Technological Unemployment: Yes, It’s Our Problem Too

Software engineers and people who work for technology companies tend to think of technological unemployment as an issue that affects “other people”, but not us. We, the symbolic manipulators with expensive educations and IQs over 120 (in some cases, well over 120), will be fine, we tell ourselves. Sure, self-driving trucks will kill the last middle-class job that doesn’t require a college education, but why is that a problem for programmers in the Bay Area? We’re so smart, we’ll invent our own jobs (venture capital will give us the money)… right?

We have a sense of holding high ground in a flood. This perception is inaccurate. We are as vulnerable as anyone else. There are multiple reasons for this. I’ll cover three: labor market inelasticity, the triumph of mediocrity, and the most malevolent agent, workplace surveillance.

1. Labor Market Inelasticity

When people are desperate to have something, and it runs short, its price can spike disproportionate to the decrease in quantity. For example, the 1970s oil shocks only saw about 5 percent less of the stuff on the market, but prices quadrupled, and gas lines blocks long became the norm. Drugs (medicial and illicit) and water have the same trait: if they become slightly less available, prices go up. So does housing, and that’s why even though only a small percentage of New Yorkers have rent control, it drives rents up substantially for everyone else. If inelasticity weren’t an issue, cartels wouldn’t work.

People less familiar with economics call this “price gouging” but, in truth, often it’s a market doing what it’s designed to do: setting a price in the most efficient (not always the most desirable) way it can. Prices don’t go up amid scarcity because people are greedy or evil; they go up because something has to ration what’s limited, and in some cases, rationing by price is the least onerous resolution.

Of course, there are cases of malevolence, e.g. market manipulation. There are people who take advantage of inelasticities and cause suffering. There are also cases where markets fail or break down. Conspiracies exist; I only mean to imply that it doesn’t take a conspiracy to activate an undesirable sensitivity (or, worse yet, a feedback loop) in a market.

Though workers are the supply, rather than demand, side; a dual phenomenon occurs and job markets exhibit inelasticity. One might expect a 5% increase in available labor to cut wages by 5%, but it’s often more than that. It wouldn’t surprise me if it cut wages in half.

So, let’s say that 5 million truckers get laid off, replaced by self-driving vehicles. What percentage of them can and will train up and start writing code? Let’s be charitable to the programmers and say only 5 percent make it. That’s 250,000 more American programmers on the market. That’s less than a 1% increase; so we’re safe, right? Well, no. As I said, 1% increase in supply could drive a 20% drop in wages. Moreover, at the same time as the truckers are laid off, the whole supply chain surrounding trucking– hotels and restaurants across Middle America– collapses, too. So there are more people coming in. Some may not be qualified to program computers. Okay, so they become hairdressers. Then, wages dip for hairdressers, some of whom can learn how to write code. A broad-based labor market crash will bring refugees in from all industries (and make many of us refugees into other industries, where we may tank wages).

It takes surprisingly little to tank a labor market. We’re not on high ground; there is no high ground. Even the rich will have increasing cause to fear social unrest.

In many under-developed countries, no one gets rich by working. There are too many workers and too few jobs. College professors make $10,000 per year; teachers make $7,000; programmers are lucky to make $15,000. In such a society, corruption is common because most people see no way to get rich other than to cheat. Of course, this not only damages the culture but keeps these societies poor. Wage collapse is not an out-of-context dystopian threat; it’s the norm in the world, and we’re at risk of that becoming the case now.

2. Triumph of Mediocrity

Most people think that “corporations” want to turn the highest profit possible and that this is what motivates workplace decision-making. Wrong. Most executives want to advance their careers and reputations, with as little risk as possible, and only care about profits indirectly insofar as they manage up (in theory) to shareholders. What do executives care most about? Remaining executives. One might expect “shareholders” to push back, but the shareholders are mostly rich people who got rich by being executives, and so (a) they’re likely to give a pass on executive self-protection that isn’t egregious, and (b) even when they fire executives, they replace them with other people drawn from the same set, so it’s just shuffle. This class of people– a social elite defined by connections rather than talent– isn’t going anywhere.

Executives, by and large, don’t want top talent. It threatens them; they might be outshined by underlings. The fact that nothing but legacy backs their authority might be exposed. Top talent is unpredictable. It’s witchy. It’s also too rare to be a business on, and hard to replace if lost.

Top talent is not expensive. In fact, it’s cheap; for example, a company will pay less for one excellent software engineer than three mediocre ones. However, corporate executives do not mind the expensiveness of mediocrity, because it’s reliable, and because it is so normal to run a business on mediocrity that it will not get them fired. Most business operations can be run on “commodity” talent and, perhaps, should be so; insofar as making existing processes reliable, as opposed to innovation, is what customers and shareholders tend to want. It is not a crime that most jobs are mediocre, because most people are mediocre by definition; the problem is that while high-talent people are a minority, high-talent jobs are even rarer.

There are a lot of overpaid people in our economy, but the truly talented are often the most underpaid relative to what they’re worth. Making it worse, intelligence beyond an IQ of about 125 becomes a disadvantage in the corporate world: such people get bored easily, it is often neurological and irresistible, and yet corporate bosses tend to mistake it as an attitude issue. They are not sensitive to high-intelligence issues; it is not their problem; it is the problem of a small minority they have no reason to care about.

Does society need the most intelligent people? In the long run, yes. Chain gangs of “Agile Scrum” mediocrities do not invent. If we want human society to advance, or for our particular nations to remain relevant through the 21st century, highly intelligent people and how we treat them are crucial. But no single corporation really needs high talent, and individual executives have well-studied reasons to be afraid of it.

3: Technological Surveillance

There will be jobs in the future. Technological unemployment might replace stable, high-paying jobs with tenuous, cut-rate jobs. But, jobs there will always be; it seems to be human nature for those with power to run around telling the rest what to do. This is why it’s absurd when rich people, in American political discourse, call themselves “job creators”, as if it were some kind of virtue, as if the pharaoh in Exodus ought to be a hero rather than villain.

Technology’s long-term negative impact on the workplace seems not to be only that it eliminates jobs (although, especially in the context of inelasticity, that is a concern) because society will form new ones, no matter how menial; but that it has become a surveillance system. Job applicants without social media presence are viewed with suspicion, making privacy a deviance rather than a right. Blue-collar workers face inhumane supervision and have for decades, but white-collar jobs are heading this way, too. Technology makes it easy for employers to watch what their workers do, and to damage the reputations of those who inconvenience or threaten them. There is no fresh start anymore; the Internet itself is forever, but so are the thousands of compensation and “union risk” lists that corporations illegally share, usually verbally without a trace, with each other.

The past decade– in the more disenfranchised social classes, even longer– has tipped the balance of power so far in employers’ favor that we have a sick society. In a time of imprivacy, where people live on reputation rather than competence– a mass emasculation whose social fallout has barely started– people are so obsessed with fame that we see a new mass shooting every week– they are rare, in that most people won’t be affected by one; but they should not occur at all– and young children are eating laundry pods to win internet micro-approvals like video views.

It is unlikely that people intelligent enough to program computers will face a future of no jobs. It is more plausible, in my view, that we will face one of humiliating, highly monitored jobs where our bosses get daily reports on our keystrokes-per-hour and web activity.

I’ve read in a few different places that workplace surveillance is one of the strongest predictors of whether a workplace violence incident (“going postal”) will occur. Productivity surveillance doesn’t just make work unpleasant and humiliating; it also threatens the safety of the innocent.

Be Afraid

The typical “problem essay” is a like a hero’s journey where the essayist describes a gnarly social plight (inciting incident), explores a lot of deep and sometimes unpleasant human topics (the underworld), piling on troubling evidence up to a didactic climax (atonement) and then derives a solution (return with the elixir). I am no hero; not this time. I have no such elixir. I see a situation that is likely to get worse.

It’s nearly impossible for an individual to “push back” against the creeping inhumanity– open-plan offices, unnecessary layoffs presented as “low performer initiatives” that devolve into witch hints, aggressive surveillance of the worker, long hours that achieve nothing, and a culture that values putting workers in their place (so they don’t threaten executives) as opposed to increasing their value to the world– and not be steamrolled. I’ve tried; I know. I’ve stood up for what was right, and been flattened for it, and I still don’t know if there was ever a point to such efforts.

Software engineers are, individually speaking, the smartest people in the corporate mess. Collectively, we’re the stupidest. We’ve also let ourselves become test cases for corporate inhumanity. Silicon Valley– after it ceased to be a genuinely productive place, around 2002– became a sandbox for new ways to mistreat employees: open-plan offices, daily status meetings, back-channel reference calls, disposable companies, unreasonable deadlines driven using psychological warfare, and so on. This should be a source of great moral shame to us. It is for me.

We are not safe. The monsters we are building will not treat us well, and we should be worried.

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16 thoughts on “Technological Unemployment: Yes, It’s Our Problem Too

    • That ties in to the mediocrity. If excellence and experience don’t matter, then why would anyone hire the 50-year-old, who can probably do far more than the job requires, but who is likely to harbor resentment because he’s overqualified for the work you need done?

      Cultures that give a damn about getting the right answer aren’t ageist. But tech, these days, is so militantly mediocre that it’s very hard if you’re over 40.

      • One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is how unbelievably nasty interviews have become. Almost invariably, when I go to a tech screening, I always get the questions right, but there’s some insecure little 24-year old who shifts around in his chair, stares off into space, or asks some vague and badly phrased question, “to see how I think”. Then, two days later, I get a call from the HR ditz who says, with phony sympathy, “your technical skills aren’t quite at the level we require …” There’s no recourse, I’m out forever. Doesn’t matter that I went to MIT, doesn’t matter that I’ve put things in production, doesn’t matter that I have made millions for my employers, doesn’t matter that I hold patents and publications, doesn’t matter that I can do the job no problem, and express willingness to do the job. What matters is some little douchebag doesn’t want his snowflake party interrupted, and the company behaves as if he were the ultimate authority on my job-worthiness.

        I used to think this was a bug, but I’m beginning to suspect that, because people rely on this process so religiously, it’s a feature. Companies complain of the lack of qualified people, but their recruitment processes seem to be designed specifically to filter out qualified people.

        In your opinion, MOC, why do companies tolerate and encourage such destructive practices?

        • I mean, it makes very little sense. I have a proven track record of making money for my employers. My employers want to make money. Therefore, hiring me makes money for my employers. It’s not that complicated.

          And yet, the interview process seems to be focussed on allowing people who don’t really do anything to demonstrate that, despite overwhelming evidence, my claims are not true – that all the clients who paid for my work, the people who published what I wrote, and the universities that gave me my degrees were deluded, and that, thank God, this 24 year-old snowflake has shown that they were all wrong. And everyone believes him!

        • Assuming incompetence: companies see “the talent” as a commodity and don’t give a shit. Getting their interview process right isn’t a priority; they get enough “intake” and quality of the people doesn’t matter, because none of their middle managers would know what to do with someone who’s actually qualified.

          Assuming malevolence: the opportunity to humiliate you (and other job candidates) is a payoff to some underpaid loser, offsetting his lack of decent work conditions.

          It’s probably 75% incompetence and 25% malevolence.

          • Assuming competitiveness as understood from a 2000+ years old of gladiator fighting for a bone in the arena:

            I’ll step on your neck, pull your liver out and take a bite of it while laughing.

            That’s the system I’m forced to live in. And in the lack of:

            1) My own options.
            2) My peer options.
            3) My master options.

            I’ll eat your liver. Don’t take it personally, my dick size is way higher than your IQ.

  1. I think techies, like many white-collar types, deserve what is coming towards them. My experience in the pharma industry when it was in its heyday (just before it went downhill after 2008) suggests that many white-collar types seriously believe that they are just one step away from becoming multi-millionaires or more. I have seen too much wishful thinking, blind loyalty to corporations and delusions of grandeur (often with a racial element) to feel sorrow for modern petit bourgeois types. I simply cannot feel sorry for willing and enthusiastic idiots.

    Here is one of the more optimistic posts on what happened in that field less than 8 years after it reached its peak. Link: https://cen.acs.org/articles/95/i45/10-years-Great-Recession-chemists.html . Long story short, the pharma industry in USA in 2018 employs over 300k LESS people than it did barely a decade ago. New drug discovery, especially of the breakthrough kind, has almost stopped in that sector. Most of the drugs approved today are either marginally better analogues of older ones or drugs in development before 2008.

    That is why the costs of older drugs is being pushed up so much through “legal” means and why marginally effective but ridiculously expensive “new” drugs are hyped. We are already seeing analogous happen in hardware and software industries. Have you noticed that the quality of Apple’s iPhone, iOS and OSX has gone down a lot over past 4 years? Or look at the disaster of Win10 or the crapification of Google Search. I can give many more examples.. but you get the point.

    • I’ve noticed the quality decline in consumer software. Apple in the 2010s is what Windows was in the 1990s, and if they get complacent, they’ll lose out. I tend to use things for a long time and my 9-year-old Apple laptop still works well enough– the machine is good– but my next computer will probably be a Linux machine.

  2. Talent, as you define it, it’s not really needed in most of the corporations. When it’s really needed you hire contractors for a definite amount of time, until the job is done. That’s how corporations work.

    As an employee, you actually settle for a capped wage and give up the upside potential you would get working for yourself. Rare are the jobs, where you have leverage. If you are into sales and have clients you might be able to do some things. By indirectly threatening to leave and take your clients with you. Or if you generate profit, let’s say you are trader and you are consistently profitable. But, a programmer. What kind of leverage can he have. He doesn’t sale directly or generates profit. Programming was profitable twenty years ago, when there weren’t a lot of programmers. Right now, I wouldn’t advice anyone to get into programming, there is an increasing supply of programmers. But, for the rest of us, working in the industry, the choice was made. I guess, some of us will stay into programming, other will be executives or find their niche. Be it by leaving the company with the whole product team and blackmailing the company or another creative away to survive or prosper.

    I don’t think an executive feels threatened by a capable person, as being an executive is not about talent in your sense. It’s about politics and connections.An executive is of course working for himself in the first place, but this valid for the most of us. The executive is still an employee, talented or not. Nothing to see here, it has been this way for ages.

    • Employees join companies knowing that their economic upside will be capped at a moderate level, but expecting risk reduction and investment in their career. In government agencies and academia, this might still exist. However, in the private sector, it’s gone.

      Corporate capitalism is neither capitalism nor socialism. It’s a system that gives the best of both to a social elite (“the 1 percent”) and the worst of both systems to the rest of us.

      Executives don’t feel like their positions are threatened by capable people in a substitution sense; i.e., no CEO is going to see someone like me at the bottom and think, “Oh shit, this guy’s going to take my job if I don’t zap him.” They are scared of prominent displays of talent from below. They need to keep the legitimacy of their own class in place. It will hurt morale if it becomes common knowledge (not just “everyone knows” but “everyone knows everyone knows” up to arbitrary recursive depth) . It’s OK if everyone thinks it; it’s not okay if people start to talk about it and becomes common cultural currency. Execs don’t care if people complain about them; they don’t want their organizations to realize they’d actually be better off without them.

  3. Most people do not want meritocracy. Meritocracy=they do poorly. So, what if this huge mob of “low merit” people can’t do well, but CAN foul up the system so that nobody can do well based on MERIT, thereby creating a chaotic world where “other factors” determine winners and losers. Get it? Meritocracy means the majority fail. So we get “democracy” and democracy “votes” for ranking based on conformity and consensus. Then redefine “merit” so that “old merit” (real merit) becomes a negative thing. “New merit” (conformity and consensus) becomes the generator of rank. BUT! People who have genuine merit still exist and foul things up with their infernal insistence on doing good things instead of “right” things. The solution to THAT problem usually involves something very bad.

    • We need a society where people who either fail or lack talent can still have a decent life.

      Someone with a 75 IQ shouldn’t be eating out of a garbage can. He did nothing wrong; it’s not his fault. He should also not be running a country.

      So we want meritocracy with regard to who makes decisions– and if you take out of decision-making the ability to self-deal, then a lot of people don’t even want the responsibility– but a social safety net for everyone. You shouldn’t have to prove yourself to have a basically decent life; you should have to prove yourself if you want to make decisions that affect other people.

  4. My name’s not Spartacus and I’m not a Thracian but a Dacian and yet the fundamental problem hasn’t changed in 2000 years.

    And not only hasn’t anyone solved it, they didn’t even dare calling it out.

    • If I didn’t know better I’d be surprised how many people confuse vitamin A (gut feeling, “talent” in the liver) with intelligence (60 years in the brain).

  5. Pingback: 2018 Mar 28 ~ Apr 08 | Lines

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