Does Technology Actually Kill Jobs?

Does Technology Actually Kill Jobs?

Does technology actually kill jobs while automation doesn’t really seem to reduce the overall number of jobs in an economy there are numerous professions that have entirely disappeared primarily due to technological innovation if you’re worried about losing your job due to a major future technological shift it makes sense to look at some case studies from the past and ask how historical waves of automation led to the economy.

Technology Anxiety and Job Displacement

Anxiety over technology and automation as drivers of job and wage losses has been a common thing in our culture pretty much since the Industrial Revolution the word Lite typically used to describe someone as anti-technology or anti-progress has its roots in the Lite labor movement this was a group of skilled Weavers in 19th century England who broke the Machinery that was being used to replace them the problem with this Machinery in the eyes of the leites wasn’t just that it might reduce the overall number of jobs but that it meant that highly skilled well-compensated Artisans could be replaced with easily interchangeable low paid machine operators for programmable looms.

And they weren’t entirely wrong while there are still plenty of people employed in the Garment industry today very few of them are in the UK and the global market is dominated by shily constructed clothes made of cheap low quality textiles that are designed to avoid many sewing knitting and crocheting techniques that machines struggle to imitate even modern forms of automation like AI are often supported by small armies of overseas workers such as Amazon’s just walk out program were customers could just grab an item off the shelf and leave these stores relied on a large number of support workers reviewing transactions and tagging footage with metadata for training in order to create this supposedly cashier less experience.

Obsolete Professions: Knocker Upper

But of course there are a lot of jobs that were successfully deleted by the rise of mechanization some have been so thoroughly obliterated that it’s hard for us to even recognize that once upon a time those jobs must have existed one example is that of a knocker upper which just so we’re clear has nothing to do with pregnancy getting knocked up by the mailman used to mean something very different prior to the invention and proliferation of cheap and reliable mechanical alarm clocks there used to be an entire profession of night owls who went around knocking on doors and windows early in the morning to ensure that other people woke up on time.

They typically carried a long light stick to wrap on the Windows of bedrooms on the upper floors though some were known to carry peashooters so that they could shoot dry peas at the windows instead I don’t know how you’re supposed to hit snooze probably have to go down there and fight them the profession of knocker upper actually lasted a lot longer than you might think it had mostly died out by the 1940s but still existed in some areas of England until the 1970s .

Obsolete Professions

Another example of a less old timey occupation that was created and then destroyed by a single invention is switchboard operators the profession’s Heyday was only a few short decades with the first operator hired in 1878 and automated exchanges introduced in the 1890s and proliferating through the early 1900s this profession again hung on for a surprisingly long time with some manual central office switchboards lasting until the early ’90s in a few rural areas.

But if this all feels like ancient history what about the professions that have died within living memory of people younger than me a more modern profession that has declined significantly over the last several decades is that of TV repair technicians don’t get me wrong they’re still around and many of them have simply broaden their skill sets rather than just specializing purely in televisions however the demand for television repair has significantly decreased in part because the average television sold has become both cheaper to buy and more complicated to repair.

Disposable TVs and Historical Computers

That complication is partially due to the Advent of smart TVs and Teensy tiny integrated Electronics but also due to a lot of intentionally repair hostile design likewise televisions improve fast enough from year to year that many users simply choose to buy a new and improved model rather than fixing their broken device televisions used to be an expensive valuable Appliance but there’s been a distinct cultural shift where we’ve started to treat them as disposable and it’s had a measurable impact on Independent repair jobs.

Here’s another fun one we tend to forget that once upon a time the word computer did not refer to a machine brain a computer was a person whose job was to compute the term originates in the 17th century when scientists and observatories would hire assistance to perform from all the tedious mathematical calculations needed to make astronomical predictions the original astronomy supercomputer was literally just a room full of dudes doing math by the end of the 19th century however nearly all computers were women primarily because Computing was seen as a rote menial work and well-educated Men didn’t want to do it as discussed in the 2016 film hidden figures NASA launches in the late 1950s and early 1960s relied on female human computers to calculate trajectories and orbital mechanics one of the first things modern computers replaced was computers.

Automation’s Impact: White Collar Concerns

They were mostly Blue Collar trades or low status White Collar positions they definitely required their own degree of skill but we’ve largely become accustomed to the idea that manufacturing and other physical jobs can and eventually will be automated an important factor that distinguishes the newest threat of automation though is that it increasingly seems to be that knowledge-based white colar jobs are equally at risk so expect to read a lot of modelin think pieces about that’s what happens when writers get fired and have too much time on their hands.

Machine translation and computer assisted DIY legal and accounting services still haven’t hit the point where they’re a one to1 replacement for an actual human professional but there’s going to be a Tipping Point where these automated services are good enough for basic tasks and cheap enough that the remaining quality gap won’t matter to a lot of people who need these services and for some of these jobs it’s already happening artists are in a similar position you’re still going to need human beings to make good art but it’s quite likely that you’ll be able to make more good art faster with fewer people it’s also already clear that a lot of people don’t care about the quality and consistency gap between generated art and professional art from a human artist and those people are just going to go with the cheaper option.

If all this history has you feeling a little depressed it’s worth repeating that none of these waves of automation or disappearing professions actually appear to have reduced the overall percentage of people with jobs in fact high levels of Automation in a country tend to correlate with high levels of Workforce participation not the opposite it’s possible that this round will be different and we really will see automation push a large percentage of people into unemployment but everything we’ve learned from history says otherwise besides you can always become a streamer.