Why Is It Bad For Tech To Eat Jobs?

Most jobs suck. Yours probably doesn’t–after all, you’re a member of the highly educated, cutting-edge TechCrunch demographic–but most jobs, almost by definition, are done by people coerced by the fear of not having enough money into doing work they mostly don’t want to do. We should be ecstatic about the prospect of robots doing that work for us. Shouldn’t we?

And yet everyone accepts that such a notion is terrifying. The New Yorker writes:

Are robots coming for our jobs? In fact, they began stealing our jobs a long time ago […] robots are already displacing, and will continue to displace, jobs that humans would like to keep […] robots or other machines with human-like skills have appeared in service industries, too.

(They apparently also misleadingly quoted MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, which is a pretty shitty thing for any publication to do, let alone The New Yorker.)

That central thesis–that technology eating jobs is a bad thing–is widely held. Brad DeLong says: “the average human will be highly productive in the robot world of the future but that does not mean that the typical human will be well-paid.” The Register reports: “Stop ROBOT exploitation, cry striking Foxconn workers.” Yes, that’s right: even outsourced jobs are being automated!

Meanwhile, the New York Times is writes about “the great wage slowdown of the 21st century,” citing “(at least for many workers) technological change.”

Yes, people voiced similar concerns fifty years ago, and a hundred years ago, and they were wrong. Why is this time different? Because of the profound, colossal distinction between then and now, which can be summed up in two words: Moore’s Law. We’re fifty years into a period of unchecked exponential growth. The world has never changed so fast before. And even if Moore’s Law ends tomorrow, much of its effects are only beginning to ripple out from the tech sector into the rest of the economy.

But, again, why do we want these concerns about tech eating jobs to be wrong? If technology destroys a large number of bad jobs, by being more productive than people, and also creates a smaller number of good jobs, shouldn’t that still be an unadulterated win that increases both economic productivity and human happiness? Why is it such a disaster if the old bad jobs outnumber the new good ones?

The answer, of course, is that our economies and societies are not built for an Extremistan world in which economic production is only very weakly linked to employment numbers. Think of WhatsApp’s 55 employees and $19 billion valuation, as an illustrative extreme. The Economist, in a special report on the prospect of technology destroying jobs faster than it creates them, describes this as: “Wealth without workers, workers without wealth.”

Meanwhile, “the share of employment in middle-wage jobs has declined, while employment in high- and low-wage jobs has increased,” according to the Centre for Economic Policy Research. One potential future is apparent: first the job market is polarized into the high end and the low end, and then robots eat much of the low end.

Consider, for instance, the effect of self-driving vehicles replacing the 3.5 million truck-driving jobs in America–but consider it carefully, after taking a step back from all of your usual socioeconomic assumptions. Consider that the tedious, dangerous drudgery of truck driving is a job that few actively enjoy.

Suppose self-driving trucks let us do all that work with 3 million fewer people, while creating 2 million better jobs with twice the salary elsewhere. How have we painted ourselves into a corner where that is somehow viewed as a bad thing? Why are we so scared of a future that boasts both greater economic production, and more people with the freedom to spend their time and effort however they desire? Shouldn’t a world with more output from fewer jobs (defined as “paying people to do things they don’t really want to do”) actually be extremely desirable?

Put another way: why would it still be important to maintain full employment in a world overflowing with machine-generated wealth available to everyone?

The answer, of course, is that it wouldn’t. But how do we imagine we’ll get to that world, if not via tech eating jobs?

Maybe the real problem isn’t that robots might replace truck drivers; it’s that virtually none of the resulting economic benefits will go to the newly unemployed drivers. Maybe the real question we should be asking is: “Why do new technologies so often serve the powerful first, and everyone else as an afterthought?

A couple of weeks ago I went for a sobering walk along the edge of The Jungle, a huge homeless camp (pictured above) barely a mile from San Jose’s City Hall, in the heart of Silicon Valley, arguably the wealthiest region of the richest nation on Earth, as cited in this MIT Technology Review piece on technology and inequality, which goes on to say:

The anger in Northern California and elsewhere in the United States springs from an increasingly obvious reality: the rich are getting richer while many other people are struggling. It’s hard not to wonder whether Silicon Valley, rather than just exemplifying this growing inequality, is actually contributing to it […] Simply put, as we getter better at automating routine tasks, the people who benefit most are those with the expertise and creativity to use these advances. And that drives income inequality: demand for highly skilled workers rises, while workers with less education and expertise fall behind […] Of course, a diagnosis is far from a cure, and a call to improve educational opportunities is far too facile—who could argue with that?

Indeed. If I’m right about the future, technology will destroy bad old jobs faster than it creates good new ones — and this should be a good thing, a cause for celebration. Unfortunately it won’t be, because our governments move too slowly to keep up with technology. But upheaval and poverty caused by technological unemployment will be a symptom, not a problem, and it will be futile to try to address it with either Luddite idiocy or rote calls for more education.

The real problem is far more fundamental. Our economy, as currently structured, insists that every household must have at least one member with either a job or independent wealth, and will continue to do so even as and when technology renders that demand inherently senseless. It’s a problem that will require far more sweeping solutions. Don’t blame tech for the symptoms; blame governments for their failure to address the cause.