[U]Editor's note[/U]: Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take it Back."
(CNN) -- The U.S. Postal Service appears to be the latest casualty in digital technology's slow but steady replacement of working humans. Unless an external source of funding comes in, the post office will have to scale back its operations drastically, or simply shut down altogether. That's 600,000 people who would be out of work, and another 480,000 pensioners facing an adjustment in terms.
We can blame a right wing attempting to undermine labor, or a left wing trying to preserve unions in the face of government and corporate cutbacks. But the real culprit -- at least in this case -- is e-mail. People are sending 22% fewer pieces of mail than they did four years ago, opting for electronic bill payment and other net-enabled means of communication over envelopes and stamps.
New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures -- from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.
We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.
And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs -- as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there's something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.
I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks -- or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?
We're living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That's because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that's even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high. Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings to get the empty houses off their books.
Our problem is not that we don't have enough stuff -- it's that we don't have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.
Jobs, as such, are a relatively new concept. People may have always worked, but until the advent of the corporation in the early Renaissance, most people just worked for themselves. They made shoes, plucked chickens, or created value in some way for other people, who then traded or paid for those goods and services. By the late Middle Ages, most of Europe was thriving under this arrangement.
The only ones losing wealth were the aristocracy, who depended on their titles to extract money from those who worked. And so they invented the chartered monopoly. By law, small businesses in most major industries were shut down and people had to work for officially sanctioned corporations instead. From then on, for most of us, working came to mean getting a "job."
The Industrial Age was largely about making those jobs as menial and unskilled as possible. Technologies such as the assembly line were less important for making production faster than for making it cheaper, and laborers more replaceable. Now that we're in the digital age, we're using technology the same way: to increase efficiency, lay off more people, and increase corporate profits.
While this is certainly bad for workers and unions, I have to wonder just how truly bad is it for people. Isn't this what all this technology was for in the first place? The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?
Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.
The communist answer to this question was just to distribute everything evenly. But that sapped motivation and never quite worked as advertised. The opposite, libertarian answer (and the way we seem to be going right now) would be to let those who can't capitalize on the bounty simply suffer. Cut social services along with their jobs, and hope they fade into the distance.
But there might still be another possibility -- something we couldn't really imagine for ourselves until the digital era. As a pioneer of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, recently pointed out, we no longer need to make stuff in order to make money. We can instead exchange information-based products.
We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do -- the value we create -- is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.
This sort of work isn't so much employment as it is creative activity. Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations. We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another -- all through bits instead of stuff. And we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff.
For the time being, as we contend with what appears to be a global economic slowdown by destroying food and demolishing homes, we might want to stop thinking about jobs as the main aspect of our lives that we want to save. They may be a means, but they are not the ends.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.[/quote]
[QUOTE]The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment?[/QUOTE]
It's quite a predicament.
The population continues to grow and technology continues to improve reducing the number of available job opportunities. Add to the equation the inevitable shift to a true global economy (and workforce), and it's not hard to envision the country heading down an unsustainable path and fundamentally unsolvable problem.
The models from the past are becoming outdated and obsolete with each passing year. There is no easy answer in this situation, but it seems some sort of societal shift is in order at some point in the future.
It is also a pipe dream that the bulk of society has the skills or creativity to produce the content he thinks everyone is capable of. Good authors, musicians, programmers, etc are far from common and even if they were who will consume all of this extra content?
[QUOTE=bitonti;4131926]i know people on unemployment and it's not a party. It's a shameful situation [B]no one _wants_ to accept unemployment checks[/B].[/QUOTE]
Totally false and myoptic. My ex-wife gamed the system taking unemployment and working under the table. It is also very common for construction workersto suplement their slow times and is considered the thing to do.
I know there is no way you actually believe all the silly things you say in defense of "dear leader". Besides, as Pelosi says, there is nothing better for the economy than unemployment benefits. :rolleyes:
[QUOTE=Trades;4131950]Totally false and myoptic. My ex-wife gamed the system taking unemployment and working under the table. [/QUOTE]
its true there is fraud out there, but I tend to believe most people find pride in doing a job.
It should also be noted unemployment is not a straight hand out, we all pay into it while working.
as for Warfish's original post I do think there is a structural employment situation right now and it's not necessarily the job of the President to fix that. More people need to get more education, and we might not ever be at 5% again in the near future. The fundamentals have changed.
The OP article reminds me of the Star Trek Next Generation world of the future. It is an idealized place where people work for the pure joy of it. You can join starfleet for the adventure. Picard's brother ran a vineyard for the joy of seeing the fruits of their labor.
In reality someone still needs to clean toilets and pick up the trash. The whole concept is absurd. It is true that certail 0 skill positions like toll collectors, line workers, and mail carriers are going away. That said we still need a workforce that can adapt. Education is the key to success in this world and those that dont take advantage of all of the programs and help in place designed to get that education do so at their own peril.
RE the Post Office situation I think mass layoffs of unskilled mail carriers is not the right move. To clean up that system they should immediately go to a 5 day mail week. In addition the PO should implement a systemwide hiring freeze. Allow the workforce to shrink through attrition rather than layoffs. It may take them 10 years or more to get down to a more managable level of employees but at least they wont send an army of unskilled labor to the unemployment lines at a time when that would be exceedingly bad for the economy.
[QUOTE=JetPotato;4132081]Who is building the robots? Who is programming them? Who is changing their oil? Who is mitigating the disposal of the used oil?[/QUOTE]
All valid points ... and as WB pointed out there are other inconceivable (at this point) jobs which will be added as well.
But that doesn't mean that we should be blind to the facts that world population is growing rapidly and a true global economy will add many more people to the workforce. There is legitimate concern about current employment models.
[QUOTE=parafly;4132108]All valid points ... and as WB pointed out there are other inconceivable (at this point) jobs which will be added as well.
But that doesn't mean that we should be blind to the facts that [B]world population is growing rapidly[/B] and a true global economy will add many more people to the workforce. There is legitimate concern about current employment models.[/QUOTE]
Sounds like we're going to need a lot of babysitters.
[QUOTE=JetPotato;4132081]Who is building the robots? Who is programming them? Who is changing their oil? Who is mitigating the disposal of the used oil?
This is so silly. It's evolution in what we have left of a free market society.
Or maybe the government should have stepped in when back when and stopped the development of the cotton gin so we could have unskilled workers stil picking out seeds today by hand.:rolleyes:[/QUOTE]
All true, but which also points to something others have said: the education and skill levels MUST rise, or some people will be shut out of the economy, with no hope of participating. And its not up to government - its personal responsibility.
[QUOTE=quantum;4132209]All true, but which also points to something others have said: the education and skill levels MUST rise, or some people will be shut out of the economy, with no hope of participating. And its not up to government -[B] its personal responsibility[/B].[/QUOTE]
Exactly! The education is there for the taking. Schools are free and you get out what you put in. Even in the worst districts there are ways to learn if you are willing to try. Libraries are free and prevelant and you can read or get access to computers. It comes down to personal responsibility and family involvement.