Technology has changed our world. No doubt about it. Starting with the Industrial Revolution, and moving by fits and starts but never idle for long, technology has come to define our economies, our cultures, and our day-to-day lives. We tend to think of this as a good thing, and in many respects it is. Standards of living are higher, knowledge lies at the fingertips of all, and so on – it’s hard us living today to imagine life “the old way.”
There is a down side, though, and it’s easiest to visualize if we focus on industrial automation. Every task that we automate is a task that no longer requires a human being, and therefore no longer represents an opportunity for a human being to contribute to the process. We’re all well aware of this – we generally wave it away by saying, “Well, those people will find something else to do.” But that solution only works in isolation. The end-to-end pervasive progress we have made with automation has eliminate entire classes of jobs. “Finding something else to do” isn’t necessarily easy when all of the other reasonable possibilities are also being automated, or will be next year, or whatever.
We would do well to remember that an “economy” isn’t just about the production of goods and services – it’s also about their distribution. Capitalist economies achieve this by having wages and salaries shaped by the same market forces that shape supply and demand – the wages and salaries become the demand. If we automate whole tiers of our economy, then we risk leaving large segments of our population without the ability to “play the game.” That can’t lead to anything good.
To make this crystal clear, imagine a world where we have automated everything. The entire process of creating all the goods and services anyone might possibly need just “hums along” – runs itself, maintains itself, etc. No one works, no one has jobs, no one is “part of the process.” Now – how do we decide who gets what? Expecting each person to take a very reasonable “amount that they need” is folly. The inevitable outcome is that someone will have to make an arbitrary decision, and that “someone” will almost certainly be the government. Now you don’t have capitalism at all.
Am I saying we shouldn’t make progress? No – not at all. But, we need to avoid getting carried away. It will always be necessary for people to be prepared to change specialties and careers in a dynamic economy. But if we shape our economy so that those “leaps” become so large that a significant number of people can’t make them, then we are doing more damage than good in the long term.
Stop thinking of an economy as a numerical process to be maximized – start thinking of it as about people. People interacting daily, all focused on their own survival, whose efforts together promote the survival of all.