Monday, December 05, 2016

The Logic of Technology and Future of Jobs

If we follow the talk, the future of jobs is bleak. Software is eating the world, as Marc Andreessen loves to claim, and he means it literally. Economists are now studying the probability that jobs such as Taxi Drivers and Restaurant Waiters would be automated in all seriousness. Technology seems to be reaching a tipping point that would transform the workplace.

In context, educators are right to be worried about the future of their students. There are things being said to mollify the duly anxious: That while the emergent technologies may destroy some of the jobs (in one estimate, 47% of the occupation groups employing three-quarters of the current workforce), it would create new jobs which we have not seen yet. While this is most certainly true and new professions will arise, such statements hide the fact that new economy jobs are just too few to offset the loss of old ones: Kodak, with its 130,000 employees, giving way to Instagram, with a dozen employees at the time, is illustrative of how these new jobs may play out.

However, it is important to remember that the current conversations about technologies and jobs are shaped by the historical experience, mainly of the Industrial Revolution. The underlying assumption of the technology evangelists are that it would all work out fine, just as it did then; those who fear the job-destroying technologies are also following the arguments that were used then, such as the collapse of the aggregate demand, and believe that what we see now is merely a more advanced, perhaps final, stage of that play.

There is a difference, an important one, though, between then and now. The technologies of the industrial revolution were designed to augment human productivity, and once education fully caught up with it - most West European nations achieved near total literacy by the end of the Nineteenth century - the new technologies created jobs and spread the prosperity. No one was necessarily talking about 'machine learning' then, primarily because there were ample profits to be found by expanding the productive capacity. This is different from the conversation we are having now.

The other important difference is the one about 'learning curve', which I used in my earlier post about which jobs may matter in the next three to five years (see Which Jobs Matter?). The argument is technologies are not autonomous, but they need learning - by human operators or in the machine learning form - to be productive. This takes time, and often, a deployment of technology would have to pass through a number of intermediate stages to impact practise. The current conversation about 'automation apocalypse' may therefore be premature.

There is a reason why it is intentionally so. Current developments of technology are often pursued independent of use, which is different how technologies may have emerged in the industrial revolution. This phenomena is caused by Venture Capital, which is a new thing, and while we may cite some examples of 'merchant adventurer associations' from the pre-modern times, venture capital in its current form and unique motivations is a completely new engine driving technology development.

This is usually seen as a good thing, as new products and services can emerge without having to battle out vested interests and conservative mindset like in the past. However, the 'dent-in-the-universe' ambitions of venture capital also has a serious downside: The technology creation and deployment becomes autonomous and disconnected from economic realities, causing bubbles to appear from time to time, leading to destruction of value but also social disruption. The venture capital industry (and I use the term in a broad sense, including family offices, sovereign funds, private equity and hedge funds etc., an industry which is tasked with recycling the surplus generated by the world economy) controls the public sphere - not just media but also democratic politics and interest groups, the intellectual ambitions and funding of the universities - and therefore, creates its own universe of ideas and conversations. 

However, this, in itself, insulates the development of technology from 'feedback', except in the hard edges of the business cycle. The existence of huge private surplus may free the development of technology from the trials and tribulations of daily life, leading to the celebration of an unprecedented acceleration of history, but the underlying logic of technology eventually strikes back as it should. This is because, while we may not notice it, learning curve is still very much in action, and while rhetoric may outshine the reality on a given day, reality hits home eventually and inevitably.

What do all these mean to our practical concern about students and jobs? It is that following the technology talk is often pointless. The starting point of thinking about student employability is not new and exciting technologies, but rather the sectors in transition. There is no denying that we have made significant progress in technologies, but not so much in altering our practises and ways of doing things. It does indeed seem that the world economy is entering into a period of lower rates of profit, slower growth, tighter financial conditions and a phase of disruptive politics, which is likely to set off another negative feedback cycle in technology utopianism. What will remain, however, the logic of technology, the steady progress of learning and slow integration of tools into everyday practises. The jobs that facilitate those, an Accountant who is adept in technology, a Supply Chain professional, a Multimedia News Reporter, will be the ones to look out for.

 



 

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