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We’re screwed: How will we survive in a future without jobs?
05.17.2013
07:23 am

Topics:
Economy
Thinkers

Tags:
capitalism
robots
title


 
This is a guest post by New Delhi-based social media consultant, Kartik Dayanand.

“We’re getting closer to a world where technology takes care of the hard work—discovery, organization, communication—so that you can get on with what makes you happiest… living and loving. It’s an exciting time to be at Google.”

These are the concluding lines of a recent announcement by the CEO of Google, Larry Page. It sounds great: technology will make our lives easier and we don’t have to work hard anymore. The machines, or rather ‘technology,’ they say will run our world. But…

I think we’e in the middle of an unfolding horror story!

It can’t simply be some bizarre coincidence, can it, that as we scale ever higher peaks of technological innovation, the USA is going through its worst recession in 97 years? The story is not too different in Europe and most of the rest of the world; there must be something seriously wrong somewhere. Stands to reason, right?

Plenty of words have been written on the topic of machines taking away jobs from humans, and the twin threat of outsourcing, but this time things are different, really different. They are so different that…

I have no hesitation in saying that the world is on the verge of screwing itself in a spectacular fashion!

Here is the proof…

The invisible robots

As a kid I used to imagine a future where robots would do things for us. That day has arrived but these robots don’t look like anything I imagined they would as a child. They don’t have arms or legs, they are computers and smartphones with the Internet acting as their brains. The talk about machines replacing humans is an age old story and we have managed pretty well so far, but this time things are different for two reasons: Distribution and Convergence!
 

 
Distribution

Since the Industrial Revolution, even before, machines have replaced human jobs but they never had this ability to multiply and spread across the global with almost zero additional costs through the Internet. Take the case of the mailman vs email or traditional books vs Kindle books. In the later case, it costs next to nothing to distribute something that used to take time and effort, printing, warehousing, shipping and retail outlets in the past. Time and effort that was spent by real people doing real jobs which are simply not necessary anymore.

From bank clerks to airline ticketing attendants, there are many classes of jobs that are going extinct. Read this article: A look at jobs replaced by technology. Where do all these people go now?

But isn’t capitalism, to a certain extent supposed to be “destructive”? Isn’t that where innovation comes from? In the battle between man and machine there is an old argument that goes instead of a candle we now have light bulbs and in place of a horse and carriage we have cars, so “disruption” is good. But now we are faced with a new problem: Convergence.

Convergence

Due to convergence of technologies, multiple tasks are now doable with but a single device. The smartphone and tablet are effectively destroying the calculator, camera, flashlight, alarm clock, wrist watch, notepad, audio player and multiple other industries. I am not merely talking about the things one can do via the Internet for the scale of disruption is unimaginable. Real people were making those products. They are now not needed anymore. And it’s not merely job loss, the products themselves won’t exist anymore.

And who manufactures these new converged products?

Most probably some company like Foxconn in China where Apple and many other companies build their products at dead cheap rates. Almost none of those manufacturing jobs are in the USA or anyplace in Europe. No wonder the Eurozone is in tatters right now, Greece is at 60% unemployment and Spain has 55% of its youth between the ages of 18 and 25 unemployed right now; forget manufacturing, they might never ever get a job that involves soft skills, all thanks to outsourcing.

Ousted by outsourcing

Outsourcing, while taking away jobs from many, has provided employment to millions in another part of the globe. This led to an increase in earning potential as well as spending capacity for millions who could now aspire to “things” and a lifestyle unimaginable earlier. New doors have opened where none existed earlier. However, there are dangerous pitfalls on this side too. There are already two main patterns one can notice emerging– Obsolescence and Cannibalism.

Obsolescence

All the pitfalls of disruptive technology apply here too. You can never say when a particular piece of technology or service will become obsolete. The skills that we learn today might not be needed tomorrow; this applies to software professionals who are dime a dozen out there specializing in skills that could be without economic value tomorrow.

Very few people specialize in “real” skills anymore, right from a commerce graduate to a science student to a mechanical, civil or chemical engineer; all want to become Software-IT Professionals.That’s where the easy moolah is. Those who continue in the pursuit of conventional professions often find themselves in a unique fix, not able to compete with their counterparts in the IT industry in terms of fat paychecks. But there is an even bigger issue in play here, cannibalism.

Cannibalism

In the modern world of outsourcing, cannibalism is a rampant practice. No one is eating anyone else alive but everyone is eating away at everyone else’s jobs.

Organizations are always looking at doing things the fastest and cheapest way. They achieve it by employing smarter technology, but where manpower is still essential they are always on the lookout for a cheaper option that can accomplish the same task in a shorter time-frame—the primary reason why outsourcing exists in the first place. Why bothering hiring and paying an experienced hand when a trainee will suffice?

For a country like India, that boasts of a massive youth population that is ready to be employed, the future can be quite unsettling. It is a win-win situation for the bosses, but the same can’t be said for the employees as job security simply does not exist anymore.

Even worse, in the modern age there are no trade unions to protect the workers, they are all dead or dying out, and each man is on his own. The best you can do is change your profile picture on Facebook as a sign of protest, like how some of my friends from the VFX industry did after Rhythm and Hues won the Oscar for best VFX this year against the backdrop of imminent bankruptcy.

Implications of the above two patterns:

So basically, technology and outsourcing are screwing the west and the rest are hell bent on screwing themselves . To put it simply…

The West is already screwed and the rest are hellbent on screwing themselves by cannibalising themselves to obsolescence

So what is the solution?

James Altucher, one of the most exciting writers I have come across online recently, wrote a post on TechCrunch titled “10 reasons why 2013 will be the year you quit your job.” In it Altucher advises his readers to turn into entrepreneurs to save themselves. He makes some terrific points to support his case, but I wonder if it’s realistic to expect that everyone can become an entrepreneur? Someone has to be at the bottom of the foodchain and even if someone dares to do something on his own, the big daddies will give them sleepless nights. Also in an open economy where everyone has equal opportunities, it is the big corporations that have the maximum leverage. Everyone else is just part of the crowd.

Take the case of movies. The top hits today make more money than ever while the bottom is a horror story with the vast majority of films not even finding any avenues of release or exhibition; it is a problem of plenty. It is the same with businesses and tech start ups. The big corps capture the bulk of the market and the smaller fish are in the game only to be hooked or to be eaten by the biggies. No wonder income inequalities are growing wider across the globe between the rich and the rest of us.

The Rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer has never been truer than it is today!

Forgetting for a moment, the poorer countries where wealth inequality is extraordinary and the bottom of the pyramid is unimaginably huge. Instead take the case of America, which in everyone’s opinion is an advanced and wealthy nation. Truth is, top 1% of America’s wealthy elite control 40% of their nation’s wealth. You should check the video below to see the scale of this phenomenon.
 

 
The middle class is almost non-existent now. We might as well rename it the “temporary class.”

We aspire to reach the top, but in reality most of us are just a part of the vast bottom that is feeding the top!

Technology is wonderful, it really does help us to live better lives. It is good that most things are becoming automated, wonderful that we don’t have to work as hard anymore, but here is the catch:

How do we survive in a world where our worth is only determined by our last paycheck?

And if all the jobs are handled by technology, who will give us those checks? We have yet to figure out a way to live in this world without money. Somewhere this cycle of the world’s productive labor and capital going to the 1% has to be broken.

That reminds me of the famous line by Charles Bukowski:

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6.30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so”

How in the hell did we end up here? I wonder too. It is high time we all started to talk about this. A global conversation. Until then, we shall continue to be willing and invisible participants in the mission to screw ourselves and our world over (and to what end? We already know the answer). We have done a pretty great job of it until now. It is high time we figured out newer (and BETTER) ways of living and surviving in this world that are not dependent on us working ourselves to death so that the 1%‘s kids can sit on golden toilet seats and have a servant wipe their asses with 600 thread count Egyptian cotton napkins. In the future we’re heading for, your kid won’t have a pot to piss in.

I hope Google has some ideas for that too. Maybe you have one. Let me know.

This is a guest post by New Delhi-based social media consultant, Kartik Dayanand.

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
How much longer can capitalism last when robots will do all the work?
 

 

Posted by Richard Metzger

 

 

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