Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Future of the future

The question of whether the future needs humans or not has been the subject of many a sci-fi novels and movies. It's not a ridiculous question at all considering the pace of technical innovation over the past 100 years. Factor in the movement of labor intensive jobs that helped create the vast American middle class to emerging countries and you can see that the future of the future in the West starts to look dicey for the average guy.

We've all seen entire industries transformed by technology. Consider the Internet in particular as a transformative force. While it has without a doubt created jobs for engineers, programmers and IT people it has wiped out or fundamentally changed the jobs of millions of others. Look at what has done to bookstores; any that are left are tiny specialty stores or big box stores that are in a fight for continued existence. Books are one thing, there is, of course, the music industry too. What ITunes alone has done makes it simply unrecognizable in relation to what it was just 10 years ago. The Amazon and ITunes juggernauts are slicing into electronic and discount department stores as well. The Amazon model is just one example of a fundamental shift in way commerce is getting done.

In his article "Useless Mouths" John Derbyshire tells of two industries that once were ubiquitous and indispensable that have been nearly replaced by software and the Internet. The tax preparation and travel agency industries are a shadow of what they once were. These are just the obvious ones. Think about how robots have transformed manufacturing in the heavy industries. As machines tirelessly take over simple repetitive jobs with more precision than their human counterparts a corporation would be doing themselves and their shareholders a disservice not to weed out unnecessary human workers.

Innovation is nothing new. The steam engine transformed work in the early industrial revolution. Suddenly one machine could do the work of hundreds of men. Since then countless inventions and technological developments have changed the landscape of the human workforce. The masses rolled with the changes, retrained and learned something new over and over. However, this won't go on forever, the pace of change, drastic change is accelerating and we have to wonder if we are at a major turning point for human labor.

What will happen to this society, to this culture as less and less people work because there just isn't anything for them to do. The very smart and very motivated will find their niche, but the majority of people are neither very smart nor very motivated. Even now the political element actively promoting dependency is making noises that joblessness is the new normal and that work is not necessarily for every one.

Is anyone really hailing this trend as the sign of civilizational progress? Not in so many words, but deeds speak much louder. Neither end of the political poles can claim the high ground, but one side clearly sees the decline of American economic supremacy as a good thing for the world. In the union hall and in the Democratic caucuses the decline in blue-collar work is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms - but it's not just blue collar jobs anymore. High skilled IT work is being off-shored at an astounding rate because modern high speed networks make it so easy. Those on the left see it as the "free market, capitalist" economy’s failure to supply good-paying jobs, and those on the right see a depressing sign that government over regulation and culture of dependency is killing the American work ethic and the American worker. The new normal indeed.

Nothing good can come with a huge population of under-educated young urban men living on the dole, idle hands and all. We have plenty of evidence that this destroys men, and in fact, entire cities - Detroit anyone... Does anyone see the trend reversing? Surely not if Washington DC and the mega-businesses that own it continue doing what they're doing.

Technology is going to continue advancing - as it should. Jobs that we trained for in the 90's and early 2000's will be replaced by advanced automation and soon enough by rudimentary AI itself . It doesn't mean that men and women without elite status have no place or purpose. One obvious solution is for the U.S. to increase the skill level of its labor force. If we are to attract high-technology businesses that produce goods with high-value-added content and good jobs, important jobs, the educational system and business are going to need to come together. This means the government/union stranglehold on education at all levels will have to end. That is the challenge. I wish I had a magic solution to break up the educational monopoly - perhaps it will be the Internet to the rescue, we'll just have to see.

Truth is that the average quality of a U.S. high school education is so low when compared to other wealthy countries and our own past, and unfortunately fewer and fewer college students pursue engineering and science-based courses. Today very few U.S. companies have formal apprenticeship or training programs, this needs to change, but it will take a real hard nosed business visionary that loves his country to plow through the educational fortress of the NEA and its affiliates. If a Google, Microsoft, Cisco, GM or Boeing developed their own post secondary system of technology education that didn't force mountains of debt on the potential workforce we might see a movement in the right direction. Maybe now these kinds of companies see no need for it because they just go overseas and pay less per head any way. That short sighted view ignores the fact the most creative and innovative people in the world are in America and Western Europe.

I would hate to see an America with even one more Detroit, Allentown or Gary, Indiana. If that's the future of the future I guess I'm glad I'm close to being an old man.