The machines are coming for your job. Big deal.

This blog post is in response to the TechCrunch piece entitled Get Ready To Lose Your Job.

For my entire life, my father was a physician (until he retired). He had to subscribe to medical journals and take courses to keep his skills up to snuff, but medicine, and his specialty, did not evolve to such a form that his career has been replaced. That said, his specialty (gastroenterology) now has some amazing tools at their disposal that can obviate the need for some procedures or tools. But the point is – he never had to shift jobs, only keep skills up to date.

I recently read the book Punching Out about a steel stamping plant in Detroit being spun down over a year’s time. While the book left a little bit to be desired (still, a good read), the events were what got me thinking. As the author works alongside him, here’s a story from a worker who had been a part of Ford’s assembly line for a long time but had been let go:

 “They built a new assembly line. One day, we went over for a tour of the new line, and they showed me a machine that was doing my job. The line that I was working on was built in 1942, and this was in 1979. They turned the lights out, and the machine was still doing the job. So I said to myself, ‘Now I gotta learn how to build machines.’”

Humans are toolmakers. We find tasks that need repeating, and we find ways to make those tasks more efficient, cheaper, faster, or all of the above. Cotton gins. Threshing machines (or modern day combine harvesters which replaced them). Assembly line. Steel mini-mills. Scripting languages… All of them exist to make repetitive tasks less tedious.

Often when new technology comes along that makes these tedious tasks less cumbersome, the technology is called “disruptive”. Regardless of how disruptive it may actually be in the long run to society overall, when a piece of technology can replace a worker or two… or three.. or more… it becomes a socially significant event. The Swing Riots in the early 1800’s are a good example of technology leading directly to social complications.

However, even technology isn’t permanent. Let me tell you a secret. NOTHING is permanent. Nothing. Technology is ever-changing, ever-evolving, in a perpetual movement forward for better efficiency. As the thresher replaced people, the thresher itself was eventually subsumed by the combine harvester of today, which combined three previous innovations together in one – obviating the need for all three (and likely most manufacturers making them).

Innately, humans become comfortable, almost sedentary, in their ways. We think things won’t change, and the status quo will continue. However, I think Isaac Asimov said it well,

“The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

It’s easy to look at technology like threshing machines or steel stamping machines – which both replaced individual, slow, labor with automation, and see how technology replaces the individual. But the same is true with software.

In my recent Task-Oriented Computing post, I mentioned this as well:

“Rather than making users take hammers to drive in screws, smaller, task-oriented applications can enable them to process workflow that may have been cumbersome before and enable workers to perform other more critical tasks instead.”

Software is a tool. We use that software to make our work more efficient, cheaper, faster, or all of the above. Does that sound familiar? The key value that people do, and always will add to any tool – whether it is a device or a software solution – is the human mind. The article I mentioned early on is similar to other articles we could find in the 1900’s about machines “stealing jobs” from auto workers, textile workers, and more. Yes. Many of the jobs of today will not be jobs for humans in the future. They will be jobs for machines and software. Get used to it. This isn’t a threat – it’s opportunity. Machines and software can free us from the rote tasks of our jobs, if we let them, and if we let ourselves continue to grow and learn throughout our lives. Don’t stand still. You shouldn’t be doing that, even if technology wasn’t coming to get your job.

I ran across this work that Alan Turing wrote  about machines, masters, and servants. As technology continues to accelerate and perform amazing things we would have thought impossible years before, we must not just innovate the technology. All of us – regardless of our role in society – must be constantly reinventing, reinvigorating, and renewing our own role in society. Not content to let our skills and thinking lie dormant, we must push to make a role for ourselves in the ever changing world. Don’t fear the machines. Don’t fear the software. Don’t fear the change. Be a part of it.

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