A Philosopher's Blog

Automation & Administration: An Immodest Proposal

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 5, 2017
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It has almost been a law that technological advances create more jobs than they eliminate. This, however, appears to be changing. It is predicted that nearly 15 million jobs will be created by advances and deployment of automation and artificial intelligence by 2027. On the downside, it is also estimated that technological change will eliminate about 25 million jobs. Since the future is not yet now, the reality might be different—but it is generally wise to plan for the likely shape of things to come. As such, it is a good idea to consider how to address the likely loss of jobs.

One short term approach is moving people into jobs that are just ahead of replacement. This is rather like running ahead of an inextinguishable fire in a burning building—it merely postpones the inevitable. A longer-term approach is to add to the building so that you can keep on running as long as you can build faster than the fire can advance. This has been the usual approach to staying ahead of the fire of technology. An even better and rather obvious solution is to get out of the building and into one that will not catch on fire. Moving away from the metaphor, this would involve creating jobs that are technology proof.

If technology cannot fully replicate (or exceed) human capabilities, then there could be some jobs that are technology proof. To get a bit metaphysical, Descartes argued that merely physical systems would not be able to do all that an immaterial mind can do. For example, Descartes claimed that the ability to use true language required an immaterial mind—although he acknowledged that very impressive machines could be constructed that would have the appearance of thought. If he is right, then there could be a sort of metaphysical job security. Moving away from metaphysics, there could be limits on our technological abilities that preclude being able to build our true replacements. But, if technology can build entities that can do all that we can do, then no job would be safe—something could be made to take that job from a human. To gamble on either our special nature or the limits of technology is rather risky, so it would make more sense to take a more dependable approach.

One approach is creating job preserves (like game preserves, only for humans)—that is, deciding to protect certain jobs from technological change. This approach is nothing new. According to some accounts, one reason that Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine was not utilized in the ancient world was because it would have displaced the slaves who provided the bulk of the labor. While this option does have the advantage of preserving jobs, there are some clear and obvious problems with creating such an economic preserve. As two examples, there are the practical matters of sustaining such jobs and competing against other countries who are not engaged in such job protection.

Another approach is to intentionally create jobs that are not really needed and thus can be maintained even in the face of technological advancement. After all, if there is really no reason to have the job at all, there is no reason to replace it with a technological solution. While this might seem to be a stupid idea (and it is), it is not a new idea. There are numerous jobs that are not really needed that are still maintained. Some even pay extremely well. One general category of such jobs are administrative jobs. I will illustrate with my own area of experience, academics.

When I began my career in academics, the academy was already thick with administrators. However, many of them did things that were necessary, such as handling finances and organizing departments. As the years went on, I noticed that the academy was becoming infested with administrators. While this could be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence on my part, it is supported by the data—the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees in the academics has doubled in the past quarter century. This is, it must be noted, in the face of technological advance and automation which should have reduced the number of such jobs.

These jobs take many forms. As one example, in place of the traditional single dean, a college will have multiple deans of various ranks and the corresponding supporting staff. As another example, assessment has transformed from an academic fad to a permanent parasite (or symbiote, in cases where the assessment is worthwhile) that has grown fat upon the academic body. There has also been a blight of various vice presidents of this and that; many of which are often linked to what some call “political correctness.” Despite being, at best, useless, these jobs continue to exist and are even added to. While a sane person might see this as a problem to be addressed, a person with a somewhat different perspective would be inspired to make an immodest proposal: why not apply this model across the whole economy? To be specific, a partial solution to the problem of technology eliminating jobs is to create new administrative positions for those who lose their jobs. For example, if construction jobs were lost to constructicons, then they could be replaced with such jobs as “vice president of constructicon assessment”, ‘constructicon resource officer”, “constructicon gender identity consultant” and supporting staff.

It might be objected that it would be wrong, foolish and wasteful to create such jobs merely to keep people employed as jobs are consumed by technology. The easy and obvious reply is that if useless jobs are going to flourish anyway, they might as well serve a better purpose.

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6 Responses

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  1. drewdog2060drewdog2060 said, on May 5, 2017 at 8:10 am

    Reblogged this on newauthoronline and commented:
    Interesting/amusing …

  2. DH said, on May 19, 2017 at 7:04 am

    A very common analogy in the “technology displaces workers” argument is the old “buggy-whip” saw – that the advent of the automobile put those who made buggy-whips out of business.

    In the late 1870’s, the Strong family of Rochester, NY, was left homeless after their house burned down. They took up temporary residence at the home of their friends, the Eastmans.

    The Strongs had a successful family business – they were manufacturers of buggy-whips.

    When they moved into the Eastman house, Henry Strong began his relationship with George Eastman, the son of George W. Eastman and Maria Kilbourn, who was experimenting with dry-plate photography in his parents’ basement. Strong was impressed, and invested $1,000 with Eastman, and the two eventually formed the Eastman Dry Plate Photography Company.

    I think it’s interesting that the old “buggy whip” cliche has its roots in a pretty astounding truth – we all know of the millions upon millions of jobs the Eastman Kodak company has provided over the years, despite the demise of the Strong Buggy Whip company and the loss of a few dozen local jobs.

    Incidentally, George Eastman was the “Bill Gates” of his day – worth the equivalent of billions of dollars, he gave away almost all of it. For many decades, Kodak was the single largest employer in Rochester until recently, when their own failure to adapt to new technology (digital photography) caused their demise. Rochester went into a local recession, but it is coming back with new industry, new innovation, new small businesses and one of the largest university-based medical and hospital systems in the country. The Rochester medical industry has far outpaced Kodak as the largest local employer. (Not ironically, the largest hospital in Rochester, affiliated with the U of R, is called Strong Memorial Hospital, of the buggy-whip manufacturing notoriety).

    In 1899, Charles Duell, the commissioner of the US Patent Office, supposedly declared, “Everything that can be invented has been invented”. The attribution of this quote is highly suspect, but it reflects an attitude that is fairly common in essays like yours. People are very good at imagining the progress of automation as it might affect present employment, but not so good at imagining the growth of human endeavor when assisted by whatever new technology might arise.

    This is the “rule” that you cite at the beginning of your essay, and the doom and gloom about job loss finally catching up is nothing new.

    I believe in human imagination and innovation, and don’t buy into this argument at all. In the 19th century, artists feared that photography would put them out of business; in the 20th century photographers felt the same about film. In 1940 there were 350,000 telephone operators in this country, today there are almost zero. When man landed on the moon, calculations were performed on a slide-rule; we believed that the advent of pocket calculators would bring about the end of math-literacy and put engineers out of work, but it did the opposite – it expanded our understanding of math and physics and created more industry and more jobs. People feared that the computer would do the same thing, yet the advent of the personal computer has led to the Internet, to smart-phones, mainframes – an entire animation and visualization industry in fields as diverse as medicine, industrial design, entertainment, architecture, parts manufacturing, dentistry. Having a computer at my desk does not mean that I sit back and let the computer do the work – it means I can do more. Having computers at my office does not mean I can go home early or that we can hire fewer people – it means we can accomplish more, we can grow faster, we can create new industries with new ideas.

    There are two ways of looking at the advance of technology – one considers the unimaginable resilience of human endeavor, the other does not. One imagines the unimaginable ways in which new industries can arise from new technology, the other is stuck in fear.

    • WTP said, on May 19, 2017 at 12:07 pm

      Welcome back, DH. Wouldn’t have said it better myself, which is why I was waiting around for someone else to say it. Well that and the fact that, while your efforts are noble, worthy, and appreciated by some, your well thought out, well considered, and well written points will either be ignored by our host (though I suspect my pointing this out will prompt him to respond to “prove” me wrong…unless by pointing out that my pointing this out will cause him to refrain from responding), or argued on minor irrelevant details, or the old reliable clown-nose will come out. Perhaps a combination of the latter two.

      Either way, thanks.

  3. TJB said, on May 19, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    “It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” — Yogi Berra

    • WTP said, on May 19, 2017 at 1:35 pm

      My favorite philosopher. Hell, most people have a hard enough time getting the present and the past even remotely correct. Yet those same people will boldly inform you as to what the future holds. You know the kind of people I’m thinking of.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 23, 2017 at 7:37 pm

      True.


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