1/24/2014

Luddite with an iPhone

via Wikipedia
I’ve never been much of a cheerleader for technology: a Luddite with an iPhone, a friend once called me; a technologically proficient skeptic with a Facebook account. I’m not sure what that says about me, about my convictions or whatnot. A few years ago, during a class discussion about existentialism, I happened to mention that I was agnostic, to which the professor replied, “No, you’re just wishy-washy.” I didn’t argue the point: a moral relativist, a questioning empathetic observer. An ethical ghost, as Fernando Pessoa may have called me. But my agnosticism doesn’t end in spiritual or religious matters. That “wishy-washyness” seeps into my views on all things e- (or i if it’s an Apple product).

So, back to the start: I have an iPhone, a MacBook, a Facebook account, a Twitter account (which I never use), a couple Gmail accounts, and a Netflix’s subscription. I haven’t bought a (paper & ink) newspaper in over a year, though I nonetheless bemoan the slow erosion of our fourth estate. I got angry—or silently frustrated—when I found that my new landlord didn’t have an online payment system, but requires that I mail him a check (the barbarian), yet I sometimes put an extra stamp on letters, feeling as though I’m doing my tiny part to ensure the financial security of the Postal Service. The contradictions, or my cognizant dissonance in matter of new vs. old technology abound.

So the question remains: Why should I care that a service I find cumbersome and inefficient sticks around?

I grew up primarily in the 90’s. I had a computer in my 2nd-grade class and internet was pretty common by the time I was in middle school—the strange days when AOL sent the internet via snail mail (how perfect) on reflective, circular disks you then put into your computer's disk drive, which 30% of the time would result in the internet, but 100% of the time caused your mother to launch into agitated tirades about possible emergencies happening and she not knowing because damn it you were hogging the phone line. You would think having grown up surrounded by computers and digital technology one would become acclimated to their future iterations and advancements. That’s not necessarily the case, for me anyhow. Some itching uneasiness remains no matter what privacy-stealing service I (willingly) sign-up for, or time-wasting contraption I put in my pocket. Reservations abide despite the convenience of all the digital knickknacks I use.

With these reservations in mind, I tend to keep an eye out for articles that confirm my suspicions. One such suspicion relates to technology’s job-killing tendency. In an interview with The Paris Review, William Faulkner once said, “In my opinion, it’s a shame that there is so much work in the world. One of the saddest things is that the only thing that a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work.” I agree. But the shame aside, the fact remains: people gotta work. And we’ve all seen the ways that digital technologies have swallowed jobs, especially blue collar and low-skilled jobs: Amazon has rendered small bookstores and other retailers obsolete; cartographers now go by the name of Google Maps; factory workers are robots; bank tellers are ATMs; etc. There is a bit of hyperbole in that statement but the sentiment is basically true. Now, economic theory (per Adam Smith) goes, that with increased productivity comes increased prosperity, and though “some jobs are eliminated… more and better-paying jobs often replace them.”

That last quote comes from Jeff Madrick of Harpers. In “The Digital Revolution That Wasn’t,” He takes a pessimistic view of the effect technology will have on employment, doubting the benefit future technologies will have on job prospects. Madrick shows that large technology firms, which in some ways are replacing the manufacturing firms of yesteryear, employee far fewer people. “In 1955, General Motors employed nearly 600,000 people. Today in a much larger economy, Google employs fewer than 50,000; eBay employs fewer than 20,000 … Facebook fewer than 6,000.” Where the deficit of employment opportunities will be made up in the future is anyone’s guess.

Taking a similar position to Madrick, Ryan Avent in The Economist concludes with a slightly rosier outlook, but only slightly. He suggests that the high unemployment rate sure to come as a result of new technologies will only be a “temporary phase of maladjustment,” but new employment opportunities will result after the economic system has stabilized. Or anyway, he hopes.

Not that I need more reasons to distrust technologies, but it is somewhat reassuring to know that my concerns are not crazy, that I’m not just a Luddite for Luddite’s sake.

But so as not to end on a sour note, I’ll conclude with a joke I read at the end of Avent’s article, in the comment section: a smile on the face of such sad prospects.

Oarhead says: “I am reminded of a joke … the factory of the (near) future will have only two full-time on-site employees: a man and a dog. The man is there to feed and clean up after the dog. The dog is there to bite any one [sic.] who tries to touch the robots.”

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