Friday, September 9, 2011

Are jobs obsolete?

Douglas Rushkoff

The U.S. Postal Service appears to be the latest casualty in digital technology's slow but steady replacement of working humans. Unless an external source of funding comes in, the post office will have to scale back its operations drastically, or simply shut down altogether. That's 600,000 people who would be out of work, and another 480,000 pensioners facing an adjustment in terms.

We can blame a right wing attempting to undermine labor, or a left wing trying to preserve unions in the face of government and corporate cutbacks. But the real culprit -- at least in this case -- is e-mail. [..] New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures -- from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete.

We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.

And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs -- as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there's something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks -- or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We're living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That's because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working [..].

[I]n the digital age, we're using technology [..] to increase efficiency, lay off more people, and increase corporate profits. [..]While this is certainly bad for workers and unions, I have to wonder just how truly bad is it for people. Isn't this what all this technology was for in the first place? The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?

Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff. The communist answer to this question was just to distribute everything evenly. But that sapped motivation and never quite worked as advertised [..] But there might still be another possibility -- something we couldn't really imagine for ourselves until the digital era. As a pioneer of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, recently pointed out, we no longer need to make stuff in order to make money. We can instead exchange information-based products.

We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do -- the value we create -- is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.

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