Machines vs. Jobs: This Time, It’s Personal – Article by Bradley Doucet

Machines vs. Jobs: This Time, It’s Personal – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
February 5, 2014
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For much of human history, the vast majority of people worked in agriculture. Today, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, that has fallen to about 2% of the population in wealthy countries. But all of us whose ancestors used to produce food have not just been joining the ranks of the unemployed for the past couple hundred years. We’ve been working at other jobs, in many cases doing things our grandparents’ grandparents could not imagine. Luddites were wrong to worry back then, but is it different this time?
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MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of The Second Machine Age, thinks it is different this time, but he is qualifiedly optimistic nonetheless. During an hour-long EconTalk with Russ Roberts, he points out that the first wave of machines replaced human muscle, to which we responded by shifting to more cognitive tasks. The second wave, however, is automating cognitive work, which scares people. If machines have both muscles and brains, how can we compete? Are we staring down mass unemployment in the coming decades?
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For Brynjolfsson, the fear itself is a big part of the problem, pushing us to do counter-productive things like “trying to preserve the past at the expense of the future.” He argues that we can’t stop technology, and actually, we shouldn’t try. “What we need to do is embrace the dynamism that helps us adapt to that. The more we do to try to slow down change, I think the more stagnant we become and the worse off we become.”

So how can we best embrace change? Two things Brynjolfsson mentions are education and entrepreneurship. Regarding the former, he argues not only that we need to become more educated, as the future jobs that have yet to be invented will likely require a more educated workforce, but also that education itself needs to be reimagined to take advantage of new technology instead of carrying on lecturing small groups as we have done for millennia. And how exactly we should do that is, like so much else, up to entrepreneurs. We need to make entrepreneurship easier in a number of ways so that millions of new ideas can be constantly battling it out in the marketplace. “A lot of them are going to be really dumb and they are going to fail,” says Brynjolfsson. But some of them are going to be revolutionary, creating jobs we haven’t even dreamed of yet that allow us to work with the machines instead of trying to compete with them.

And yes, we will probably end up working less, just as we now work fewer hours than we did two hundred years ago. But we will work less to produce more, with many goods and services—think Wikipedia—becoming free or almost free. We already get on the order of $300 billion a year in free stuff from the Internet. As long as we embrace the future and focus on being as adaptable as we can, there’s no reason to fear that the increased wealth of tomorrow cannot be widely shared.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.

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