As far back as I can remember I’ve heard that jobs will be replaced by technology. I heard it when I was a kid growing up on a steady diet of sci-fi books in the '60s. I heard it while we were automating chip development and manufacturing in the early '80s. And I’ve heard it ever since computers became an integral part of our lives.
So far that hasn’t happened, but it certainly hasn’t stopped the fear mongering. In Race Against the Machine, MIT Sloan business professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee pick up where others left off, proposing that the pace of innovation in the high-tech world is putting people out of work and hollowing out the middle class.
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That of course led to plenty of articles with ominous headlines like How Technology Is Destroying Jobs, Why Workers Are Losing the War Against Machines and Millions of Middle-Class Jobs Killed by Machines in Great Recession’s Wake.
While there has been a growing gap between productivity and employment since 2000 economists are by no means in agreement on the cause. Many say it almost certainly resulted from a combination of the recession following the collapse of the tech bubble in 2000 and the anemic jobless recovery that followed the great recession of 2008.
Meanwhile, in You Are Not a Gadget -- which preceded the MIT researchers’ book by two years -- Internet and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier provides a more nuanced perspective that’s both intriguing and plausible.
The computer scientist makes a powerful case that it’s not technology in general but the digital collective of Web 2.0 and the “open” paradigm that “screws the middle class,” according to Lanier. “Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor," Lanier writes.
There’s no doubt that the two recessions had a major impact on the growing productivity and employment gap and the decline of median household income in the U.S. But it’s no coincidence that the advent of Google, open source code, user-generated content, the blogosphere and social media all coincide with that timeframe.
In a 2010 essay, Lanier wrote, “We're well over a decade into this utopia of demonetized sharing and almost everyone who does the kind of work that has been collectivized online is getting poorer. There are only a tiny handful of writers or musicians who actually make a living in the new utopia, for instance. Almost everyone else is becoming more like a peasant every day. And it's going to get worse.”
The distressing unemployment and labor participation rates among Millennials may very well lend fuel to Lanier’s premise. It’s a popular notion that young adults are out of work because there are no jobs, but I think it’s largely by choice. Instead of cutting their teeth in the workforce, millions have drunk the Kool-Aid that they’re “the entrepreneurial generation” and struck out on their own.
The problem is, instead of building real companies and making a living they’re slugging it out with the rest of the digital collective: blogging, tweeting and personal branding their way to poverty and ending up boomeranging back to their parent’s home or falling into the ever-growing government safety net.
Contrary to popular belief, technology is not destroying jobs. That’s a ludicrous theory and a convenient excuse for a sluggish economy and a government that’s anything but business friendly. But the more we behave like drones in a digital hive, the poorer we become. And that’s entirely by individual choice.
Ever since the industrial revolution we’ve worried about machines taking our jobs and technology taking over our lives. Somehow -- perhaps by virtue of our adaptability, intelligence and individuality -- that fate has not yet come to pass. But that doesn’t mean it won’t. It’s entirely up to us. Technology does not control our destiny. We do.