Tag Archives: work

Just how extensively will jobs be lost to automation?

automated-humanNew Scientist recently interviewed Andrew McAfee, one of the authors of The Second Machine Age: Work, progress and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. McAfee and co-author Erik Brynjolfsson are experts in digital technologies and economics (their previous book was called Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy). A basic question raised in the interview (and addressed in the book) is whether advances in technology will greatly reduce the need for human labor, leaving a large segment of the population unemployed. Their answer, basically, is ‘yes.’

In the interview, McAfee describes three possible scenarios. One, the disruptions could be more or less temporary. Technology has been eliminating the need for human labor in various segments of the workforce for hundreds of years now. But technology also creates new jobs. If it can do that fast enough, workers can be retrained, avoiding extensive periods of high unemployment.

Two, there could be successive waves of automation that have a much larger impact than anything we’ve experienced in the past. Automated driving, for example, will eliminate jobs that require a human driver. While this is but one of many examples of automation, it is by no means insignificant. According to the latest US census estimates, the largest occupation category among men was truck driver, employing 3.2 million people. The point is, in this scenario it will be difficult for the economy to adjust simply by retraining workers.

Three, the need for labor could be dramatically reduced. This is the scenario McAfee believes is most likely. There will still be a need for those entrepreneurs who create and perfect even more automation, but the rest of us will not be needed. Read more


Work, leisure and the self

As I anticipate writing yet another post on technology and the robotizing of the workforce, it occurs to me that I should perhaps say something about what this has to do with the self and why this subject interests me.

One very obvious observation is that — for almost everyone — work (employment) not only occupies most of our waking hours, but is a major component of our identity. And identity, of course, is a significant aspect of the self. Being involuntarily unemployed, for example, has a negative impact on our sense of self. Being a successful career professional (doctor, lawyer, architect, academic, hedge fund manager), as opposed to working at MacDonald’s for a minimum wage, is one of the ways we Americans segregate people into social classes. Social class — which relates to social status — affects how we feel about ourselves when we compare ourselves to others, as we inevitably do. (Social class is highly correlated with, but not identical to, social status. You can be from an elite social class, but if you murder your wife, your social status will decline.) I don’t think I need to say any more than this to make the case that work is relevant to issues of the self.

I’m interested in how our sense of self — how we regard ourselves — has changed over the course of the 20th century. Ever since I read Vanity: 21st Century Selves last year — where I was relentlessly confronted with what’s involved in being a self these days — I’ve been seeking explanations for how we ended up with the type of self we have today. I’d characterize this self as being so thoroughly psychologized that we can’t imagine not being preoccupied with (and this is the subject matter of Vanity) our self-esteem, our social status, the attractiveness of our bodies, the youthfulness of our appearance, and how many Facebook friends we have. Read more


Economic losers of the world unite! When work becomes robotic

Amazon Warehouse. Swansea, Wales
Amazon Warehouse. Swansea, Wales
Back in 1759, just as the Industrial Revolution was about to begin, Adam Smith published his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There he observed that while the division of labor in a pin factory would greatly increase worker output, it would also make workers as “stupid and ignorant as it is possible to become.”

And how are things today? An undercover worker in an Amazon warehouse describes his experience:

“We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves”, he said.

“We don’t think for ourselves, maybe they don’t trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don’t know.”


Robert Skidelsky begins his review of Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (by Simon Head) with a reminder of Adam Smith’s observation. Skidelsky is a scholar of Keynesian economics and the author (with his son Edward) of last year’s How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life. The review goes on to discuss the various ways in which smarter machines are indeed making us dumber humans. (emphasis added in the following quotations)

It’s no longer just assembly lines that are automated

In his latest book [Head] claims that computer programming is now applied to all the principal sectors of the manufacturing and service economy. Read more


Do what you love: The obligation to find one’s true calling

My favorite chapter in Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is “Career Counselling.” Here he discusses the modern idea that work should make us happy, along with the assumption that work defines our identity and the belief that it is work that makes our existence meaningful.

De Botton arranged to observe a career counsellor, Robert Symons, as he interacted with his clients (after obtaining the clients’ permission). (You can get a sense of Symons, who is also a psychologist, from the title of his unpublished book: The Real Me: Career as an Act of Selfhood.) Here are some of de Botton’s observations. (emphasis added)

On missing one’s true calling

[Symons] remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited – long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms – what they should properly be doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling’. Read more


My so-called writing life

girl-writingIt seems that the best way for me to figure out what I actually think about something is to write about it. This is true not just for personal matters, but for almost anything. Thoughts alone are too ephemeral and ill-behaved. This is the sense in which, for me, writing is research on the self.

This post contains a history of my relationship to writing. There’s probably more personal information in this post than will ever appear anywhere else in this blog. This is a blog on the self, not a blog about my self. Although, of course, indirectly and unavoidably, it is.

Invasions of privacy

When I was eleven, my mother read my diary. Not only did she read it. She read it out loud to the neighbors, apparently featuring the passages she found most amusing.

I found out about this when I was teased by a neighbor girl about something she could only have learned from my diary. She was the youngest of those neighbors who regularly lounged on the lawn of our apartment complex (and apparently not old enough to realize she should have been more discrete). I subsequently wrote nothing except assigned school papers until I left home, when it felt safe enough to write in a journal. Read more