Modern technology is never as apparent as when we are confronted by machines for which science has contrived some vaguely human characteristic: appendages that mimic the function of human hands, the tiny lens that watches you like a sentry’s eyeball, or even the recorded voice that is prompted at the other end of the line. Indeed, the harnessing of technology to carry out tasks once assigned to humans is a signature development of the past 100 years.
Automation has nonetheless been the subject of debate for as long as it has been around. For some, it is Pandora’s Box. For others, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Lately, the debate has acquired a new dimension — one that has given it renewed and heightened relevance.
Not surprisingly, the debates over automation began gaining mainstream media’s attention when the global recession took a particularly sharp downturn in 2008. With global unemployment rates currently reaching record-breaking levels worldwide, some analysts claim the effects of automation on both employment and the global economy today are unlike anything seen in the past. Any historical precedents have therefore become irrelevant, and are no longer adequate guides to tackling the unemployment problems we will have to face in the future.
The principal argument is that the encroachment of automated labor into the global economic system is happening with such unprecedented speed that economies are unable to produce jobs quickly enough to absorb the growing number of workers displaced by technological progress. John Maynard Keynes coined the term “technological unemployment” to describe this situation as he envisioned it in the 1930s. Some observers have now gone so far as to suggest that technological unemployment may soon lead to the collapse of our economic structures.
While proponents of this view make a compelling and reasoned argument, there is still no denying the fact that — over the long term — automation and technological progress will always offer the potential to create more jobs than they destroy. This is because technology in general has implications far beyond replacing humans in the workforce.
The negative attitude toward automation we are seeing today should be somewhat familiar to anyone with a memory going back to the 90s, when people worried that e-mail and the internet would destroy the postal services. Back then, there were a few who sounded alarm bells over the two relatively new technologies, as well. Today, of course, millions of people throughout the world have found jobs working for websites, information and communications technology (ICT) companies, and internet-based RingCentral phone service providers. And the economic and social benefits derived from the services offered by these companies have rolled over into other sectors. Engine Advocacy estimates that each ICT job in the United States creates 4.3 new jobs in surrounding areas and in other fields through the local multiplier effect alone.
No matter what changes are afoot in politics and society, no matter how many advances are made in the sciences, there are a few constants. One of them is that people must work to survive. Over the millennia, we have learned to manufacture tools that allow us to work more efficiently even as they afford us more and more leisure hours. Automation is a step forward in this progression. Obviously, we cannot argue for halting technological progress without running into absurdities. Machines are not the enemy. They’re the tools we use to gain an advantage.
“These troubles are sometimes misdiagnosed as the end of innovation,” says Erik Brynholfsson of the MIT Center of Digital Business. “But they are actually growing pains of what I and Andrew McAfee call the new machine age.”
Brynholfsson co-wrote the book, “Race Against the Machine,” with McAfee, who is principal research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The two offer a refreshingly sensible middle ground to the debate. “The key to winning the race is not to compete against machines,” they write, “but to compete with machines.”