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.
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.