workers. Moreover, well educated under-employed citizens would make for a more effective opposition.

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  1. jgordon

    When I was a kid I was always looking forward to the day when robots took over all jobs. But that day never arrived. Now, despite dramatic productivity increases all over the place people are working harder and longer than ever–getting nothing done except exhausting irreplaceable finite resources. What an illogical mess. It’s like digging holes and filling them up again over and over because there’s something intrinsically good in work, even if it’s pointless work. Well, there isn’t. People should not only not be rewarded for such pointless activity, they should be ridiculed for being such wastrels.

    Robots throwing people out of work is a great way to ween people off the industrial economy prior to its inevitable collapse, so I’m 110% in favor of it. Hurray! Maybe after they’re out of work long enough they’ll find something genuinely useful to do with their time, like grow plants way or cultivate psychedelics.

    1. washunate

      Yep, it’s amazing how scared the authoritarians are that citizens might actually have leisure time for fun and civic engagement.

      1. sam s smith

        I think its Calvinistic theology.

        If people are not working, capitlism will not work.

      2. ian

        Most of your fellow citizens don’t want civic engagement. They just want ‘experts’ to run things so they are free to play with their i-Phones.

        1. washunate

          That’s a pretty poor stereotype. Of course there is desire for more fun, and some subset of that involves technology. What’s wrong with that?

          And there is also desire for more other stuff – time with family, pursuing hobbies, volunteering, staring at the stars, making art, cooking, hiking in the woods, getting involved in politics…

          1. jrs

            It’s usually just a generalization from what tired and exhausted and time starved people spend their time on. Oooh people come home and watch t.v. or play with their ipods so if they worked 20 hour weeks they would do the same only TWICE as long!!! They’d just stare at their ipods another 20 hours! But maybe they do so now in part because they are too exhausted to do much else with their free time and everyone else they know is also chronically busy so it’s hard to even get together.

            Besides that you’d have a different culture with more leisure time, an individual who manages to get more leisure time and significant income to live on, may be good for them, but if everyone had more leisure time you’d change the culture. So may be television use or internet surfing would go up with more leisure time (although that kind of assumes all the face time people put in at work is being used productively …) but probably so would a lot of other things, like cooking and socializing and hobbies etc..

    2. aletheia33


      agreed that pointless work is really bad for people.
      have you ever got stuck doing it because it was your only alternative to being homeless?
      what do you suggest people do in order to feed their children while they are being “weened” off of it?
      seriously. what’s your suggestion?

      1. digi_owl

        “Permit me to issue and control the money of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws!”

      2. washunate

        That’s the thing. It is public policy itself that enshrines work in the formal economy with a monopoly on homelessness prevention.

        You can’t break individually; it will have to come through systemic change.

        And the reason change will come is because our system is doing an increasingly bad job of giving young people decent housing via work. The irony is if the predatory class could just be slightly less predatory, spread around just a little more of the wealth, our system would probably be stable for quite some time.

  2. Kas Thomas

    In 1900, if you lost your job due to technology, you could find another one because 99.99% of all jobs could be done only by humans. That’s no longer the case. From here on out, an ever-greater number of unemployed will be chasing the ever-shrinking number of jobs that can’t be eliminated (or crapified) by technology. That’s why this time, things for the Luddites are qualitatively quite different indeed. Historically so.

    The musical chairs game will continue until (as Frey and Osborne say) half of all jobs have been either been eliminated or turned into Mechanical Turk “gigs” a la Thumbtack (which pay far less than minimum wage and come with zero benefits). In the Uber economy there will be plenty of (non)employees living in their cars, perhaps giving new meaning to the word “livery.”

    1. James Levy

      I agree, and furthermore I object to the contention that in the past lost jobs are automatically replaced with new ones. If you scan the Rust Belt you’ll find that jobs lost in the 70s-80s were either 1) never replaced, 2) replaced with much less well-paid and socially valorized jobs, or 3) jobs did emerge, but the actual men (almost always men) who lost those jobs were not the ones to get the new ones.

      What Economists and their minions demand is that we be a nation of vagabonds, endlessly tramping from place to place like farmworkers in The Grapes of Wrath. And even that peripatetic way of living no longer guarantees anything. This inability of Economists to quantify the value of communities and rootedness and the self-esteem that comes from performing a socially respected occupation (like steel worker or tool and die maker) is one critical way in which their pronouncements are not only flawed, they are socially destructive.

      1. digi_owl

        Bingo. You can see this in how the most basic theories treat labor as a generic input to production, on par with steel or plastic.

      2. Brian M

        James Levy:

        What an awesome post.

        But what is the solution? it seems that technological change is inevitable? Is the only solution some kind of middle class level stipend for everyone? There will always be some need for workers and work, but the surplus population seems inevitable.

    2. washunate

      I’ve seen you post that link before, and it’s just not reflective of what has actually been happening. This romanticized past is simply a time when most of the workforce was in agriculture.

      The issue is not technology or manufacturing. Plantation slavery wasn’t exactly great working conditions and wages. Neither was child labor in factories.

      The issue is public policy, the distribution of resources.

    3. craazyboy

      Ever since the start of the 21st Century, I’ve been convinced everyone in America will become either a Bio-Tech Researcher or a Nano-Tech Researcher. It’s Greenspan’s “Flexible Workforce”… marching onward, ever onward…

      1. sam s smith

        Its interesting to note that the Enterntainment industry runs on the flexible work model. Studios no longer hire actors on weekly salaries.

        1. Sibiriak

          Studios no longer hire actors on weekly salaries.

          Weekly contracts exist under SAG/AFTRA rules, and actors hired as “day performers” have to be paid for certain intervening periods of a certain length–you can’t just schedule an actor three days on, three days off, two days on etc. and expect not to pay for the off days. (Of course, it’s a different story with non-union productions.)

          Performers employed on a daily basis may be called back on a weekly basis with an “on or after” pick up date, thus allowing Producer a 24 hour leeway. Whether recalled as a day performer or as a weekly performer, only one such break in employment is allowed per production. Day performers on episodic television paid not less than double minimum may be dropped and picked up once in each episode, subject to a firm pick up date being given. All others have a 14 calendar day intervening period. This provision, however, does not apply to a day performer receiving major role billing under the day performer exception.

          *This provision shall be 10 calendar days for domestic productions of theatrical films and features made primarily for television exhibition.

      2. JTMcPhee

        Both bio- and nanotech offer some really great likelihoods that accident, error, and/ or misanthropic evil intent will turn loose all four of the Horsemen.., a mild link among some with hair maybe justifiably on fire.

        Not to mention that a few people are starting to see some thorns among the roses of infinite Skynet, and that so artfully ill-named “artificial intelligence…” Some Scientists and even Engineers are noticing that none of the Three ( or Four) Laws of Robotics aren’t being built onto any part of the “technology:” in fact, they are shocked, shocked they say, to discover, the War Gamers are already fielding autonomous battle robots making “kill the fleshly pig and drink his blood” decisions. And a Commission has been commissioned to study the issue.. I wonder if any of them will review the “Terminator” movies, or that children’s favorite, the “Transformers” franchise, let alone generations of speculative sci-fi thought experiments that examine the Golem theme and fables…

        Stupid f___king humans. We do it to ourselves, for pride and profit and pseudopatiotism ‘n stuff…

  3. Ep3

    Yves, my first level accounting professor told me to minor in computers, and he was tremendously correct. All accounting today relies on database management, either SQL or some close cousin. Sure, u still have to be able to put together a balance sheet and P&L. But the more u can automate that, the less the traditional accouting function is needed.

  4. washunate

    This is one of those areas where I will continue politely but firmly pushing back against the technology/jobs neoliberal meme.

    The issue is not skills or technology or outsourcing or anything like that. Those are concepts created out of thin air to distract attention from the looting.

    Work is crappy today because public policy makes it that way.

  5. Jesper

    The three bottlenecks:
    1. Need for social intelligence.
    Not a bottleneck, just not there yet but voice- and facial-analysis is making progress. Maybe add the body-monitor read-outs (blood-pressure, pulse etc) and the feeling of the human can be analysed well. The tricky part might be the response but people are already today easily manipulated by sociopaths so….

    2. Need for creativity.
    Not a bottleneck. Music, movies and literature is more formulaic than ever now. Yep, I’m feeling old….
    & already today many creative people work for nothing, some earn a little and even less can live on their creative talents.

    3. Environment is needs to be more structured.
    Not a bottleneck. Most working environments were many are working are hugely structured.

    If nothing is changed then the future will belong to two groups: capital owners and the few who managed to out-compete the rest. Impossible to guess which of the two group will be the largest.

    The question is how to divide all the efficiency gains.

    1. digi_owl

      About 2, systems like Watson may well be more creative than humans because it can “jump” educational pillars.

      More and more discoveries as of late has come from someone looking over the mental partitions between fields of study and gone “hey that looks like something we already solved over here”.

  6. dk

    When population increases past the point where each individual can contribute unique or rare capability, that population (the individuals in it, by eventual extension the population as a whole) becomes more vulnerable to predation in the form of consolidation of skill for competitive advantage. Being able to off load work performance from the species entirely only exacerbates the problem.

    In our quest for preserving life from challenge (disease, trauma, war, disaster) we have generated a population too huge to manage to our own satisfaction(1).. We achieved this by creating elaborate technologies; we have always leveraged these technologies against what we considered threats, without foreseeing that over-leverage would cause us to threaten ourselves. This is now happening on several fronts, it distresses me somewhat when people notice one or more fronts without including population as a driving factor in the base scenario. Of course, this is not the only way in which a group/community/culture/species can fail, but it’s the one that’s happening now.

    1) Diversities, which are healthy for populations in the biological and cultural sense, make uniform management impossible; the ideal of uniform management is purely abstract, arising when an individual (or small group) sees themselves as independently superior to others. This kind of thinking arises from a limited view of hierarchy which limits itself to pyramidal tree models. Pyramidal trees are powerful general tools, but they can be optimized for given tasks, by rendering to other models/shapes.

  7. TG

    The rich don’t care about higher education because they know that there is a virtually infinite supply of skilled (and unskilled) workers in the overpopulated third world. Oh, and of course, because our present generation of oligarchs is completely short term: it’s how much can I strip-mine from the nation before it’s all used up, then I will simply sail away on my yacht, renounce my now-worthless citizenship and wring my hands that the American people were not worthy of my great leadership.

    Automation does not greatly threaten unskilled jobs. This is sometimes called “Moravec’s Paradox”: what seems simple to us, like sorting laundry, is in reality a very complex task, and what seems hard – like playing chess at the master level – is actually easy. It’s just that sorting laundry SEEMS easy because this is the kind of task that the human body evolved to do. For example, the “Roomba” robotic vacuum cleaner is, after all these years of development, still just an expensive toy. It has zero impact on the market for janitors and maids. Wages for American janitors and maids have fallen because of massive immigration, combined with all those people displaced from outsourcing, flooding the market for labor.

    The issue of automation displacing “skilled” workers is more complex. Certainly it is not having a substantive impact NOW. It may have an impact in automated tech support and things like that. More generally? Until computers have true natural language ability and have solved the “grounding problem”, I suspect not that much. As of this moment, we are a lot farther away from solving these issues than you might think.

    1. tegnost

      as noted above, public policy, i’ll add politics of envy… when my tech friends start saying no one will have to work or drive “in the future” because everybody will have their own robot to go to work for them I am impelled to point out that the inventor of the robot class will take all the remunerative gains produced by that productivity increase, just as now when these same individuals discuss the huge payout they will get when their next program/product/, productivity enhancing computer thingy is released…can i get paid to build a house and when its done get a portion of the sales price, i’ll take it quarterly or you could just buy me out that’s ok too…

  8. Jef

    The latest jobs report knocked off another 400,000 + workers out of the work fource and before you say it…no it was not retiring boomers it was predominantly in the 18 to 35 year olds.

    Eventually we will need to automate consumerism to keep up with automation of production…its simple math folks.

  9. akaPaul LaFargue

    Ford is an advocate for Basic Income so I wonder if in Part Two he appears and proposes BI as a solution.

  10. Steven

    This country’s fate was sealed when the children of its Robber Barons turned the wealth their ancestors had accumulated for them to Wall Street and its banks, just as Britain’s was foreordained when the wealth of its landed aristocracy and its first industrialists was monetized and sent beyond its borders in search of higher returns than could be had at home. For the monetarily wealthy, all that matters is the ability to buy low(er) and sell high(er). There is no ‘long term’, no ‘investing’; there is only day-trading, nothing beyond the legally enforceable details of the current deal, beyond finding the next ‘greater fool’.

    It is a measure of just how insane the public mind has become that someone like Mitt Romney could get away with calling himself a patriotic American and ‘wealth creator’ by selling out the country. (It was probably the same kind of thinking behind all the treason by Ford, IBM, Standard Oil et al. during WWII, i.e. they had a higher duty to make themselves rich regardless of who won.)

    Frederick Soddy listed the three ingredients of genuine wealth creation as discovery, natural (i.e. inanimate) energy, and diligence. Mechanization and automation have perhaps all but annihilated the need for diligence. But along with it they may have also destroyed opportunities for discovery, at least in connection with the processes necessary for sustaining life. How many of us would have a basic grasp of the science required to make a ‘discovery’, e.g. to understand and perhaps improve the processes employed in say an oil refinery or a magnetic imaging device?

    Oligarchs, not just in the US but the world over, are probably united in their belief of the transcendent importance of money. Who needs science and technology, an industrial society, when the world is teeming with skilled and unskilled labor and resources you can buy with money you don’t even have to have? Just ask Janet Yellen and her Fed to create it for you.

    It is not yet clear that the leaders of China and other developing nations understand what Western oligarchs apparently do not – the real sources of wealth and power in the modern world. Particularly in the US there seems to be a belief a country can specialize in high technology death and destruction, leaving the production of day to day necessities to countries that haven’t yet caught onto the secrets of financial engineering and the essential worthlessness of the private money they are creating – even when they succeed in offloading it onto a gullible public using clever euphemisms like QE for their looting.

    But the day may be fast approaching when we find out – whether the Chinese, for example, remember that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” (‘and our enemies are so stupid they have destroyed the foundations of the power they once used so effectively to colonize and oppress us’.) The date of the last ‘big game’ is fast approaching with the West’s oligarchs staking their (our) all on the US dollars they’ve been able to stack up in their off-shore bank accounts (a pair of twos) against a combination of most of the world’s industrial capacity and a workforce that knows how to use it and Russian fossil fuel resources and military technology.

  11. Mark

    In the fall of 1970, Governor Reagan’s aide Roger Freeman, who later served as President Nixon’s educational policy advisor, while he was working at the time for California Governor Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign, commented on Reagan’s education policy: “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective about who we allow to through higher education. If not, we will have a large number of highly trained and unemployed people.”

    1. Steven

      I’d bet the first draft of the Patriot Act came shortly thereafter. Now I know why we need the Homeland Security Agency!

      1. sam s smith

        If you watch film from the protests and riots of the 1960’s, that is what the oligarchs are afraid of.

        Dealing with that is the true mission of the Dept of Homeland Security.

  12. Anonymous123

    My husband and I were actually discussing this exact issue yesterday. I was pointing out that in economics, the Solow model assumes that technology increases the potential output of the economy–the tide rises for everyone. But what we see in reality is that technology actually contributes to massive job losses for some groups, which is never accounted for in the model–groups that may have very specialized skills and are hard to retrain, in some cases. My husband argued that since the Solow model predicts long term growth, so many of these short term inefficiencies are moot in the long run. But I think the problem remains that you can have a skill mismatch that persists for quite some time. Can a radiologist (a job ripe for automation) really be retrained into a job that still gives that individual a similar level of income? Doubtful. I think models like this show just how much economists are divorced from the reality of what’s happening on the ground.

    Reader thoughts?

    1. craazyboy

      Well, combine massive job loss and the fact that corporate American has been successful in reducing the effective corporate tax “burden” over the last 20 years to half of what it was, in terms of the percentage of USG tax revenues collected from individuals vs. corporations, we should be able to more accurately predict when America ends.

      OTOH, in the mundane biz world we began transitioning from sneaker net in the ’80s, so I’m rather pleased the “professions” are finally catching up. IBM’s Dr. Watson could be a huge benefit – depending on what his fees are, of course.

      Then again, Dr Watson’s fees could be mitigated by going to the advertising model. Health care and pharma companies could buy ads from Dr. Watson and Dr. Watson would diagnose illnesses and recommend the advertiser’s products and services. That could happen too. Dr. Google!

    2. washunate

      I’d observe that output of the economy and tide rises for everyone are two different issues.

      Technology has made us enormously richer. Medicine is a great example of this. We also do a terrible job of allocating that wealth. There, too, medicine is a great example.

  13. Bill Houghton

    In medicine, a computer scanner can look at a tissue slice and diagnosis it as well as the pathologist, most of the time. The pathologist is out of a job. In some subtle cases the scanner gets it wrong. Nurse practitioners can prescribe medication almost as well as doctors, for large numbers of people. What are called “treatment guidelines can steer them pretty well, and even the MD workers start to use the guidelines after a while. The technology has advantages for large numbers of patients. The two areas where it misses are more subtle diagnostic challenges, and the fact that many ordinary citizens, as patients, can tell that they do not have a full human being helping them. They can tell they are doing with a robot . The result is that they will not form a firm attachment to the caretaker. Feeling more alone, particularly under a time of stress, it’s apt to lead to more mental illness. Not only will there be fewer jobs for the middle class, but many people will be more depressed. Would you rather live to be 110 years old, and be unhappy, or would you rather work and be happy, but die at 60?

    1. JTMcPhee

      …are those the only two choices? Really? Though I see that a few among the Elite are planning to live forever, and that assisting with suicide has great franchising potential.

  14. Felix

    An easier and cheaper way to make medical care more efficient would be to eliminate measures of patient satisfaction and outlaw the use of antibiotics for the common cold…..don’t bother visiting the doctor because you are not going to get what you want…….outlaw the use of narcotics for chronic musculoskeletal pain……don’t bother visiting the doctor because all you are going to get is over the counter motrin………and eliminate the entire work/disability/cash nexus……you don’t get to visit the doctor to get an off work order……..perhaps there could be a mandatory allocation of sick days to be taken for whatever cause……..That would take care of about 80% of all primary care visits……with no deterioration in the quality of care…….And why would a hospital buy a DaVinci robot for surgery for 2 million if it was really anything other than a marketing tool? Invest the 2 million and hire yourself a surgeon from Bombay…..a lot cheaper……surgical robots are just that……marketing gimmicks aimed at unsophisticated consumers. Even better……a computerized laser Robot!!!!!

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