The Dual Faces of Technology: Enhancing and Replacing Jobs

Automation has been on my mind a lot lately, more immediately due to a book I read, but also because
of the looming reality of artificial intelligence. To understand what's involved, making the distinction between replacing technologies and enabling technologies is crucial. As we traverse the timeline of the 20th century, we observe how each type of technology has distinctly influenced employment.

Automated technologies have transformed industries by replacing manual labor with machines. Consider the automated switchboards introduced in the early 20th century. Previously, telephone operators manually connected calls using physical connectors on a switchboard. With the advent of automated switchboards in the 1920s and 1930s, many of these jobs were eliminated as calls were routed through electromechanical systems.

Similarly, in agriculture, the introduction of mechanical harvesters like the combine harvester in the 1930s drastically reduced the need for manual labor. These machines took over the labor-intensive tasks of cutting, threshing, and cleaning crops, previously done by large groups of farm workers. Such innovations significantly altered employment landscapes in their respective fields.

On the other hand, enabling technologies have aided workers by enhancing their productivity and efficiency. The widespread adoption of electric power tools in the early 20th century is a prime example. Tools such as electric drills, saws, and grinders allowed workers in construction and manufacturing to perform their tasks more quickly and with less physical exertion.

The typewriter, ubiquitous in offices by the early 20th century, revolutionized the way documents were produced. By enabling faster and more legible writing than handwriting, typewriters increased office productivity and improved business communication and record-keeping.

Historically, mechanization and automation have had mixed impacts on employment. During the first industrial revolution, there was a period known as "Engels' Pause," where mechanization initially displaced many workers, particularly adults replaced by child labor. It wasn't until the advent of steam power, which required skilled adult operation, that demand for labor normalized, allowing workers to demand better conditions and wages.

In the mid-20th century, automation continued to create and destroy jobs, leading to a blur in lifestyle distinctions between the working and middle classes due to increased general affluence.

Today, the rapid advancement of technologies like AI and robotics suggests a similar pattern. For instance, Amazon fulfillment centers increasingly automate tasks once performed by humans, and I am convinced that in not too many years most of their fulfillment center work will be done by robots or otherwise be automated. Perhaps the delivery drivers are safe for now, though drones could all but replace them as well. Another example is that of bank tellers. The role of bank tellers evolves as ATMs become more prevalent. Recently I was in a bank with only two human tellers, and three ATMs in addition to one outside. My observation was that people favored using the ATMs. 

To mitigate the challenges posed by automation, education and retraining are paramount. Government-sponsored retraining programs, along with a strong emphasis on childhood education, can equip future generations with the skills needed to thrive in a changing labor market. Ensuring that children receive a robust foundational education and have access to resources for higher learning is essential for preparing them to move beyond low-skilled work. Also, people need to be aware of the value of a university education, as I have blogged recently here

As we continue to navigate the complexities of automation, understanding the interplay between replacing and enabling technologies will be key to shaping a workforce that can adapt and prosper in the face of technological change.

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