James C. Banks

How Fast Is the World Turning? Technology and Fulfillment

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2011 at 11:34 pm

News isn’t supposed to get old—that’s why it’s news. But that doesn’t prevent reporters from publishing stories that they probably could have chronicled without sources. Every week one social pundit or another indites a not-so-new article about how we’re falling behind in whatever it’s not fashionable to be behind in. Though his ideas themselves are more nuanced than these sentiments, it is these sentiments among the vast wonkosphere which has made Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation “the most debated book so far this year.”

I have not read the book—not for a lack of interest, but for lack of a Kindle; I have read the the column that Cowen wrote which supposedly more or less summarizes the theme. It is his conclusion of which I am most skeptical:

In the narrow sense, the solution to the stagnation of median income will not be a political one. And one of the hardest points to grasp about this quandary is that no one in particular is to blame. Scientific progress has never proceeded on an even, predictable basis, even though for part of the 20th century it seemed that it might.

Science should be encouraged with subsidies for basic research, as well as private charity, educational reform, a business culture geared toward commercializing inventions, and greater public appreciation for the scientific endeavor. A lighter legal and regulatory hand could ease the path of future innovations.

I tend to believe any notion that scientific invention and innovation will save us is wishful thinking, but even if Professor Cowen’s hopes are oversold, it is just as likely that his gloom about low hanging fruit—or, that economic progress has slowed in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century—is also exaggerated. I argued earlier that many of the technologies that don’t seem as significant as the car might yet turn out to be just a revolutionary, though they have not been entirely unpacked at this point. Virtual offices, to cite just one instance, have the ability to change the work force from being primarily labor-based to being primarily contractually-based, but this is not a potential of which many firms have yet taken advantage.

And even if the government did not choose to rule with a “lighter legal and regulatory hand” it is easy to imagine ways that individual citizens could cast it off: I am not convinced that sea-steading will be a viable option for long-term communities, but it is imaginable that one could park a research facility twenty miles off the coast of California (that is, in international waters) and conduct research there untrammeled by government interference.

While I don’t think that we should ban the taxi to save the rickshaw driver, I tend to think that the most formidable challenge the country faces is not the fact that things are not changing fast enough, but rather that they are changing too fast.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine any kind of work that cannot be automated. This does not mean that humanity will be wanting for jobs to do; there will always be a need for human minds to gauge and set priorities for which tasks to automate and when.  Robots might become the labor force, but humans will always provide the management at some level.

The more significant problem is that, as work becomes more virtual and automated, it will become less fulfilling and more stressful for the human individuals at the top, responsible for seeing it carried through.  While I’ve never been sentimental about the virtues of truck-driving or hammering a nail, there is definitely something to be said for having a job at which you can actually see the fruits of your labor.  But craft—the satisfaction that comes from doing a job well—is turning into an alien concept as people concentrate less on providing necessary labors which were once necessary are becoming irrelevant and the tasks assigned to individuals are becoming increasingly geared toward providing leisure services.

Is there a solution to this problem? I don’t think so; mainly because people think that their newfound vocations, while possibly less fulfilling, stave off a larger challenge (id est, being unemployed); this is true, but it doesn’t mean that nothing has been lost and that it is something that technology won’t bring back.

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