Disruption of labor


Robots will take our jobs! It’s the call of the Luddites of the 21st century. We are in the middle of a new wave of technology-driven change. As a science fiction writer, I’m intrigued by what is going on, and where the chips will fall.

Disruption of industries

Computers have been around for a few decades now, the Internet too. Smart phones are younger, and small internet-capable devices are still in their infancy. However, the Internet of Things, or IOT, is happening. In the future everything might be connected. On top of that, the cloud is offering enormous amounts of storage and processing power for little cost.

When you throw massive storage, lots of processing power, and connectivity together, you suddenly have a technological revolution on your hands. The internet has connected large numbers of people together and to traditional companies. What’s happening now, is that completely new business models are emerging.

Think Uber, AirBnB, and Netflix. Ten years ago, they could not have existed.

Let that sink in for a second.

These companies have turned their respective industries upside-down, and they did so in a handful of years. And more is coming. Companies are being set up right now, doing things we have not even imagined, but that will destroy entire industries a few years down the line.

I’ve already discussed the technical dangers present in the Internet of Things, but there is more.

Disruption of labor

Uber is great if you want to get from A to B cheaply, or to make some money on the side. It’s not so great if you’re a taxi driver who has spent a lot of time and money on getting a taxi license. Because you’re suddenly getting competition from people who don’t play by the same rules that required you to get a license. If you’re a hotel owner, you won’t be happy with that guy around the corner undercutting your business with an illegal hotel chain that does not have to follow any regulations.

There are two sides to this story. On the one hand, the rules are often outdated. Why require taxi drivers to know the entire street map of a city by heart when they can use a GPS device that plans their route for them – while taking traffic and construction work into account real-time?

On the other hand, some rules are there for a reason. Hotels have to adhere to all kinds of safety regulations. Airbnb rentals don’t, with sometimes horrible results. Uber drivers might be cheaper, but what if they decide to rip you off. And that’s not even mentioning privacy issues.

There is another troubling side-effect. People are losing their jobs. Hotel employees are getting laid off because of Airbnb, taxi drivers because of Uber, and so on. These people go the way of the Luddite. That is not necessarily a bad thing. They can learn a new trade and a new job, right? That’s what has happened in similar cases for the past two centuries. It’s just a disruption of obsolete labor.

Where are those jobs?

A lot of people are wondering if those people that are out of a job because of this new wave of innovation are really going to find a replacement job. The thing is, those new disruptive companies don’t employ that many people. Uber has 6,700, Airbnb 2,400, and Netflix 3,700. That’s 12,800 employees, combined. That’s really not a lot. AT&T, for example, has over 250,000 employees.

Now, I’m not a Luddite. I like progress and I’m interested to see where the Internet of Things goes. I do wonder if we are entering an era where there is simply not enough work to go around. We don’t need more than a shrinking percentage of the population to work to provide enough for the rest of the population. A single person can provide food for thousands. A single person can operate the machine that provides iPads for thousands. And so on.

However, our capitalist society doesn’t work in this situation. If you don’t work you don’t get money. In our current society, you have to contribute or you’re lazy and a menace to society. Social benefits are something to be abolished in favor of punishing the jobless. Question. If there are not enough jobs to go around, who are we punishing? And for what?

To me, it seems that we’re increasingly creating make-work jobs to get around this. The whole financial sector is meant to support other industries by linking savings to loans, but it has grown to a wealth-sucking black hole that supports a growing group of gamblers and risk-takers. Governments increasingly make their rule systems extremely complicated, leading to numerous people checking those rules, inventing new ones, or litigating them. Make-work, surrounding a core of work that is important.

And the lost jobs not covered make-work lead to inequality. The number of Ultra High Net Worth Individuals is growing. That’s jargon for filthy rich people. Not only is that small group growing, they are getting ever more wealthy. Leaving all those ‘lazy’ jobless people in the dust.

One of the reasons we’re seeing a global movement of anti-global, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment sentiments, is that this whole system is cracking at the seams.  Disruption is all well and good, but if you disrupt something and it breaks, than you’re not making progress, you’re just creating broken stuff.

Then what?

I started this post by saying I’m interested where things like this end. Domino one falls, tipping domino two, and three, until the entire row of domino’s falls. In this case, I think we can go three ways.

One, we find a new way to organize our society that does not focus on work alone or that also rewards work that does not directly yield profit.

Or two, we have a third World War and the next generation of humans gets to work on cleaning up the mess.

And finally the third option, we  have a third World War and our society collapses, leaving a slowly dwindling human population who get to watch our race go extinct as our world descends into runaway greenhouse and global pollution territory.

Yes, it’s cynical, but it’s that kind of decade, I think. I’m still holding out for option one, but that will require us to drop some deep-rooted misconceptions.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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