By John F. McMullen
Creative Disruption has been a continuing series examining the impact of constantly accelerating technology on the world around us. These changes normally happen under our personal radar until we find that the world as we knew it is no more.
The 212th Column … and Last
This is the 212th Column in the Creative Disruption Series (we began the numbering as computer people do with zero – 0), a series that began in December 2011. Unfortunately, this is also the last column of this type for the Westchester Guardian as the publisher has announced that the paper is about to join the ranks of the New York Herald Tribune, the Brooklyn Eagle, the Washington Star, the New York Journal American, and too many other cadavers in the cemetery of departed newspapers.
I say “unfortunate” not only for me as I lose (hopefully only for the time being) the opportunity to rant publicly about issues that I consider important but also the readers will not only lose my column but those of ex-Congressman and Vice-Chair of the “9/11 Commission” Lee Hamilton, Robert Scott, Mary Keon, and the legendary critic John Simon.
In the introductory blurb for the series, I wrote “In this series, my intent is to connect the dots not in a human life but, rather, in the life of the technology around us so we can look at where we came from and what the ramifications of the trip have been. I will also look at the elements that underlie the technology that is now part of our lives and speculate as to where the technology may take us.
“The impact of the technology explosion is obvious in some areas, such as the constant geometric increase in the power of computers as described by "Moore's Law." In other areas such as photography, journalism, medicine, it may not be as apparent until we step back and realize that the world has "gone digital" and that this transition, in some way, impacts everything. As we step back, perhaps, we will be in awe as we note how far we have come from the pony express to e-mail; the telegraph to cellular; Kitty Hawk to Apollo 11; vinyl to mp3; and the ENIAC to a device that is held in a hand and is a combination computer, camera, and telephone -- I hope so -- and welcome aboard for the ride.
“The world changes around us. Sometimes, we recognize the changes as they happen. Most times we do not.”
In short, the series has been focused around technology but was never about technology, per se, but rather about the impact that technology has had and will continue to have on our lives. Unless something has a direct impact on us or on a relative or neighbor, we rarely stop to think of the massive changes in society in the last thirty years brought on by technology.
To be sure, we may remember when people walking down the street were engrossed in conversation, to the person next to them, and not to someone miles away through the device in their hands or pockets. Older people may also bemoan the fact that the younger generations always seem to have their noses buried in a handheld device rather than engaging in conversation with those around them. Of course, everyone gathers information through the use of Google, e-mail, and You Tube and shops at Amazon and other on-line retail stores. Many never knew a world without these tools.
So there are, of course, many benefits that have been brought by the explosion of technology as every device from our phones, televisions, cars, and refrigerators to the so-called “Internet-of-Things” is actually a computer (just not like the thing on a desk or in our portable case). I remember over 15 years ago, when ex-Senate and Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, at that time CEO of Hewlett-Packard, told an audience “A digital camera is a computer that takes pictures, an airplane is a computer that flies, and someday all of our devices will be computers” and this statement was a shock to people – it was, of course, true but was a much different way of looking at things.
This statement was made less than a decade after the advent of the World Wide Web, the application that brought computers into homes, opening shopping and information gathering to those sitting at a keyboard rather than walking through malls or researching in a library. Most didn’t realize it then but these developments – the World Wide Web and digital photography really mandated the development of the iPhone, iTunes, and all smartphones; innovation that destroyed the consumer film processing industry (and forced Kodak into bankruptcy) and tore apart the music industry.
While all of this was going on around us, the constant ongoing innovation was eliminating jobs. There were three separate drivers in this movement:
- Global telecommunications – allowed companies to move factories from the United State or sub-contract work to areas of the world that had the cheapest labor cost. Through this process of “Offshoring,” a company could put itself in a position to compete with foreign firms both in the global market and domestically while still managing the organization from Armonk, NY, Detroit, Michigan, or Little Rock, Arkansas.
- Robotics – a form of artificial intelligence that allows the replacement of human labor with machines in jobs that are repetitive, boring, dangerous, or require great strength – in short, the large majority of manufacturing jobs.
- Artificial Intelligence – the vast, untapped non-robotic portion of AI, through intelligent “algorithms,” “big data,” and “machine learning” are eliminating white collar jobs in retail, finance, journalism, medicine, music, transportation, security, the military – just about any job.
To be sure, these innovations also create jobs, usually higher paying jobs than ones they replace – but they create far fewer jobs that those eliminated. Additionally, they tend to require greater skills – or at least different ones – than the jobs eliminated and the people who held those jobs are often too old, too uneducated in the new field, or, at times, too unintelligent for re-training.
One of the unfortunate things about our current presidential campaign is that candidates can do more than make grandiose promises about “creating new higher paying jobs.” Just how will they do that? How will they turn a file clerk with a high school diploma into a computer archivist, a radio engineer into a telecommunications expert, a draftsman into a 3D print design analyst, etc.? I’m sure that many may make such transitions but there will be many less of such jobs to transition to.
When our theorists discuss these problems, they tend to come up with grandiose schemes such as “guaranteed annual wage” (a concept that goes back at least to conservative economist Milton Friedman and president Richard Nixon) or “mandated shorter work weeks” or “job sharing.” While these approaches or some equally radical change to our way of doing business may eventually be an answer, they certainly will not occur in the terms or President Clinton or President Trump – and it is difficult to see how that unilateral changes by the US in the present global market would maintain our competiveness.
So what are our vulnerable workers to do? They must concentrate on short-range stop-gap actions to insure they are employable – they must be highly educated and have the needed skills to obtain a position. They must then not only work hard at the position but continue their education, whether it’s college, grad school, or trade school. Most important, they must constantly be looking over their shoulders to see what is next. They must question constantly:
- “are my skills current for this job (or the job that replaces this)?”
- “is my company current or is it a target for acquisition?”
- “can my job be done almost as well by a domestic service company or an offshore one?”
In other words, gone are the Ozzie and Harriet days of the 9-to-5 job and the evening with the family. The key word of our new economy is “adapt”! Our workforce must be educated and adaptable. If it is, we may be able to hang on until one of the grand schemes is available to put everything back in some balance.