A while back, I wrote a column here arguing that outsourcing was likely to become an issue in the 2004 Presidential elections. And it looks as if I was right. Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards, fresh from the rock-the-vote debates (and guest-blogging at tech-favorite Larry Lessig's site) writes:
happens almost everywhere I go, I got a question about jobs. And that
got me thinking about the many connections between technology and jobs.
Everyone knows how the tech boom of the late nineties created wealth
for Americans. But today, we're seeing a very different trend:
high-tech jobs moving overseas to countries like
As Andy Grove highlighted in a thoughtful speech a few weeks ago, there is a real risk that key elements of the technology sector will soon leave America the way other industries have. We can't afford to let that happen.
you scroll down to read the comments below Edwards' post, you'll see
that he got a (generally) favorable response, though there were quite a
few skeptics. Among the skeptics, I suppose, is former Clinton
Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who writes that it's not just the
All over the world, factories are becoming more efficient. They've installed new equipment and utilized new technology. And that often means fewer jobs. Market reforms have also played a role. In
reason is more, and better, machines, leading Reich to conclude: "The
issue we really ought to be talking is what jobs Americans, and
everyone else, will be able to find when machines are able to do just
To paraphrase Kent Brockman, I, for one, welcome our new robot employees. Er, just so long as they don't take my job away. But what jobs would there be, in a world in which everything is done by machines?
first question, of course, is whether we even need to worry. People
have fretted about automation ending employment -- and ushering in an
era of too much wealth and leisure -- for a century. Yet, somehow,
people have remained employed, and while we're a lot richer than we
used to be, a surplus of leisure isn't a problem for most of us.
soon, perhaps, machines really will be able to make pretty much
everything, cheaply, on demand, and with little human involvement. Nanotechnology
may offer such a possibility. What kinds of jobs would survive? Two
kinds, I think. The obvious kinds are those needing the human touch:
Massage therapy, perhaps -- though even here, machines are making inroads that can't be ignored. Teaching and law seem fairly safe (am I just fooling myself, though?) and so does acting -- er, unless it's taken over by synthespians.
Prostitution? Machines again. I won't link you to those sites, as this
is a family webzine, but trust me, there's competition there, too.
(Here's an article from Salon that should be work-safe. There's even a word, "prosthetute," from Greg Bear's science fiction novel, Slant.)
Still, I suspect that a lot of jobs that could theoretically be taken
by machines won't be, because people will still prefer the human
version; vibrators, after all, haven't put an end to dating, and
automats didn't replace restaurants with table service. But how many of
those jobs will there be?
other kind of job is more significant, and more likely to survive: the
kind of job that hasn't been invented yet. After all, I'm an "internet
columnist" -- a job that wasn't really in existence ten years ago.
Despite the fact that no linotype operators are employed in the
production of this column, it's not really true that unemployment has
resulted from the introduction of new communications technologies. Jobs
don't so much disappear as they change. If nanotechnology takes over
manufacturing, the importance of things like design, marketing, and
sales will probably increase.
Of course, at an arbitrarily high level of technology, everything can be done better by machines than by people. By that point, however, I suspect that people will be adopting some machine characteristics of their own: uploaded minds, computer-chip implants, etc., even as machines become more human-like, making the whole man/machine distinction somewhat beside the point. That raises its own set of problems of course (and problems, and problems again). But at least we'll have jobs...