Robots and other technology are replacing traditional jobs at an alarming rate. How will the economy fair when everyone is unemployed?
Remember in the early 90s when Arnold Schwarzenegger character in James Cameron’s classic film “Terminator” promised “I’ll be back”? Well, he wasn’t lying. And no, this isn’t about that horrible sequel with Clair Danes or the even more pathetic fourth movie featuring Christian Bale running around grunting for an excruciating two hours. In fact, it’s not about science fiction at all. It’s about reality. And it concerns how technology is rapidly altering the world economy.
Earlier this morning, CNN released an article, written by Andrew Keen, addressing how more and more companies are replacing their labor force with robots.
Technology replacing human labor is nothing new. Labor unions pretty much started because human jobs were being sacrificed to machines in order to cut a company’s bottom line. John Steinbeck wrote about the issue in 1939, when his book the Grapes of Wrath addressed how new developments in agricultural technology, such as cheap, assembly-line tractors, were eliminating the traditional work force. The tale dates back even further if we include the classic American folk-lore figure Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack whose livelihood was threatened by new wood-cutting technology.
While few people will argue that technology is a bad thing, one must wonder what will happen when technology advances to the point where it can take over nearly any job. If you’re one of those people that scoff at such a ‘radical’ statement, consider the fact that robots are already replacing nurses. Also consider the effect technology has already had on traditional media; bookstores are shutting down, newspapers are out of print, video-rental chains are obsolete. But innovation fundamentalists declare that losses are part of progress, that any new innovation replaces an older innovation.
“Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO and its current executive chairman, is a classic example of an innovation fundamentalist. ‘Innovators create millions of jobs in America,’ the multi-billionaire mogul told CNN’s Erin Burnett last week on OutFront about what he believes is the inevitably positive impact of new technology, particularly information technology, upon employment.”
But what kind of jobs does technology really create? Aside from minimum wage jobs at Best Buy or the Wal-Mart, not that many: Three of America’s top tech companies, Amazon, Google, and Apple, have a combined employment of “less than 150,000” people. That number is over shadowed by the number of Americans entering the workforce each month.
Despite how much we need technology, it’s time to start a serious dialogue on how we’ll handle the shrinking need for traditional jobs. Efficiency is a good thing. But unlike robots, human employees spend money. Employees are also consumers. And without consumers, it’s “Hasta la vista” economy.