Replaced by a small gadget


While reading an article in this morning’s NY Times,  I was reminded of an old Woody Allen stand up routine that ends with the following joke:

The upshot of the story is, that day I called my parents, my father was fired. He was technologically unemployed. My father had worked for the same firm for twelve years. They fired him. They replaced him with a tiny gadget, this big, that does everything my father does, only it does it much better. The depressing thing is, my mother ran out and bought one.

The article examines the accelerating phenomenon of having all kinds of tasks go away due to automation, including higher “white-collar” ones that previously seemed beyond the reach of computer or machine intelligence. It posits that in the past the speed at which human tasks were replaced was slow enough for people to find ever newer (and higher) tasks, but that today we as a global population are having a harder time adjusting.

I often think about the very occupation I have today (mostly web design and programming) and wonder how long it will be before my own work will be automated. People like to think that areas like this that require a high amount of human creativity are immune from automation, but I have watched as it has become easier and easier for people to buy some very nicely designed (if not entirely custom) web sites, and I expect that the ease and options for creating one will only grow with time, to the point where for the vast majority of people, what I do today will simply not be needed. Web sites themselves will evolve and will probably not resemble much of what we think of today. Information will be free-floating everywhere (it is already happening) and the idea of even looking at a screen will become quaint at some point.

This does not actually concern me overmuch. The job I have today did not exist even 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago my work was very different, and I have benefitted immensely from new technologies and automations that have made my work easier to do, more lucrative, and more possible. I don’t have any real expectation that what I do will even exist (in something resembling its present form) in 10 years. I will have to acquire new skills and evolve, as I have over the past 10. At some point, I may do something completely different, not at all related to what I do today. I think that this notion can be highly destabilizing for some people, but it is increasingly the norm. We can put our heads in the sand or try to adapt and enjoy the ride. I have no idea what the future brings, but (at least in the area of automation) I don’t particularly fear it for myself.

I do have great concerns, however, for the growing income disparities that this changing world represents. We must find a way to change our social/economic model to account for these changes. We need to invest heavily in education at all levels, and assure people a decent minimum level of subsistence (and I don’t mean poverty). We can’t continue on our greedy social path, we need a more equitable society that everyone can feel a part of. Imagine if that vast new area that opens up in the wake of this automation led to new occupations concerned with the well being of those around us. I have no doubt there are plenty of opportunities there, the question is, at what point will society place a high enough value on it to collectively fund it?