Technological unemployment

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The JC pontificates about technology
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A happy compromise, yesterday.

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law

“Any sufficiently primitive middle manager will be unable to distinguish a basic chatbot from magic.”

JC’s sixth law of worker entropy

One of the great modern dogmas.

The theory

As articulated by Keynes: “unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”[1]

You would think that this could only ever be a temporary effect: the entrepreneurial possibilities of freeing labour from a tedious job to take on an interesting one must mean, in the long run, there can be no technological unemployment. History tells us that. But it couldn’t persuade Daniel Susskind, who wrote a new book with a familiar old message: this time is different.[2]

To the JCs’ simplistic way of looking at it, to believe in technological unemployment is to be afflicted by, at least, a lack of imagination — and really, a lack of wisdom — the kind of wisdom you can only get from the school of life. And, in any case, the whole idea of technological development is founded on a different premise: that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and the history of technology is the accidental discovery of whole new ways, not just of skinning old cats, but figuring out what to do with the skins, and the cats.

The history of the world so far: we solve old problems, usually by accident. Old problem goes away and in its place we find a range up untapped, hitherto unimagined, possibilities. And some new problems.

Societies are complex systems. Machines aren’t awfully good at imagining unforeseeable possibilities, and problems, presented by complex systems, let alone exploiting, or solving, them. Just ask Charles Perrow: this is the basic learning of complexity theory. And no, being good at Go or Chess doesn’t falsify that observation.[3] Machines are good at doing what someone has already figured out needs to be done, now, only faster. They require configuration, programming and implementation. Machines are faster horses. They won’t imagine an alternative future for you. Not even clever, artificially intelligent, seemingly magical machines.

We are in the middle of a Cambrian explosion of innovations. The one thing we can be assured won’t work right in the near, or far, future are faster horses.

And if there were only way you ever could do things, and we had already found it, you technologists, futurologists and millenarians can get your coats. But that’s plainly nonsense.

Did DARPA, when it invented the internet, have Gangnam Style in mind? Did Steve Jobs or Jonny Ives anticipate Fortnite and its in-app purchases when they designed the iPhone?[4] Has the internet, or the smartphone, destroyed, or created, human commercial activity?

Technology certainly threatens those who seek to operationalise labour — who look to take the easy, algorithmic bits, that could and, really (if reg tech was any good), already should be done by robots — cheapen it and send it off to distant shores to processing by inexpensive young muppets[5] Because that is a transparently stupid strategy in the first place.[6]

But, yet, yet, yet: one thing we know technology will do is lower the barriers to interaction and communication. And one thing we know that the great huddled masses of mercantile foot-soldiers like to do is talk — as much as possible, and about as little of moment as possible, in as elliptical a way as possible. Visit LinkedIn, or Twitter — hell, just listen to anything that comes out of the middle-management layer of any decent sized firm — read a PowerPoint — if you really need persuading of this.

There is an equilibrium of sorts between the need to get stuff done and the need to vent your own opinions and, until that Berners-Lee fellow ruined everything, it was set quite delicately at a place where, for most of us, while achieving anything was hard, finding people to listen to your opinions was harder, so we spent most of our time in morose silence slugging away at a hard rock-face with an old, soft-bristled, toothbrush. We had collected enough chips of slate to keep our employers happy and take a bit home to keep the hungry mouths around the Formica table passably filled with baked beans. The only people around to hear our plaintive discursions about the ills of the modern world were those spouses and children, their mouths so crammed with baked beans as to be unable even to reply. The divorce rate was stratospheric.

Enter the internet, distributed networks, and sharper tools: suddenly talk is cheap. You get what you pay for: cheap talk fills the workplace. If we haven’t enough of this quadraphonic noise by the time we come to clock out, we can vent the remains of our metaphysical angst into the howling, stone-deaf gale that is the world wide web, rather the well-bent ears of long-suffering spouses and our bean-stuffed toe-rags. We sit at our tele-screens and watch our rage boil off, evaporating harmlessly into the infinite, thundering dark.

I’m getting a bit carried away, aren’t I. But not entirely: see the panel for what Google’s ngram viewer makes of the relationship between marital harmony and a fulfilled online life. But while Andy (and his successors) have been givething, it is not just Bill who has been takething away. The middle management layer has been doing its bit too, by — well, basically by inventing itself to occupy the space occupied by the crickets. And it we take it that the productivity tools came on line from the mid 1980s — personal computers, the fax, e-mail and then this glorious thing called the world wide web.

This graphic courtesy of the JC’s own spurious correlations research programme

So, wouldn’t it be a gas to see when the middle management buzzwords started to come into the corpus? Well, fancy that

Time off, organised sport and the commercialisation of leisure

Besides, if technological unemployment had more than a transitory dislocating effect, we would have long since noticed it. Technologies have been displacing labour for millennia.

The British invented all important sports. Even downhill skiing.[7] (Americans: your “important sports” are all derived from games the British invented: rounders, netball and rugby).

Now there is a reason that the British invented all sports, and that is because the British invented the Industrial Revolution, which was humankind’s last go at technological unemployment: suddenly subsistence workers didn’t have to work the circadian rhythm, never stopping for a moment. work came on a reliable schedule. Machines did the grunt work, humans operated the machines, clocked off at 5 and went off to enjoy “leisure ”, beyond essential periods of rest, recovery, nutrition, washing and so on — to not think about the factory, and do whatever you please. No doubt anthropologists will say it was more complicated, or less benign, then that, but the essential point is that about two hundred and fifty years ago humans started predictably to have leisure time. This was technogical unemployment, v1.0: for sure, it will happen by degrees.)

Being full of industrial workers suddenly having the happy problem of figuring out what to do with themselves, we should not be surprised that the British came up with organised sport. Humans like to play games.

So it was that the sports we know today convened governing associations and set about formalising common rules: cricket (1787), rugby (1845), football (1863), lawn tennis (1874), boxing (1867) and field hockey (1900). Okay, and baseball (1845), American football (1876) ice hockey (1877) and basketball (1892).

Each started life as an amateur undertaking — something for workers to while away their leisure time — and even those which professionalised early in the 20th century did not immediately realise their collosal commercial potential — some staying amateur until the end of the twentieth century.

And here’s the point: these free, “downtime” activities, that emerged to keep idle workers occupied, turned out to be valuable — obviously, or noone would do them in the first place — and where there is value there is business opportunity. That spare time value eventually generated its own industry. What was leisure became work. And work evolves around it: agents, event organisers, sponsors , broadcasters, marketers, equipment manufacturers — suddenly that leisurely bash around at the links of a Sunday requires two and a half grand of Callaway clubs, the same in polo shirts and silly trousers, golf lessons, club memberships — enough expense that you had to go back to work just to afford the clobber to enjoy your time off.

We have been dealing with “technological unemployment” for ninety years, that is too say. It hasn't created any unemployment yet. There is no reason to think it will start now.

See also


  1. Keynes: Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren
  2. We say to him what we said a decade ago to Ray Kurzweil: “... it’s easy to be smug as I type on my decidedly physical computer, showing no signs of being superseded with VR Goggles just yet and we’re only six months from the new decade, [note: that was the last decade.] but, being as path-dependent as it is, the evolutionary process is notoriously bad at making predictions — until the results are in.” Then it’s awesome.
  3. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this the “ludic fallacy”. let me Google that for you. Complexity theorists point out that games — complete logical systems — can be complicated, but they aren’t complex.
  4. Actually, maybe they did. THIRTY GODDAMN PERCENT!
  5. I mean no disrespect to said young muppets, by the way, only to their muppetmasters: their very strategy is to find cheap, uncomplaining operatives possessed of basic literacy and a pulse. They do not want bright young things, because bright young things get ideas.
  6. Operationalisation is the process of trying to render the cosmic mundane — it is to ask to be superseded by robots, as you drive your business model, and your margins, into the ground.
  7. True story: the mountain people of Europe had long since invented skiing as an essential means of conveyance during the alpine winters. It took the British to identify the possibilities of riding a train up and then just sliding back down for the hell of it.