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John Calvert, Fargo, Published August 18 2012

Burnout, despair in future?

Although the Great Recession officially ended more than two years ago, unemployment remains almost as high as it was during the worst part of the downturn. Laid-off workers are seldom called back, and new employees are not being hired. Job growth is so weak that it doesn’t match the growth of population.

Employment is usually the last thing to recover, so some analysts say that this recession was a normal, if severe, slump in the business cycle and that jobs will come back as they always have. Others say the current stagnation is structural and that major innovation is needed before jobs will return.

Third view

But a third view is gaining traction. This one claims that today’s unemployment is due mainly to automation – machines replacing human labor – and that things will get worse as this Third Industrial Revolution creates far more disruption than did the advent of steam engines and electricity.

Two MIT professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, say in their controversial new book, “Race Against the Machine,” that while automation expands overall wealth, it also creates losers who may not comprise “some small segment … like buggy whip manufacturers,” but, “in principle … a majority or even 90 percent of the population.”

Can human labor coexist with a technology that changes at an exponential rate?

Consider: According to Moore’s Law, computers double in power about every 18 months. Already, they beat the sharpest contestants on “Jeopardy!” and every grand master at chess. They can analyze documents faster and more accurately than a platoon of lawyers. And robots these days don’t just assemble cars, they also drive them. They do soldiering, and they do surgery. Soon technology may mimic not only the intelligence of the human brain but even its moral sensitivity. Project Moore’s Law a few decades hence and ask: Will there be anything left for humans to do?

‘The End of Work’

Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggest reforms, like teaching entrepreneurship, encouraging business start-ups, and so on. But none of these touches the issue of whether work has a future, given what they admit is a “growing mismatch between advancing digital technologies and slow-changing humans.”

In “The End of Work” (1995), Jeremy Rifkin argues that “much of the human race will never cross over into the new high-tech global economy.” So, we will need a “new social contract,” one that would decouple income from work. This contract would include such things as a guaranteed annual income, work-sharing and, most especially, volunteerism. This latter would pay a living wage for services in tutoring, health care, homeless shelters, neighborhood clean-ups and other worthwhile tasks to be performed mostly at the community level. Without safety nets like these, Rifkin says, we will have a permanent underclass wreaking havoc on a global scale. Thus “redefining the individual” for a jobless world “is, perhaps, the seminal issue of the coming age.”

Pessimists right?

This pessimistic scenario has its skeptics, who say that history has always proved the Luddites and doomsayers wrong. But the pessimists reply that what is different this time is that machines are replacing not just physical labor but mental labor, too.

What if the pessimists are right? If so, then we face a crisis that has no precedent. Mass joblessness would require a radical redistribution of wealth along with new power arrangements for administering it. Who would do this, and according to what rules? And how would humanity cope with leisure that is unrelenting?

No one in public life is talking about this. But it’s a specter that warrants debate today. Tomorrow may come sooner than we expect.

Commentary page contributor Calvert is a retired university teacher.