The Rise of the Machines

So there I was, minding my own business, and came across this blog post on LinkedIn (being promoted, it appeared, by Spark). The idea, as seems all to fashionable these days, is that we should all be doomy and gloomy because all our jobs are going to be automated in the ‘near future’ (we used to call this productivity improvements). This will, apparently, affect computer programmers and scientists and we’ll all be out of a job, so it’s not just the poor, defenceless, proles. Doom, doom, doom!

The basis for this generalisation, as seems all too often the case, is the diminishing returns from education which we’ve been seeing in the ‘Western World’. That is, as we (or our governments) have decided everyone needs a PhD in ‘Social Enterprise’, we’ve started to notice that the returns from such pieces of paper have started to diminish. Whereas once the ‘average graduate’ would have earned a princely sum upon graduation (apparently), now they will only earn peanuts (but the number of peanuts remains better than someone with no or limited education). The best example of this, apparently, is that people are being underemployed (‘getting jobs beneath them’, in vulgaris).

I would like to make three points here:

(1) The fear of machines is a really fascinating human trait. The instinct to ludditism remains strong and has even started, it appears, to affect people who are the beneficiaries of technological improvement (which is most people nowadays). My own work is both measurably and immeasurably improved by technology (both as a risk manager and a programmer) and to remove it would be to send me back to, nearly, the stone age (in fact, I would argue, barring technology, most of my work wouldn’t actually be possible).

(2) The fact that we’ve sent every biddy and chappy off to varsity to study useless degrees is part of the problem. Contraire to what people keep saying, there remains a shortage of good programmers, engineers, business analysts, project managers, risk managers, etc. We aren’t facing a world of infinite skills saturation. Granted, there is more competition (as people in poorer countries can now actually compete with us), but there remains huge demand for skills (if anything, we’re being held back by the general lack of skills people have). It’s not that people are over-qualified, it’s that they’re over-qualified in areas with little or no demand. Hence, in the UK, we used to joke about ‘Media Studies’ and in the US it was ‘Communications’. There are simply too many people doing things which aren’t in actual demand (whereas technical skills remain in very high demand). This is linked to the rich person’s ethos of ‘Do what makes you happy’ (as my father would point out, making money makes me happy!)

(3) Finally, we’ve conflated education and work experience. My first few jobs were not glamourous (in fact, they generally sucked). That is often the nature of work. Sometimes you have to get your foot on the ladder, whether that be in general, in a new field, or in a new organisation. The fact that, as a graduate, I wasn’t offered my current job is entirely sensible (I didn’t even know what I do existed then). I had nowhere near the skills I have now and no practical experience (you do actually have to know how to deal with people, who may be under stress, or you may be under stress, or both!). This isn’t something taught, it’s something you’ve got to experience for yourself. That doesn’t mean education is worthless or pointless (quite the reverse, my experience in Economics, History, Classics, Politics, and Law have all been invaluable to me, but often from personal interest and self-fulfillment), but it’s not a panacea (which has been how governments seem to have treated it for employment).

I intend to keep this a ‘shorter post’ (my wife has gone, on several occasions, ‘Good god, you expect people to read that?), but the point is: we seem to fear the machines and attempt to justify it through what are otherwise very straightforward economic and life issues. Instead, people should relax, the Cylons aren’t coming for our jobs.

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How Time Flies

So it’s been 5 years since I joined the Institute of Internal Auditors. I only actually noticed this when I received a written card from the NZ president and a pin commemorating the milestone. It really is funny how time ‘flies’ (it also coincides, within a month, of my 5 year wedding anniversary – something I did actually remember). It really is funny how fast things go by.