Is computer technology destroying jobs?
Computer technology has brought us a digital revolution. We’re able to communicate in ways we never even dreamed of, becoming ever more productive, changing our daily lives forever. But as I am reading the latest book of Al Gore called “The Future”, and start to look around myself I also see a down side to this digital revolution. For example “is computer technology destroying jobs?”
As Gore describes in his book “The Future” the digital revolution has brought us much prosperity but is also changing our society in more unexpected ways. As computers make it possible to bring work to the digital sphere, the work in our local communities is disappearing. It can now simply be replaced by cheaper computer software, the internet or digital automated systems. A good example of this I find in the ever growing number of web shops. This could be seen as a positive development, as ordinary people are able to start their own online business using open source software, generating their own income when successful. The down side of this development is that local shop owners now need to close their doors cause of the tough competition the web is facing.
This trend has been going on quite some time now and is having its effect on jobs. The biggest difference between the modern web shop and the local shop owner is that shop owners tend to have high costs in employees, in rent for their store, in actual stock in their store, insurances etc, therefor in most cases also having higher prices. The web shop owner however is able to operate such an entire operation almost for free on its own, even being able to use “drop shipment” to only send orders to the companies that are producing the stock, who than send the products to the people that ordered them. So what we see here is that now 1 person can do what before needed to be done by a large group of people (not to name the jobs that are created by the rent of the store, the people who cleaned the store etc). Hereby having strengthened the productivity of a single person but thereby draining the jobs that less productive channels as local stores gave.
The loss of jobs by technology has been going on since the Industrial Revolution as machines took over jobs that were done by large groups of people. For example weaving machines for producing fine cotton, or farm machinery that replaced people who worked on the field. In those times jobs than moved to other sectors that weren’t fully developed yet, especially towards new services and products, brought forward by the rising quality and demand of people living in cities. Today most jobs in the West represent services, as many former labor intense jobs of the passed have been automated and have been digitalized by computer programs. The difference I see is that in the passed jobs were lost but new ones emerged cause of new developments and changes in peoples life styles. But today I don’t see sectors that can provide the amount of jobs (and money) necessary to provide in the ever growing demand for high quality jobs we need today and in the future. Today computer technology is changing our lives and work styles much faster and in a more extensive way than previous technological breakthroughs ever did.
The big difference we face compared to other technological breakthroughs is that in the passed we mainly came up with technologies that enhanced our human capabilities. We were able to produce more and a higher quality of food with the use of fertilizer, we created ways to be able to make calculations we could impossible do with our minds and travel to far off places with the use of cars and airplanes. The computer technology we are currently creating is in contrast not technology that is enhancing human capability but is also technology that is capable of replacing human capabilities entirely.
For example in the Netherlands we have a supermarket chain called Albert Heijn. The supermarket has introduced a self service model that lets consumers scan the products they want to buy and than lets them pay for it by themselves. In other words the job of cashier that is being done by millions of people around the world will most certainly disappear in the near future, as technology has made them entirely unneeded. It can be easily imagined how the automated filling of the store by machines can create a supermarket where no humans are longer necessary. The same can be said for banks and other institutions, as most banks (if not all banks) now use digital services and internet banking in stead of expensive personal at bank desks to provide us with banking services.
And that are just a few examples. Examples of human jobs that will potentially be in danger by computer technology in the more distant future can be seen when looking at AI, or developments in artificial intelligence. Google is currently developing their famous “Google car” that is able to drive on itself. This seems great, or so I thought at first. But on second thought this technology could also cause millions of people to loose their jobs. What to think of all the taxi drivers in the world who would not be needed anymore? The people driving subway trains? Bus drivers? Even airplane pilots? Will this and similar technology be able to replace them? The answer I fear will be yes.
These and more examples of computer technology that is “structurally” destroying jobs is a threat to our current economical system. As our capitalist model needs us to have a job that provides us with sufficient income to pay for a decent living (most importantly for water, food, clothes, a home, energy etc). But what if, as is now the case, more and more human jobs will be “automated” and thereby disappearing forever? It means less and less people in mostly low skilled jobs (that are easiest to automate at start) will not be able to live in this economical model anymore.
At first this could create a huge divide between rich and poor, as highly placed personal (CEO’s, managers etc) will be able to become ever more productive with the use of automated computer technology therefor earning more of the money that would have been made by larger amounts of people in the passed. So first there will come a divide between those who become ever more productive and those who don’t have access to those resources and fall in an economic gap. I hope that eventually this reaches a turning point on which people would impose a new type of economic model. Cause that seems to be what’s needed when large groups of people are not needed anymore for doing work and can’t provide themselves with enough money to live on.
By the time robots are able to take over even our more highly skilled jobs (already happening in for example flash trading at the stock exchange) and working by people becomes unnecessary, perhaps new models will emerge.
How are we able to create more and more jobs when computer technology can automate more and more jobs without the need of human labor? I believe this problem will be one of the biggest challenges we will face this century.
To end this story with a more positive note, my own hope is that eventually our computer technology lets us focus on that what is truly important. Simply living and enjoying life as we wish, without the need to do work we don’t like doing. Perhaps the system of working for organizations to earn money, to pay for our needs, can be replaced by technology that does all that work for us. Thereby letting us focus on getting the best out of ourselves. Not for earning the highest amounts of money but for getting the most out of ourselves as humans, just for the sake of it.
Also perhaps some new future technology will be able to provide us with billions of new jobs, a technology that is able to solve all the problems I fear for. Only the future will tell…