Saturday, March 5, 2011

More on outsourcing and automating

In an article relevant to my earlier post about replacing teachers with robots, computer programs, underpaid prison wardens (hey, someone's still got to provide the discipline and prevent fights, at least at the high school level) or simply shipping our children off to be educated in China (which might be more funny to me if it hadn't been pointed out that the Chinese are currently doing that to us, at great profit to our colleges and for-profit language institutes), The New York Times discusses a new type of computer software that will eliminate the need for thousands of corporate lawyers.

In "Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software," journalist John Markoff explores how the trend of consolidating and eliminating jobs through automation is affecting people higher and higher up the career scale of pay and prestige.

Where a large chemical company used to convene entire auditoriums of lawyers for weeks on end to read through enormous quantities of documents, now they have a computer program that is so sophisticated as to find emails on a subject even if it does not contain that key word.

So where are all those auditoriums of lawyers working now? Probably you shouldn't be advising your students to pick law school and a quarter million dollars of debt over grad school in the humanities.

But maybe this isn't a story of jobs lost but we should be thinking of this as job transfer, as surplus jobs move from one region of the economy to another. I assume that the company designing and building that law software has been hiring a bunch of coders, and probably low-level secretaries to sell and fill the orders for the product, right?
computers "are claiming work once done by people in high-paying professions. The number of computer chip designers, for example, has largely stagnated because powerful software programs replace the work once done by legions of logic designers and draftsmen."
Oh. Never mind.

But it gets worse.

David Autor, an economics professor, points out that our economy is becoming "hollowed out" --- that our job landscape has become divided into two extremes: some extremely well-paying creative/analytical jobs at the one end, and extremely monotonous manual labor requiring dexterity at the other. This article in The Economist uses the example of a towel-folding robot --- more accurately, its relative inability to actually fold towels --- as an example of the kinds of jobs that are as-yet untouched by the automation revolution. Thus, the need for people to clean hotel rooms has gone up, while routine "button pushing" jobs, like many bank tellers or payroll clerks, have been consolidated or eliminated through computer technology. Although the article doesn't mention it, it's the same in the health care industry: wiping butts, mopping floors and putting IV needles in a patient can't be automated or outsourced, while running and reading a CAT scan can be (and is already).

Back to the NYT article, I'm glad to see that Autor at least sort of recognizes that there is a qualitative as well as monetary difference between the jobs that can be eliminated and those that remain:
“There is no reason to think that technology creates unemployment,” Professor Autor said. “Over the long run we find things for people to do. The harder question is, does changing technology always lead to better jobs? The answer is no.”
Clearly, if job automation has reached the level of the professions and is beginning to affect even people like lawyers and computer programmers (it hit us in academia a long time ago, but you don't need to be told that), then there isn't going to be a "safe" area of the economy to guide our students into. I mean, clearly no one is going to want to take on college debt to go scrub toilets and fold towels (some of my returning students have told me that this has already happened in health care: I had multiple people last semester who went for janitorial-type job openings and were beaten out by someone who had an RN, even though the ad specified it didn't even need a high school diploma. Hence going to college to try and pick up an RN or BPN. I predict, and have been for a while, that the health care and especially nursing bubble is a big bubble that is going to explode soon).

I was going to finish up this post by asking about complexity --- do we need all this complexity? how could we un-complexify? Has the level of complexity in our culture outstripped the ability of the average human to understand it? ---- but instead I am struck by this idea that we now have information surpluses and job scarcity.

What does it even mean to think of information as an infinite resource and jobs as a scarce one? What will happen once we have eliminated jobs or made them a rarity --- who will buy all these products that we are supposed to be producing? Will we just somehow switch over to a utopian world where we are simply given these things and we put all of our time and energy into our interests and hobbies? Or will it be more dystopian like this video, where we will be frantically competing for those last few butt-wiping, towel-folding jobs? Seriously, I can't even imagine an economy with no jobs. Do we need to read more Latin American and Middle Eastern literature to wrap our heads around the concept of 80% unemployment and forced leisure? I'm pretty sure I don't want to live like a character in an Edwidge Danticat story.

Wasn't the first use of the word "robot" to mean slave? Seriously, how can people look at these developments in labor and not be Marxist?


undine said...

Your analysis seems just right to me, Sisyphus.

Anonymous said...

We're certainly heading in that direction, although one can rightfully argue that we're already there. How many people with advanced/professional degrees are unemployed or working for substandard wages (i.e., low-paying entry level jobs or unemployment)? I wouldn't be surprised if the percentage hovers around 40-45% (or higher). Of course, we won't know this because these kinds are never talked about when schools try to recruit new students.

Arbitrista said...

Well to be fair automation (like global trade) relies on very cheap energy. If (more likely when) energy prices shoot up, much of the cost advantage of automation could get wiped out.