In our fourth seminar, we finally launched into the unknown and discussed the future of the internet and its impact on the economy. We discussed how blue and pink collar jobs, like barista, bus driver, factory worker, and sales associate may be the first to become obsolete as automation and AI replace relatively mundane jobs. Machines will likely be much better at these jobs, too, especially with big data that enables sites to tailor the experience/shopping recommendations to the consumer. My natural response to this, as is for many, was concern–automation will leave millions jobless!
Admittedly, there are strong reasons that this will likely not be the case, at least not any time soon. Just looking back historically, there have been many advances in technology that have caused people to worry about jobs becoming dispensable. Think of jobs that no longer exist like switchboard operators, milkmen, cobblers, etc.. According to this website, there was once even a job of being a “knocker-upper” who would knock on people’s windows in the morning so that they would wake up for work on time. Yes, your profession could be that of a human alarm clock! Yet, despite the loss of these jobs, technology has created new fields of work–an obvious example being the job of a computer programmer.
The author of this WIRED article that we were asked to read for our fourth seminar is also skeptical of the idea of losing all or most jobs to automation. Apparently, unemployment rates are currently lower than 5%. In addition, we are less productive than we were during World War 2, which would not make sense if jobs had become automatized by machines that presumably would be more efficient than human workers. The article also included the quirky statistic that in 2016, the U.S. spent almost six times more on pets than on robots.
But let’s say we put all of this data aside and legitimately consider a world in which few people work because everything is mechanized and programmed. Would this really be so bad? What if utilities and automated services were so abundant that they could be offered to everyone, like water at a public drinking fountain? Why would people need to work jobs to make money if everything was made available in this way? Do you need jobs and an economy if the economic “pie” of resources is large enough for everyone to get their share? This makes Elon Musk’s suggestion of the necessity of a universal income in the future quite believable. In short, if essentially everyone was jobless, we would have to reimagine our economic system. It’s not the idea of universal joblessness that is so worrying to me as much as the thought of the gradual process of getting there, and the plight of those who would be unemployed early on before a new system were to be put in place.
There is also, of course, the philosophical side of what purpose people will find in life without needing to make a living. For many, jobs provide a social community, a structured routine, and even meaningful work. Without that, will humans find somewhere else to direct their time? Only time will tell–if we ever get to that point.