New technology isn’t always progress

Jack Stevenson Contributing Columnist

February 26, 2014

Three decades back, I attended the first day of a class for adults who were taking college courses to improve their job skills. The course was mathematics. The first day was devoted, mainly, to administrative matters. One person asked the instructor: “Are you going to teach us how to extract a square root?” The instructor was apparently unprepared for that question. He paused for a moment and then replied: “No, because no employer would pay someone to do that calculation with pencil and paper when you can press one button on a calculator and get the answer.”

That logic explains why employers will not hire people to do something that computers or computer controlled machines can do faster, better, and less expensively. It is also part of the reason that many jobs that offer a decent living wage are disappearing in America.

Prominent Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi and software developer Martin Ford believe that large scale unemployment is on the American horizon. They believe that a vast number of jobs that are now performed by human beings can easily be performed by computerized systems.

If computerized automation of work goes to the point that some computer scientists foresee, a significant percentage of Americans will be unemployed and unable to purchase goods and services. That would leave us with a warped economy and a distressed society.

Joblessness destroys body and soul, individual and family. But it also diminishes the general economy. Associated Press writers Paul Wiseman and Bernard Condon caught the essence of the problem in a January 25, 2013, article. During the 1950s, one of the Detroit automakers installed some new machines that replaced some of the workforce. A prominent labor leader toured the facility. The plant manager asked the labor leader: “…how are you going to collect union dues from all these machines?” The labor leader replied: “…how are you going to sell cars to these machines?”

Work defines us. Some of us have names that reflect occupations: Smith, as in blacksmith or goldsmith; Lance and Knight; Carpenter, Hunter, and Fisher; Wright, as in boatwright and playwright; Tailor, Baker, Potter, and Shepherd. A life of leisure, without a paycheck, is a luxury we cannot afford.

Capitalist theory has no remedy for large scale unemployment. Perhaps it is not too soon to start thinking about how we are going to adapt to the job deficient world we are building.

Jack Stevenson is a retired military officer. He lives in Florida.