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Insights / Blog / Business

Why technological progress creates more work!

March 16, 2016
Alain VeuveAlain VeuveManaging Director, AOE Switzerland

Commenting on my t3n article, “Job destruction through digitalization: The business of scaremongering!” the writer notes that I am arguing on a strictly historical basis that technological progress creates more work. Up until now, I wasn’t even really aware that the majority of people doesn’t know why this is so. Actually, it’s very simple. An attempt at an explanation.

Thomas, on January 27, 2016

Thanks for the article, but your line of reasoning is errant from the outset. The argument that, in the past, one was always afraid and yet nothing ever happened, is simply a naïve way to make your point. When a pig in the shed thinks, ‘Oh, the human is coming again today and will bring me something to eat. I don’t need to be afraid of him, after all, the last 150 times were positive too,’ this is correct only until slaughtering day comes around.

Just because it’s always been this way

Of course, Thomas is absolutely right; it makes no sense to reason like this. But, I used this approach because I wanted to underscore that this effect is not just purely theoretical. But rather, that we’ve been able to observe it countless times before.

In fact, I basically think that the past is a relatively poor advisor when it comes to deducing what might happen in the future. Things change. Faster than ever before.

Automation vs. manual labor

But why, then, can we observe the effect that continuous technological progress creates more work over time? The following diagram shows, in a simplified manner, the basic “mechanics” behind the relationship between human and mechanical labor.

This model presumes that, in the beginning (1), any given task is performed by humans 100 percent of the time. To simplify things, we will also presume that the value creation achieved by a combination of human and mechanical labor will increase by leaps and bounds (see next diagram). In reality, this is a flowing concept, of course.

In this model we can see that that work is increasingly performed by machines over time up to the point where there is a perfect balance 2). Until this time, mechanical labor is perceived as a relief (4). Typically, monotonous, repetitive and dangerous tasks are the first to be transferred to machines.

Once this point has been reached, the entire workload is gradually taken over by machines (3). As a rule, this phase creates the fear of becoming obsolete (5).

Let’s use the example of personal short-range transportation to play through the following scenario: At the beginning of the process we had the palanquin (which only a few could afford). Four people carried someone from one place to another. Using technology (e. g. the wheel) made it possible to do the same thing with one person. Utilizing horses created additional gains in productivity while further simplifying the process. The onset of automobiles further optimized the ratio. This, together with other factors, also lead to many more people being able to afford the service, which we know today as a cab. If we proceed along this line to see what comes next, we will naturally arrive at the quite predictable topic of autonomous cars, which are gaining increasing traction in the transportation industry. It’s foreseeable that this service can be provided on an entirely mechanical basis.

At the end of this process I would expect that these services will be hidden from view. Hidden in the sense that they are simply there and usable, but that people don’t have to concern themselves with the question of whether human labor is needed in the process. New generations will perceive them as a commodity of sorts.

Limited perceptual horizon

At this point, humans are replaced completely. Done and fun. And all of us have free time on our hands. Where, then, is our income supposed to come from?

This is how the broad public thinks about the topic. People don’t think beyond this step in the process. What actually happens, though, is the following:

Points 1 and 2 are once again shown as in the diagram above. At the point where a process is completely automated we increase the demands. We specifically ask ourselves, now that we’ve reached this point, how can we use this to further improve our situation. This sort of willingness to improve is in our DNA.

What we humans then do is to replace missing technological advancement with manual labor (point 3). And the same optimization/automation occurs again, using the same template.

We can therefore deduce why we basically always have the same amount of work. We ride the wave of technological advancement, so to speak. Interestingly enough, though, workloads are actually increasing.

Rapid proliferation of options

The reason for this is that a process that has been optimized or solved by mechanical means generally brings with it more than one subsequent process; the ensuing options are virtually boundless.

" The key point of technological progress is that it creates a multiple (of the previously automated processes) factor of new possibilities."

If we combine the diagrams above and take a look at them using a bird’s-eye view, we will see the following symbolical picture:

What began as a single process (1), creates multiple new processes that can be endlessly combined at will. And, as already mentioned, each is again compensated by manual labor at the outset. That is why there is more work.

When, then, would there actually no longer be more work?

It’s pretty obvious that work doesn’t increase when we are satisfied with something. For example, with the status quo - where we accept everything. But, humans are characterized by not doing precisely that. Quite the contrary, we are literally fanatics when it comes to continuously improving our situation. This applies to the individual (though with differences in degree and with occasional exceptions) as well as to the us as a species.

Work is not the same as a job

Now, some people confuse jobs with work. Work encompasses human endeavors to achieve something. Jobs or positions are the entities, defined by our current system, which are used to subsume work economically. Just because there is more work, doesn’t necessarily mean that there has to be an increase in jobs, if we use today’s template as our benchmark.

The challenge: Redefining work and occupations

Thus, the challenge must be in finding the appropriate vehicles for the work of tomorrow. And, above all else, to achieve the transition from one system to the next as efficiently as possible. With efficient, I mean with as little human suffering as possible. We must all take responsibility for this.

We can start by collectively refusing to hold on to our preconceived notions of jobs in general, let alone continue to hold on to individual jobs themselves. I am therefore an avid opponent of using subsidies to maintain current structures. They are quite literally oil into the fire of change. They foster tough and extremely painful economic changes, where people are always left behind.

I therefore think we are well-advised to actively drive changes and reduce positions whenever it becomes obvious that a sector will be fundamentally altered in the next few years.

To use the taxi analogy from before, this would mean to now actively begin to prevent people from entering the industry and to create real alternatives. For this is the only way to avoid an army of drivers who will be on the street within a year after the first autonomous cabs hit the roads.