A Little History
It’s 1965. I am working as a junior clerk in the research and development department of a national railway in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. My main task is to type up the results of pricing estimate calculations done by one of the approximately 125 men who sit in 10 ranks of desks behind me, 12 to a rank. They all work on the most advanced Friedan mechanical calculators. Their job is to use the local knowledge that they developed through practical train handling experience on parts of the cross country rail network to work up price estimates for the point to point potential movement of goods for customers.
These men share some important traditions. For the most part, they are all older men with a long career working around freight trains on the railway. When one of them retires, they all move up a desk. Understanding your career path is easy in this department.
Whenever this happens, a new recruit is found out on the rails. Many men out there want this desk job. It pays better, and the work is warm – office work. But not all of the who want the job have the math skills needed to do the job. Only the ones that can demonstrate them get a chance.
The department chief clerk also takes care to ensure that knowledge of the rail configuration for entire railroad is always present in the room. Understanding your career path is easy in this department.
Once here, the new man rapidly learns to take part in the group’s Friday afternoon tradition. They called it “the train leaving the station”. At 4:30, the most junior of them, sitting at desk one in rank one, entered 999999999 times 111111111 into his calculator. As his Friedan started chugging out the calculation, the man behind him did the same, and then the next man and so on. The sound in the room sounded just like an diesel engine picking up speed as it started out of a train station. By just before 5PM, the last calculator sighed to a stop. The men got up and go home for their weekend.
Then along came a young engineer called Russ. He has just learned FORTRAN at a special course for engineers at the local university. He thought he could program an IBM 60s mainframe computer to do these calculations.
It took Russ just three months to write a computer program which estimated pricing for movement of various goods from point to point in the network. It took him another 3 months or so to capture the local knowledge of the 125 men in the desks behind me in a variety of tables that he used in the program.
The men and the program work side by side for a month. At the end of the month it is clear. The program can produces results at least as accurate as the calculations done by the men. And the program can do it must quicker, even in a batch card mainframe computer environment. Beside speed of calculation is not that important. Overnight results are perfectly acceptable. That is faster than the fastest of the men, who usually took two days to complete a pricing estimate.
The computer program is implemented. 126 jobs disappear overnight (theirs plus mine). It’s the first first time in my career that I experience the ability of technology to destroy jobs. My response is simple. I learn how to program computers.
Since Then, I Have Been in the Business of Destroying Jobs
First as a computer professional, and then as an IT executive, I have delivered on countless technology project. Every time, the business case was based on replacing the cost of people time with far less expensive, and often much more reliable, machine time And I am not the only person to do so. Business has been doing this steadily since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But computers made it possible to extend this from the factory floor to every aspect of enterprise.
At First, We All Benefited
The tremendous increase in productivity that we have experienced in the Western world since the Second World War is the result of the applying technology to making of things, the growing of food, the harvesting of useful things from nature, and the management of information in offices. The resulting productivity growth has driven a dramatic increase in our quality of life. Every thing became cheaper at the same time as average income increased. To most of us who grew up after the Second World War, it seemed like this would never stop.
But I never forgot that first lesson. The economics of technology investment is simple. Replace something that costs more in the long run – human labor – with some that cost less in the long run – machine labor. As long as we lived in a world where we could endlessly expand – because we were trading with the underdeveloped economics that were far behind us – or because there seemed to be no ecological cost to exploiting natural resources, our societies just boomed along.
Technology Ruled, and Had a Hugh Impact on Defining our Society’s Culture
We live in societies where jobs, as well as being the source of family income needed to maintain the family’s members, are an important part of our identity as social beings. More and more, after the beginning of the 20th Century, a job defined who a person was. Job based income was the primary way to support a family. Sometime during the 19th century, for most people, who you were socially became less a function of the land you owned and more a function of the work that you did.
And this trend continued during the 20th Century. By the end of the century, this was true for most of the women in Western societies as well. Women entered the labor force in large numbers after the Second World War. Their jobs, as well as the job based income they contributed to their families, became an important part of their personal identities as well.
Increasing Productivity, and Aggregate Growth In the Size of the Gross Domestic Product, Became the Core Way We Defined Progress in the 20th Century
Throughout the 20th century, we kept finding new ways to use technology to reduce the hours of labor (which translates to the number of jobs) needed to produce the products we needed, the food we eat, the raw resources we harvest, and the services we consume. As we were doing so, we were also constantly increasing the “quality of our lives”, measured largely by disposable family income, and an ever increasing supply of products, food and services. We knew that we had it good. And in the short term, year over year, we did.
Human Beings are Not Great Long Term Anticipators
We are human. Our evolved strength as individuals is to look out over this season, and do some planning for next one, and maybe the one after that. A few of us think about over longer periods of time – as measures by generations and decades. But most of this is speculation. Of all of the speculation that was done in the 20th Century about the future, only a very small percentage turned out to be accurate, as evaluated by the passage of historical time.
Even when those of us who speculate about the future share their speculations in writings and other forms of communication, most of us don’t act on what they say, either as individuals or as societies.
The Consequences of the Destruction of Jobs by Technology Has Built Up Steadily
In the last five decades, we destroyed jobs in manufacturing, in agricultural, and in harvesting natural resources. When we first realized that this was happen, we talked about becoming a service based economy. The productive use of technology in manufacturing, agriculture and harvesting allowed us to create more jobs in the service sectors in our economics. We took some of the economic “wealth” created by this growth in productivity, and used it to “finance” the creation of these jobs.
Then toward the end of the 20th century, we started to apply technology to office and other service jobs. We began to have some sense of what the inevitable impact of this trend. But we were not clear about it. So we talked about becoming a knowledge based economy.
We still needed jobs, both for the identity they created, and for the job based income we needed to support families. As we used technology to destroy office and service jobs in the public sector, we created more and more new jobs in government. We also expanded tax financed service sectors such as health care and education. To pay for it all, through the magic of money, we also started to accumulate growing government debt. We used money to put off the real bill for all of this somewhere into the future. We believe that the growth boom we had been on for the past 100 or so would never come to an end. We believed that future productivity increase would somehow allow us to cope with this debt.
The Internet and the Export of Jobs
Then in the last decade of the 20th century, we created a technology which made distance largely irrelevant to doing work with information focused work – the Internet.
The relentless economic logic of our short term, year over year, profit maximizing capitalistic investment models led to us continued to kick in. We use the Internet to export more and more of our remaining manufacturing and agricultural jobs to “offshore” economies where the lower cost of living generated a short term profit maximizing advantage. Communication over the Internet, combined with the technology of air travel, allowed us to effectively manage these distance jobs.
We are now doing the same with public sector information based and other service jobs. Only political pressure, exerted through lobbying on our politicians, has slowed the pace at which we export agricultural, health care, education and government jobs to the lower cost of living parts of our globe.
A Short Term Blessing, Long Term Pain
Our dedication to the relentless economic logic of short term, year over year, profit maximizing investment that has helped us become more productive over the past 5 decades is being to catch up with us. It had huge benefits. We expanded technology under its logic. We increased the quality of life for most Western people under its influence. It is a classic example of the vision strength that our evolution has given us – the ability to act energetically this year’s seasons, and to look ahead to next year’s seasons, and perhaps the year beyond. Sure, the theory for looking longer is there. We do 5 and 10 and 20 year return on investment calculations. But we act in much shorter time frames. We are not really very good at anticipating the longer term consequences of our short term smart actions. Most decision makers did not want to create global warming and environment destruction and resource deletion. But we did anyway.
The Same Pain is Now Starting to Happen With respect To Jobs.
As we destroyed jobs in manufacturing, agricultural and natural resource harvesting, we compensated by creating more jobs in government and tax-finances services. The consequences of doing so are now become dramatically clear.
- The more government jobs we created, the more government gets involved in the day to day detail of our commercial and private lives.
- The more health care and education jobs we created, the larger their proportionate cost when compared to our gross domestic product became apparent. We are being to become concerned about our ability to pay for all of them out of tax based finances.
- The more jobs we exported to lower cost of living economies, the less national family income there is to support our families and the smaller our tax base for paying for those government, education and health care jobs.
No One Openly Talks about this “Elephant in the Room”
We don’t talk about this “Jobs and Technology Elephant in the Room” dilemma in our public discourse. We can’t blame anyone for it, tempting as it is for some of us to blame big business or political leaders. It is simply another consequence of our evolved strength as human beings – act to shape this year’s seasons, and next year’s, and maybe the seasons after. We might talk about longer time frames. But we find it almost impossible to collectively come to consensus about how we should act in the short term to avoid negative impact of job destruction in the longer term.
Instead, our politicians talk about investing in innovation or in small business or in new infrastructure programs as ways to create new jobs, and solve the loss of job problem. They are out of touch with the longer term dynamic inherent in investing in increasing productivity through the use of technology.
It is a Deep Structural Problem that Comes From Being Human
None of our current political talk will solve these basic underlying structural problems.
Some people reading this essay will respond by saying “your logic is too simple”. But like all such logical simplifications, it has one great value – it illuminates.
Because the logic used here is rather simple, you can point out lots of specific counter instances. Unfortunately, doing so does not invalidate the relentless reality of the following logic.
- As human beings, we extract things from nature, through harvesting or through growing, to meet the needs of our lives – sustaining ourselves and creating and supporting our next generation.
- As tribally evolved creatures, we have invented complex forms of social collaboration to make that process more productive – the sum of what we accomplish in groups through specialization of labor and trade of goods / services is far greater than what we can produce as individuals.
- We now use work based income as the main means to distribute the economic results of that social collaboration. We use jobs to allow individuals to get the income they need to participate in the highly symbolic societies that we have created in the past 10,000 years or so.
- We participate in those societies because we evolved as human beings to develop ourselves (I-Me), take part in relationships (We Two), live in families to nurture the next generation (Our Family) and belong to tribes in order to define our social identities (My Tribe).
Of course, we no longer do all of these things as simply as our ancestors did millions of years ago. Most of us belong to more than one tribe for instance. But the underlying psychodynamic of being a human being has not changed all that much in that time.
- In the past 150 years or so, our ability to develop and to apply technology in an ever more productive ways has resulted in the integration of our societies into a global network, inter-dependent on trade in goods and services to ensure our collective well being.
- In the past 50 years or so, the relentless logic of our short term, year over year, capitalistic pursuit of profit in our integrated global economy has led us to substitute technological labor for human labor, or to export human labor to the lowest cost part of the global.
We will of course eventually use substitute technological labor for human labor there as well, once the cost of living standards become more equal across the global.
But this whole approach to managing technology – substituting technological labor for human labor while using job based income to support individuals and families – is no longer sustainable in its current form. It is destabilizing our societies, both nationally and globally. The signs of this are all around us.
The Signs of Global Destabilization
- The global debt crisis threatens international stability and personal well being.
- The growing loss of employment opportunities for our youth threatens the stability of our societies.
- The growing pension crisis threatens the well being of the older part of our population. This will undermine the stability of our societies.
- Global warning, which is the result of the unanticipated consequence of our current ways of producing and using energy to mobilize our societies, can undermine our societies.
- Our collective inability to control our societies’ dependence on the limited natural resources like oil and gas and the ocean’s clearly declining fish stocks will undermine our societies.
- The unlimited exploitation / destruction of forests could have a negative impact in the natural process that refreshes the air that we breathe. Our collective inability to address that and institute a substantial approach to the harvesting of resources form our forests can undermine our societies.
- The growing political instability in parts of our world and the associated confrontation dynamics engaged in by leaders at the national level fuels the constant nagging concern that that we could experience fuel nuclear based confrontations that could dramatically alter the nature of our globe, at least in part.
- The growing distrust of the average citizen in the ability of their governors / governments, whether elected or imposed or hired, to address these dynamics, never minds solve these problems is undermining our societies.
So what is the solution?
I have ideas, but I fully accept that I DO NOT KNOW. I also do not believe that any other INDIVIDUAL knows. The issues need collective responses. The only thing that I can do is express my ideas on these issues in order to contribute to this collective dialogue. If others agree, then I have done what I can do. If others have been ideas, then I need to listen and be persuaded by them.
I believe that we need new forums (and also forms) of dialogue that bring people together, both within and across societies, to talk about these issues and invent new ways of address them collaboratively.
Collectively, we have evolved as collaborating tribal creatures. We need to come up with new shared models – ways of thinking – new forms of culture – new shared ethical norms - which allow us to tackle the following challenges.
- Move beyond the relentless short term, year over year, pursue of profit, while retaining the positive aspects of capitalism – its fostering of innovation, its creative destruction of old ways of doing things so that they are replaced with new ways that produce more with less and do so in a way that is not destructive of either people or the ecology of our globe.
- Create ways of living that allow human beings to live as dignified family members that are committed to the successful rearing of next generations, however the family is defined and takes into account personal sexual preferences.
- Create models of work that allow human beings to excel as individuals while as the same time recognizing the vast variety and variability of individual capacity, motivation, and drive, which at least in part results from the differences in the genetic and rearing endowment we each receive before we can exercise effective personal choice.
- Create political institutions that recognize limitations of our “I-Me, We Two, Our Family, My Tribe” psychodynamic inheritance from our evolutionary history, while more effectively dealing the needs to plan and to anticipate the consequences of our social decisions on our ecology over time spans that exceed the current and next generation, so that we don’t inadvertently destroy the future quality of life of our descendants not yet born.
- Replace the current societal definition of personal identity as being partially dependent having (or having had) a job that is current in at least Western societies with one that is more focused on making a contribution to society over the course of one’s life in a variety of ways.
- Replace the current use of job based income as the way in which the majority of individuals get the economic resources they need to support themselves and their families with an alternative that still fosters personal initiative and a sense of responsibility for self (i.e. not living out of your neighbor’s “wallet” by saying that the “government should” support” your or provide services and resources you need at no cost to you).
- Create forms of economic, governmental, and personal accountability, based on complete transparency of information, that essentially eliminate the large amount of intended fraud and societal posturing that allows those of us who are most self serving to take advantage of those of us who are more narrowly focused on the meeting the needs of our personal and family lives.
None of this will be easy. But we better start, or we will lose control of our future, both as individuals and as members of our societies. If we start to do this, we will also come up with solutions that make the “Job and Technology Elephant No One Wants to Talk About” go away of its own accord.
I believe that the Internet, and talent from the so called underdeveloped world, will be a large part of meeting this challenge.
I also believe that our understanding of the nature of leadership will need to be completely redefined, moving from a model that is based on “I am the leader of the tribe and therefore you follow” to one that asserts “I am highly skilled at facilitating, both through my personal persuasion of others and through my use of Internet to facilitate dialogue which allows people to collectively invent and communicate new ways of thinking and acting about how we live on our globe”.
We are an amazing species. We have the ability to recognize our limitations. At our best, we cope with any long term dynamic our short term strengths create for us. At our worse, we engage in mutual destruction (e.g. war) fuelled by fantasies of what the world and others are like.
We have a choice. We have free will when it comes to the future. We can create solutions out of collective dialogue that will also get beyond all of this. Or we will not. It is simply a question of choosing in our personal lives. The other amazing thing is that we now have a technology, the Internet, where personal expression has the potential to persuade others in a way never before experienced on our globe.
 The role and nature of money, a form of shared social meaning created by human beings to facilitate the development of ever more complex forms of social organization, really needs to be part of this story. But this is beyond the current scope. As a result, I use worlds like income, wealth, finance, and economy knowing full well that I am avoiding explaining how the human creation and use of the idea and social reality of money impacts this all.
 Our ongoing collective failure to respond in a coordinated fashion to climate change and the over exploitation of the ocean’s natural resources are the two clearest examples I know of this dynamic result of our evolution.
 These forums and forms of dialogue must be much more effective that the current international set of meetings in which politicians and bureaucrats (the governors) engage (e.g. on international trade, climate, regulation of the oceans …). These current gatherings are really just meetings of the privileged. Unless they become far transparent and far more accountable to the world at large, not nation’s internal political elites, their only real result will be to continue to convince the globe’s people at large that politicians and governments are completely ineffective in dealing with the globe’s real dynamics.
 As well as warring ones – but that is a topic for another day.
 I wanted to say “paranoid fantasies”.