Resulting in a brave new world of adult children who needn’t work?

It’s a question to take seriously.

A new book, The Glass Cage by technology writer Nicholas Carr, is raising some sobering questions. As Hiawatha Bray puts it at the Boston Globe,

By examining the fallout of a series of technological advances, Carr makes the case that millions of us will have lots of time for television, as machines are becoming smart enough to do the high-skill jobs we once believed “computer-proof.” And he fears that all of us will see our skills eroded, our intelligence debased, and our work devalued, if we sacrifice human responsibility to black boxes full of microchips.

Is this “new book” hype? 

As I mentioned in an earlier column, new technology doesn’t actually replace the doctor unless we think that a docbot can handle such tasks as

learning how to tell people—in a way that they understand and can accept—that their best option is palliative care. Or that their unborn baby shows no signs of life.

New technology will probably provide ever greater levels of detail in understanding and working with the human body, but the patient is still much more than an ailing body. And must always be treated as such.

New technology is having an effect on the legal profession too, but again, mainly in the area of automating time-consuming mechanical procedures.

A friend who is a paralegal recalls a prof insisting that the students learn old-fashioned search methods, using vast tomes in the campus library. They did so, but only under the greatest duress. They were hardly going to bill clients for time spent needlessly like that.

But a machine can’t tell the lawyer’s or paralegal’s client things like whether, given all the circumstances, it is better to litigate or settle. Or perhaps whether to defend oneself before a jury or just plea bargain.

Machines are good at calculating but human life is not a calculation; it is an experience to be lived. Lots is sure to go wrong if we forget that.

Anyway, has automation been the cause of job loss in North America? Carr, former editor of the Harvard Business Review thinks so, Bray reports:

Of course, technology’s been making less-skilled jobs obsolete ever since the Industrial Revolution. But these days, machines are coming for the well-paying jobs we perform in air-conditioned offices or clean, well-lighted factories, or the cockpits of commercial aircraft.

Maybe. The jury is still out.

First, there are many reasons for job loss in North America, including competition from South Asia and Eastern Asia, regions which had not been nearly as serious competitors before the late twentieth century. Before we draw conclusions, we should perhaps look at incentives and disincentives to employment in North America and Europe.

Second, the usual outcome of automating repetitive jobs has been expanding opportunities (and rising living standards).  At the turn of the twentieth century, most workers were employed in primary production: Farming, fishing, forestry, mining, etc. This wasn’t because everyone liked farm labour or mining, rather because human and animal labour produced all food, textiles, and tools.

A man might have wanted to be a lawyer but ended up a fisherman because there was no money for law school. A woman might have wanted to be a teacher but was too preoccupied with the care of fifty chickens, eight cows, several pre-schoolers and a chronically ill mother-in-law to even consider normal school. That happened to countless women.

I’m waiting to see whether further relief from drudgery ends up meaning mere idleness and neurosis or new careers that either did not exist a century ago or—as so often happened—were not formerly available to more than a lucky few.

That said, there is always Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), where “perfect” people never grow up, to consider:

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...