There is no question that technology continues to make menial jobs redundant: one journalist can now do the job of many, armed only with an email account and google, teams of bank employees that used to process checks have now been replaced with optical sensor technology, and tax accountants are increasingly becoming anachronistic as more and more sophisticated consumer software allows people to navigate doing their taxes on their own.
Is this altogether a bad thing? It would be easy to spin the story of our fledgling post-singularity society as heading to hell in a handbasket, but it would also to be possible to view it in a positive light. Rather than threatening our survival, perhaps it is allowing us to transcend survival.
There is a frequently repeated anecdote regarding housewives in the early 20th century and how household appliances were supposed to free up time and ease their burdens. As a plethora of appliances were invented and became available to the average consumer, fancy new household gadgets were increasingly marketed to women as tools to make their lives easier. The conclusion of the oft-repeated story is that even though increasing automation of household tasks made women’s jobs easier in some respects, it actually tied them even further the household. They became beholden to an army of appliances.
However, a study from 2009 by the University of Montreal suggests that the inventions of the fridge and washing machine are actually responsible for the liberation of women to join the working world. They became more free to pursue higher challenges. It is with this in mind that I wonder why so many people are scared of the increasing automation of our society at large.
In early 2014, The Economist published what I consider to be an alarmist word of warning against the computerization of jobs. They believe that as technology replaces more and more low-level jobs, we will have a smaller, more skilled workforce as well as rampant unemployment. Similar to the video I linked to a few weeks ago explaining the inevitable replacement of human labor with machines, it’s a little like the technological forecasts of the mid-twentieth-century, but with a dystopian rather than utopian slant.
To economists, of course, greater unemployment is the kiss of death to a healthy society. In the short term, I agree that employment results in a more robust global economy, but I disagree with The Economist in one important way: I don’t think that capitalism is the lens through which we need to view this issue. Similar to the Canadian housewives that were able to enter the workforce because hand-washing clothes became obsolete, perhaps being free of the shackles of labor for survival will free us up to accomplish higher level tasks.
For the last decade or so, we have been bombarded by survivalist, pessimistic science fiction. The 2004 remake of Battlestar Galactica is the perfect example of this proliferation of pop cultural warnings against our dependence on technology. The human race is nearly destroyed by our own robotic creations; the only humans that survive are the ones not connected to the internet, and therefore not susceptible to the high tech domination of the Cylons. I’m not sure exactly when this fear of technology in our culture became dominant; growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, there was always a Star Trek to balance out the Bladerunner, a Diamond Age to balance out the Neuromancer.
In the Star Trek version of the future, you can press a button, state what type of food or beverage you want, and it will appear. The protagonist is then free to discuss interstellar politics at his or her leisure. Are they bemoaning the loss of cafeteria jobs that inevitably succeeded the invention of such a food-creation device? No, that’s silly. They’ve surpassed survival by using technology, allowing them to spend their free time doing post-survival things, like drinking earl grey tea and discussing alien politics.
Just as household appliances allowed many previously housebound people to enter the workforce, the technology that will make our workforce obsolete will free us to spend our time doing more important things.