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The Real Job Threat 990

NicknamesAreStupid writes "The NYTimes reports on a book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee (MIT director-level staffers), Race Against the Machine, which suggests that the true threat to jobs is not outsourcing — it's the machine! Imagine the Terminator flipping burgers, cleaning your house, approving your loan, handling your IT questions, and doing your job faster, better, and more cheaply. Now that's an apocalypse with a twist — The Job Terminator." Reader wjousts points out another of the authors' arguments: that IT advances have cost more jobs than they've created.
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The Real Job Threat

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:45PM (#37834588) Journal
    Why didn't combines and massive tractors ruin agriculture jobs in the United States? I mean, they clearly replaced the work of many men and the same could be said then: "Many farm hands, in short, are losing the race against the machine." The combines got bigger and faster and more efficient and suddenly you even needed fewer operators!

    Well, the fact is that at first there were people that lost their jobs (the generation undergoing restructuring in their trade) ... I thought in economics they called this restructuralization unemployment or some such term that wasn't necessarily bad unemployment. But they found work elsewhere -- all four of my grandparents were dirt farmers and I sure the hell am not. Sure, I grew up working on farms but picking rock and bailing hay are chump jobs. I herald the man that does away with that work. I think this statement is universally true: You could provide someone the means to complete all the work they want and -- given they are industrious enough -- you can come back the next day and they will be ready to pay you for more work done in new and different ways.

    People have asked me if I'm afraid about open source ruining my software job. I couldn't be more diametrically opposed to that position. Open source basically makes me better at my job and ensures my future by empowering me to do my job better. I could give someone all the software they ask for one day and come back the next day only to have them asking me for more software.

    There will always be more work to be done and I think there will always be more software to write for a very very very long time. I'm more worried that people have forgotten how to clean a chicken or simply grow enough vegetables and plants to survive (should we ever be thrust backwards).
  • Re:Err ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:47PM (#37834620)

    No, it's been known since at least sometime in the 30s that there would be less and less need for labor in the future. What wasn't foreseen was the willingness of the working class to allow wealth to collect at the top and the increased consumption of things that people don't particularly want or need.

    Back then it was expected that in the future the normal work day would shrink from 8 hours to something more like 3 hours as workers got more done in less time. Basically failing to account for robber barons that tend to screw up such things and assuming that people would continue to support their own best interests.

    Obviously, they were quite wrong in that regard.

  • by Scareduck ( 177470 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:48PM (#37834642) Homepage Journal

    Your steam drill is calling on line one.

    Seriously, this is the kind of discussion we get from the economically illiterate. There is a story, frequently attributed to Milton Friedman [blogspot.com], regarding this sort of nonsense:

    "At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: 'You don't understand. This is a jobs program.' To which Milton replied: 'Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it's jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.'"

  • by spiffmastercow ( 1001386 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:53PM (#37834742)

    The problem with this absurd argument is that people want stuff, not jobs. The only reason you work a job is so you can buy the things you want/need. And if you don't have to work as much to get them, that's hardly a problem.

    The problem is that we're not willing to accept an economic system that's more in tune with the realities of modern life. If there's less work to do, we need to improve the quality of life per unit of work ratio to keep people from falling into poverty simply because there's no work for them to do.

  • by trainman ( 6872 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:56PM (#37834792) Homepage

    What are you talking about, we enabled them to program themselves years ago! http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2362

    But in all seriousness, I think computers and robots taking on more jobs is a GOOD thing, something we should encourage more. The debate at that point needs to shift, less jobs, more people unemployed, why would we have fewer and fewer people toiling away (harder and harder the way companies are pushing employees) with so many free bodies available? A more fundamental economic and societal shift will be needed, even the French 30 hour work week looks a little long at that point.

    I would hope by spreading the work out (which yes will mean the current economic model will require a LOT of re-tuning, Occupy Wall Street, anyone?) it will give everyone more leisure time, more time to enjoy life. Our finite existence on this planet should not be tied to a lifetime of labour, our job should not definite us. Let's make a better society for ALL through this automation, like the old 50s and 60s cartoons envisions. George Jetson button pusher, anyone?

  • Re:Why is it bad ? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TheCouchPotatoFamine ( 628797 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:56PM (#37834802)
    ....and now we can clearly show: taxes from the government help redistribute wealth accumulated through automation. Automation will DEMAND redistribution, or we will all starve in the midst of plenty.. which is a pretty stupid thing to do just to make one person obscenely rich.
  • Congratulations (Score:5, Interesting)

    by br00tus ( 528477 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:05PM (#37834962)

    Congratulations to them, they've discovered something Karl Marx talked about when he published Capital in 1867.

    What this means is a question of social relations. What it could mean is less working hours for everyone, more vacation time, more time for studying and learning, more time for out-there R&D projects, all the while with ever-increasing wealth. But that would be if social relations were in one parameter. Currently it means mass unemployment, chronic debt crises, and IP patent lawsuits. It means bust and boom cycles where in the late 1990s, Silicon Valley pulled in any kid with a high school diploma interested in IT and had them working 60-70-80 hours for years, before casting them off into long-term unemployment.

    Ever-increasing productivity could be something people looked forward to, instead of being something that was a real threat to putting food on their table, as the Luddites who smashed mechanized looms realized. That better productivity winds up harming the majority of people is a contradiction within the current system of production we live under. At some point, these contradictions become too great and the system breaks down, then it needs some major reconfiguring. We already see one thought of how this will be done in the US, with all this talk about privatizing Social Security and privatizing education into charter schools. Of course, there's little discussion of why the US spends so much on military bases in Cuba, or Italy, or Kyrgyzstan. Or why it needs 11 aircraft carriers, when there are only 20 aircraft carriers in the world, and only two countries with more than 1 (Spain and Italy). Aside from minor cuts that's not even a question, it's easier politically to cut money to the majority of old Americans or young Americans than the military empire.

  • by wjousts ( 1529427 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:21PM (#37835246)
    I agree. Now, I'm aware that I'm stirring up a hornet's nest here, but I think we, as a society, have just about wrung out all we can from the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism. It's had a good run and certainly outlived communism, but there is simply no one society model that is good for all time. Feudalism was okay for many years until society out-grew it. The industrial revolution made capitalism the best model for society, but now the information revolution demands different models of society. Inevitably there's more people, but less work. We need to figure out a different way to divide the Earth's resources. And no, I don't know what the answer is.
  • Re:Err ... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by BasilBrush ( 643681 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:27PM (#37835354)

    It dates back a lot further than that. The Luddites were destroying machines back in the 1810s on the basis that the machines would put them out of a job.

    The framing of the question is wrong. People don't necessarily need jobs. Certainly not repetitive ones, boring or drudge ones such as a machine might replace. What they need is the means to put a roof over their heads, care for their families and to have an equitable standard of living.

    If a machine replaces a boring or drudge job, that's unquestionably a good thing. If people are struggling to have a decent life because they don't have means, then society needs to change and deal with that.

  • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @04:00PM (#37835918)

    There's this crazy Protestant work ethic thing. So instead of everybody taking it easy we've converted all the excess workers who used to farm or do manual labour into people who sell us stuff, sue us, or entertain us.

  • Re:Maintenance? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by BasilBrush ( 643681 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @04:08PM (#37836048)

    Here's a novel idea. How about issuing everyone in the country with an equal share of the country's resources. And not a tradable share, as they'll just end up back in the hands of 1%. A share issued upon birth, thus diluting the value of everyones share, but destroyed upon death thus restoring value to everyone else's share.

    That seems fair.

  • Re:Maintenance? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by BasilBrush ( 643681 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @04:35PM (#37836524)

    At that point "unemployment" becomes "I decided to become an artist because I know I'll never starve to death."

    Absolutely. But there are a lot of other changes needed to make that happen. Currently, a lot of people, when they have no work to do, and have resources supplied (welfare) don't choose to do anything as noble as being an artist. They sit at home watching daytime TV, getting bored and fat and letting their kids create trouble in the neighbourhood. That isn't inevitable. But it's a problem that needs to be fixed. And it's bigger than just education.

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