Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Shadow Work, Or the Rise of the Machines

"Remains Of Ancient Race Of Job Creators Found In Rust Belt" recently proclaimed the headline on the ever trenchant The Onion website.  The article described the ruins of America's industrial heartland as if they were the remains of an ancient civilization that, amazingly, once provided high paying jobs to all its inhabitants.

As to how the ancient cities of employment fell into ruin, scholars have argued the job creators may have exhausted their resources or, perhaps, been killed off by a competing race of foreign job creators.

"The remaining local population has its own mythology to explain the job-creating race's disappearance," Decker said. "Legend has it that they never died out, but rather entered a state of deep slumber from which they will one day awaken, bringing increased employment with them."

"And perhaps it's best to let the locals hold on to this belief," Decker added. "It's really the only thing they have left."

The bittersweet humor, of course, comes from the fact that America's manufacturing prowess led the world until just a generation ago when a combination of forces -- industrial automation, cheaper foreign goods, the stagnating competitiveness of American companies, anti-unionism, free trade agreements, stricter environmental regulations, etc. -- caused millions of blue collar jobs to disappear.  In the wake of deindustrialization, workers at the bottom of the labor ladder have seen their opportunities for living wage employment shrink dramatically.    

Alarmingly, the forces that decimated American manufacturing are now working their way through white collar jobs as well.

Technology, of course, has been eliminating service jobs for years.  Americans now do increasingly amounts of unpaid "shadow work," a term coined by the Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, in their day-to-day activities that once would have been handled by actual workers.  ATMs have reduced the need for bank tellers; word processors replaced stenographers; self-service checkout lines have displaced cashiers and baggers at brick-and-mortar stores; travel websites and airport check-in kiosks have reduced the number of agents needed; DVD rental by mail has eliminated video stores altogether.  We accept this shifting of responsibility because it often leads to lower costs or greater convenience. 

But as the pace of technology improves, the range of jobs being eliminated has exploded.  In their new book, Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (2011), MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee examine technology’s role in the jobless recovery over the past two years.  They note that rapidly growing productivity among American workers and record corporate profits in 2010 and 2011 have failed to translate into new job; instead, companies increased spending on equipment and software by 26 percent since 2009.

With increasingly sophisticated software able to perform tasks once thought to be distinctively human -- such as understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns --  automation is rapidly eliminating jobs in call centers, marketing and sales.  As the capabilities of computers increase, almost no industry will be immune.  With Google's robotic cars now logging thousands of miles each year unassisted, the days of that quintessentially human occupation of truck driving may be numbered.

In short, virtually any "process" job that involves repetitive steps is likely to disappear eventually.  The key to success in this new environment, the authors argue, is to focus on jobs that require intuition and creativity — traits that computers perform poorly.  Whether the US education system is up for preparing students to tap those necessary skills is a topic for another blog entry . . . .

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