Nick Carr: The myth of the endless ladder

InsightaaS: After a hiatus, Nicholas Carr’s Rough Type blog has returned. In this post, Carr looks at the contention that an increasingly-automated economy delivers higher-value employment opportunities as a consequence of its progress. Carr, in his usual clear and articulate manner, disagrees vehemently: “Much is obscured,” he says, by use of verbs like “frees” and propels” in the discussion of the impact of automation. “Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. They’re motivated, as Adam Smith also pointed out, by a desire to make money. Jobs have always been a byproduct of the market’s invisible hand, not its aim.”

Carr’s take on the effect of automation on employment presents an interesting extension to the observations of Andrew McAfee, which were highlighted in Across the Net in March. The trend observed by both Carr and McAfee of increased automation expanding opportunities for high and low-skilled positions while depressing the opportunity for medium-skilled labour is important – to IT and to the economy it operates within.

“Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle,” declares economics reporter Annie Lowrey in a Times Magazine piece on the job-displacing effects of automation technologies, “because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.” The challenge today, she writes, a few paragraphs later, “is for humans to allow software, algorithms, robots and the like to propel them into higher-and-higher-value work.” The idea is an old one. Aristotle compared tools to slaves: both provide their masters with time for more refined activities. Thinkers as various as Marx, Keynes, and Oscar Wilde said similar things during the industrial revolution. It remains a common refrain today, as automatons and software take over more of the work people used to get paid to do. “We need to let robots take over,” wrote Kevin Kelly last year. “They will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are. They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were.”

There’s something deeply comforting about the notion that labor-saving technology inevitably pushes workers to higher pursuits. It salves our anxieties about job losses and wage declines – everything will work out fine, “ultimately” – while playing to our unbounded sense of self-importance. The ladder of human occupation goes forever upward; no matter how high our machines climb, there will always be another rung for workers to clamber to. But like many of the comforting things we tell ourselves, it’s no more than a half-truth. And when trotted out as a pat response to contemporary unemployment and underemployment problems, it becomes a dangerous fallacy…

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