Friday, October 7, 2011

the death of jobs... literally

  i'm not at all surprised by the different reactions to the passing of steve jobs. i don't think anyone questions that he was an intelligent man, in the right time and place to make a lot of money. i don't want to get into a debate about his legacy, i'll leave that for, well, every other writer on the planet. instead i want to take a moment to address modern technology and actual jobs.
  i shiver a little when i hear our leaders, specifically president obama, talk about how american innovation will save our economy if it is nurtured correctly.  i think the president misunderstands what technology actually is.  at it's core, technology implies a reduced need for human labor.  eventually, innovation will sink an occupation based economy.  the post office isn't going bankrupt because it's mismanaged, or because pensions and pay are too generous, it's going to fold because of email and the internet.  the idea that "innovation" will make up for the 574,000 good jobs that will be lost when the u.s. post office does collapse is ridiculous.
  don't get me wrong, i understand that technological advances create hiring booms.  the industrial revolution created a boom that lasted for well over a hundred years in america.  think about it beginning in earnest in 1830 with the opening of the baltimore and ohio railroad network (yeah, you could go farther back than that, but i'm using rail transport on a national level as a signifier that industry has really transformed a country), and ending in the 1960's and 70's when manufacturing leaves for asia.  the "information revolution", which the late mr. jobs was intimately involved with, basically is a boom that last from the 1980's through the dot-com crash of the early 00's, a little less than 20 years.  since technological advances by nature lead to newer and more functional technology which thus can be used to create even more advances, something that was considered "innovative" will become obsolete quicker and quicker with each passing generation.  booms created by new technology will no longer last long enough to keep a nation hiring workers for any substantial amount of years.
  i don't know if there has ever been a bigger job killer than the smartphone.  it kills jobs in the traditional internet way; postmen, librarians, bank tellers, anyone who works in the entertainment industry, and of course, retail (all of these are jobs that haven't or can't really be outsourced).  hell, even stockbrokers, think about how little man power it actually takes to run any of that now.  and the kicker is that also kills the need for other electronic products like camera/camcorders and media players.  i understand that it takes man power and human intelligence to produce and program a smartphone, but it doesn't come close to the amount of jobs that it replaces.
  think about the magic pill.  think about if scientists invented a pill that was cheap and easy to produce, and could cure every disease.  maybe it's an enzyme that restructures dna, or a bacteria that kills every virus, bacteria, parasite, and cancer cell without harming the patient, or more likely it will be a cluster of nano-robots, but whatever, just say it's invented.  this is the dream of medicine.  this pill is a fixture, whether it's mentioned or not, in every futurist utopia; and it would mean utter economic collapse under our current system.  collapse for not just for doctors and researchers, but for the janitor who cleans the hospital, the factory workers who manufacture the beds, and so on.  and that's not even considering the strain on our resources and environment that increased longevity would bring.
  the iphone is the closest thing to the consumer electronics version of the "magic pill" that we have yet to see, but it surely is just the beginning.  barring some major global catastrophe, innovation will continue to make hundreds of thousands, if not millions of jobs obsolete with each coming decade.  optimistically assuming that human population plateaus in the near future (which it probably won't), this still presents a real quagmire.  how will we as a planet engulfed in employment based capitalism respond when the need for labor is greatly reduced?
  the irony of a man named jobs pioneering a field that lead to a reduction in the demand for actual jobs is quite astounding.  it's almost too absurd to be real.  but isn't it equally absurd to continue to use employment as means to prove worthiness in a post-industrial economy?  jobs will inevitably become obsolete faster than they are created.  let it also be know, for the record, that steve jobs expired on october 5th 2011.  i just wonder how many other jobs we will lose in the future, and how our global society will respond.