There is no shortage of analyses on this year’s election. There is more information and thoughts on it this time around than ever before, and I don’t think that’s going to change for the next election cycle. You know what else I don’t think will change for the next election cycle?
The Democratic and Republican parties are more polarized than ever. There is even greater polarization within those parties than ever before. However, there is one thing that all of the parties agree on.
We have to bring back jobs.
Let’s think about that for a minute. Save a few things that the parties allude to vaguely agreeing on like trade deals (do they really agree though? Is NAFTA really the worst trade deal in history? I don’t think it’s that bad), you’re telling me that the one thing they generally agree on and broadly campaign about is bringing back jobs? Even the liberal, progressive Democratic party — even camp #FeelTheBern — isn’t calling this out?
A lot of people in my circle (the people reading this, because this should be surfaced by your Bubble News Algorithms) know just how absurd that is. People in tech are beginning to become afraid of, and thereby starting much needed discussions on, artificial intelligence replacing our jobs. Yet somehow, all major political party candidates are talking about bringing jobs back… President Obama tapped around this in a recent interview, but I think it’s because he’s not up for election.
I’m only 25 and I’ve somehow lived through these loose periods: 1) Most of the world’s finances, law, healthcare, and even high tech happening on paper, 2) most of that becoming digitalized, and 3) a tangible reality where AI aids, if not replaces, traditional human work in those spaces. Yet the candidates seem to want to bring back jobs.
Do they mean “clean coal”, the magical black rock that you dig up and burn with no environmental implications? The same “clean coal” that is somehow better than Elon Musk’s future where there are just enough solar panels and batteries to build a completely self-sufficient civilization powered by the sun?
Do they mean the truck driver that is somehow faster and safer than a streamlined logistics supply chain informed by Big Data and made available a fleet of autonomous transport vehicles ranging from drones, neighborhood robots, autonomous trucks, and high-speed Hyperloop networks?
Or do they mean bring back manufacturing jobs that in the past century, entire organizations, federal institutions, and laws formed around to protect the workers from the physical dangers and corporate exploits that came with those jobs? Do we want those back? Don’t we fear and chide the stories of the horrible working conditions in Asia at places like Foxconn?
Did I do that?
I hope I’ve made it clear that “bringing back jobs” is not just an empty hope, but also an unnecessary and actually backwards platform to run on. But whose fault is this?
Quick tip to Trump America: it’s not Mexican immigrants. It’s me… the kid from down the street who you used to drive to soccer practice with your son. Remember him? I went off to school to study… computers or something. What do you reckon I’m up to now? Didn’t they say I moved to one of those goddam California hippy towns?
I’m not blaming the candidates for running on this platform. Empty promises is what politicians do. And I’m not blaming regular Americans for believing in and putting their hopes in a candidate that is going to “bring back jobs.”
Rather, in some ways, I’m blaming myself. Or more accurately, my industry. We walk around on a particular coast in one part of the world making everything more efficient, questioning everything, and creating multimillion if not multibillion dollar business out of it all. As a tech worker but not a Silicon Valley insider, the extent to which I understand tech leaders’ relationships with Washington is to clear out obstacles to allow an ever-expansive reach of American business. Save a few outspoken people on this topic, it seems that tech’s primary interest is still in profit regardless of how much we talk about changing the world for the greater good. In light of the very real possibility of large-scale job displacement in the near future, people in tech are trying to squeeze out everything they can so that when the inevitable future of major job displacement happens, they’ll at least come out ahead. We joke about it now in the hallways: “Haha, at least we’ll be the last ones to lose our jobs!” Will we? The movie Ex Machina alludes to this potential future where it’s not such a joke: while the highly skilled programmers sat in uncomfortable cube farms, the billionaire founder of their company owned a 2,000 acre estate and had freedoms and leisure the rest of them dreamed about.
The Luddite fallacy
I know what you’re thinking. “Karan, have you heard about the Luddite fallacy?” Of course I have, and up until recently, I was its biggest proponent. I believed that jobs that are replaced are replaced with other jobs. We saw it with the last wave — typists are now graphic designers and factory workers are now supply chain specialists. I think that will continue, but I think it is naive to think that pattern will continue forever, especially because the conversation now is not just what jobs are being displaced/replaced. We’re actually talking about what “species” is going to do what jobs.
Even if there are a plethora of jobs for people, I don’t think it will continue with converging equality. To the contrary, I worry that wealth will concentrate to those people or institutions that have access to the power of instantaneous access to knowledge and decision-making. We already see this happening all around us. There’s not doubt that being a computer programmer is a much higher paying profession than most others. And amongst programmers, there are those who work at companies at Google and Facebook that make a lot more. Given the awesome resources that those workers have access to, and the shameless copycatting each of them regularly do, we see power concentrating at these companies to the extent that the rest of us in tech can’t be sure about our success or fate neither. It’s way too common for entire companies to be displaced by copycats from Google or Apple overnight.
Somehow tech is doing this to tech, and people in tech get mad. Or they move on and “try harder.” At the same time, the industry awkwardly tiptoes around how much we’re affecting the real world. We spend our mornings “revolutionizing” entire industries while sitting around Philz with our friends on evenings and weekends talking about unemployment and poverty.
To be clear, I’m not blaming tech workers. There’s no doubt in my mind that using technology to make the world more efficient and bring up the quality of life is a good thing.
So who’s left to blame? I’m not qualified nor do I understand the world enough to blame anyone. I will make an observation, though. As a teenager and through college, my heroes were those guys in California changing the world for the better. They went to work in hoodies and made an emphasis on workplace happiness. They avoided tangling themselves in government, politics, and bureaucracy and kept things simple to make a true impact on the world. They made rocket ships despite the military-industrial complex’s efforts to maintain a monopoly supported by the taxpayer.
Those guys are still my heroes, but as I grow older and “wiser”, I have more asks of my heroes. We all see the world changing around us because of technology, and we’re beginning to realize that this time it may be different. That this isn’t just another Industrial Revolution and we may indeed be moving on from the Information Era to another era (the Intelligence Era?). Corporations that have a very meaningful impact to the world (defense, pharmaceutical, energy) are looked down upon by tech as being very sluggish and too entangled with government and bureaucracy. That’s fair, but as tech stops being an industry itself and comes in to disrupt these very industries, it’s inevitable that these people are going to have to work with government and society to address some real world issues. As tech becomes pervasive through my life and everyone’s lives, I ask that my heroes, and now my peers, to be more mindful about their impact on the world and to be more proactive rather than reactive when it comes to altering the course of society and humanity itself. With technology growing faster than ever, it’s more important now than it ever has been to address problems early and to work with everyone to ensure the prosperity of our civilization’s future. Running away from the bodies that govern our livelihoods is only cool for so long.
Finally, there will be times when we realize we don’t know what we’re doing. There will be times when we question the ethics and impacts of our everyday work. There will be times when we question the entire world around us. When those times arise, I encourage you to talk about it. Admit what you don’t know and learn from others. Reach out and understand the world you live in, and the responsibility you towards it.
If we do this correctly, we will be the heroes of future generations.