As the unemployment crises of developed nations persist, there’s a growing sentiment that technology is to blame. It’s not just a neo-Luddite backlash against progress, but a fear amongst tech proponents that the bleak predictions of cyberpunk fiction may be coming true. They don’t have to.
It’s debatable how much technological progress is to blame for the current unemployment crisis, but it certainly will be a central issue eventually. Software engineer Jon Evans sums up the problem quite nicely:
America, Europe, and Japan all seem to be lurching from crisis to crisis without respite; most of the developed world is struggling with debilitating levels of unemployment; but at the same time, the tech world is booming like it’s 1999. Doesn’t that seem kind of weird?
It’s beginning to look like we might have entered a two-track economy, in which a small minority reaps most of the benefits of technology that destroys more jobs than it creates. As my friend Simon Law says, “First we automated menial jobs, now we’re automating middle-class jobs. Unfortunately, we still demand that people have a job soon after becoming adults. This trend is going to be a big problem…”
This problem, of course, is income inequality. In this plausible future (again, machine elimination of jobs is hardly the complete explanation for today’s crisis), the people employed to design and maintain automated systems would be the only ones with particularly well-paying (or essential) jobs. But there are seven billion people in the world, and it’d be hard to argue that there would be seven billion such jobs available. Those not fortunate enough to land one of the few crucial engineering positions would be left to do whatever menial work hadn’t yet been automated.
What a shame. After all, isn’t the entire point of developing technology to make things easier for human beings? In fact, as Capitalism++ argues, “Unemployment often creates the greatest breakthroughs in human history. We should not be striving for full employment, we should be striving for full unemployment.” [Emphasis original] Unemployment offers a lot of free time which, at the least, can be put towards leisure, and at best, can be channeled into creativity and realization of ideas. So what a shame that technology seems poised not to free billions of people from work, but to cut off or drastically reduce their means of supporting themselves.
Such horrible levels of inequality are an injustice; people on a mass scale forced to struggle to survive, all because they weren’t fortunate enough to snag one of the few top jobs. Even in a perfect and fair meritocracy, where all of the winners truly were the most qualified, the losers would hardly deserve their fate.
Surely, though, no one would stand for this. The disenfranchised would rise up and fight for their dignity, wouldn’t they? Jon Evans isn’t so sure:
It’s even been suggested that inequality may cause unrest and violence in the Western world. Don’t bet on it. True, inequality has provoked the Occupy movement, and to a lesser extent the Tea Party; but I’ve been around the block a few times, and take it from me, the world is full of nations with a tiny minority of the very rich, a slightly larger well-off elite, a small middle class, and a great majority who are various degrees of poor and struggling. Brazil, China, India and Russia, for instance, to name a famous foursome. There’s nothing unusual or inherently unstable about that kind of inequality. In fact, in most of the world, it’s the norm.
Perhaps inequality isn’t inherently unstable. Maybe a mass uprising and fight for justice isn’t inevitable. Then again, as Evans’ comment about the Occupy and Tea Party movements earlier in the paragraph attests to, inequality isn’t inherently stable either, and a mass uprising isn’t impossible. The bleak, unequal, cyberpunk-esque dystopia that Evans believes may be approaching is only one possible future, and it depends on us doing nothing to stop it.
Let’s not forget that labor-saving is far from the only thing that technology does. For example, manufacturing robots eliminate the need for human factory workers; they can also eliminate the need for factories. File-sharing and the Internet have worked to disrupt and threaten to collapse the entertainment industry, while simultaneously obsoleting it by empowering independent creative people to finance, promote, and distribute their work through peer-to-peer channels. Automated farming and hydroponic technology has put farm laborers out of work, but also opened up the possibility of low-maintenance indoor farms in every town and city. These are only a few examples of how for every swath of jobs destroyed by technological process, a whole new range of possibilities are opened up.
In this future, where most menial labor is automated, billions of people have no workplace to go to and be told what to do all day. They also have the tools to manufacture anything that they can model on a computer, release any artwork they can create to the world at large, and grow food right in their own communities. Suddenly, the playing field seems a lot more level. Instead of finding jobs, people can create their own.
Technological progress may very well create a future in which employers have less things that need to make people do. Good. It’s about time that the paradigm of supporting yourself by finding somebody to tell you what to do fell out of favor. But we need to ensure that once there are no more jobs to find, we all have the necessary tools and resources available to us to create our own jobs. We need to shift our society and our way of life towards this goal, and challenge the common notion that job-creation and entrepreneurship is only for a small minority of crazy, passionate, or rich people. It’s achievable, it’s doable, but it won’t happen all by itself.
A better world is possible, but it’s no more inevitable than a worse one. Making it happen is the first job we need to create for ourselves.