December 13, 1996

Technological Unemployment

Many people think of their job as an integral part of who they are. For them, being out of work can mean that they no longer have any value to others or to themselves -unemployment can be devastating.

During the NAFTA debate, I heard the statement made that American workers are more productive than Mexican workers. While it is true that the same product can be made in the U.S. by fewer people than in Mexico, the statement is misleading. A Mexican worker is just as intelligent (or stupid) as an American worker, and is just as hard working. The difference has to do with the machines that do the job, not the people.

In the first part of this century, a worker was just another machine. In a way, the assembly line worker served the machine. Pick up a video of Charlie Chaplin's film "Modern Times". Besides having some of the funniest film sequences ever made, it has a history lesson and a sermon for our times. In the computer age, the machine works for the worker --which can make the worker superfluous.

The trend is inexorable. First one individual worker made an individual product. Later, a group of workers made many of the same products. Automobiles used to be made one at a time by a small group of people. With the use of the assembly line, many men and machines made very many cars. Houses used to be made one at a time. Now crews of workers make many many houses. A board can now be cut with a power saw in seconds, while doing it with a hand saw took minutes. Nowadays man designs and makes machines that make computers that make products. Machines make computers which make more machines which make more computers, and so on.

The trend is clear: the future will mean fewer workers making many more products. If someone is a computer or machine repair man, his future is assured -unless, as is the case with many devices, throwing it away becomes cheaper than repairing it. If he is an assembly line worker, his only hope is that he will retire before he is replaced by a machine. The secretary who can't use a computer is now as obsolete as a mechanical typewriter. Secretaries used to be people, usually women, who took dictation and typed. Nowadays a secretary is more a status symbol for an executive than a necessity. A laptop computer can do the job even though it is ugly. It never makes mistakes.

A human being will do a better and more efficient job than a machine in any job that is slightly different every time that that it is done. As machine intelligence is improved, this may change. If the job is exactly the same each time, a machine will do it better. If you visit an automobile assembly line, you will find far fewer workers than you would have 20 years ago.

So what is the future for the worker? If you consider labor as a commodity, it is becoming less and less needed. That is a big problem for union leaders. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers who can do the same job over and over again are becoming less and less necessary due to the inevitable march of progress.

One strange outcome of this is the relationship of the timber worker to the environmentalist. Environmentalists would love to see an end to clear cutting. The large timber companies would like nothing better than to see trees handled like wheat: you plant them in rows with a machine, and harvest them with a machine when they are ripe. This method could be automated, making the skilled timber faller superfluous. If the environmentalists have their way, selective logging will be the only way that lumbering will be done in the future -which is the way that much of it was done in the past. This should make the logger and the environmentalists allies. It hasn't happened yet -but just wait.

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