computing, jobs, and lumps of labor

For a while now, there have been two competing narratives around jobs and computing. One is that computing will bring an amazing influx of new jobs by creating new opportunities, new markets, and new ideas. The other is that computing, far from being a job source, is actually a job sink, replacing manufacturing and information services jobs with machines. Thomas Edsall discusses these two narratives in a recent opinion piece on the NY Times, bringing together several essays and blog posts on the subject.

The most compelling idea from this post (and most of it was compelling), was the “lump of labor” fallacy, which I hadn’t heard of before. This is the idea that there is a fixed amount of work available in the world and it just gets shifted around between cities, companies, and countries. Economists apparently show little support for this idea, as history has repeatedly shown that innovations typically create more work, rather than less.

Andrew McAfee, argues that information technology is different. All past innovations, he argues, automated things that humans primarily could not do (for example, reaching places we could not reach or lifting things we could not lift, transporting us places we could not reach). In contrast, information technology is beginning to be capable of doing many information related things that humans can do, in addition to all of the information related things we can’t do. Therefore, the only rational thing for employers to do as software becomes functional and cheap enough is to replace people with machines.

Is he right? It’s certainly compatible with a rejection of the lump of labor fallacy. Computing can create more work just like any other innovation, but McAfee might argue that the new work can also be done computers. For example, the fact that I buy a new iPhone every two years means that there does need to be people to manufacture it and fix it when it breaks. But the very technologies embedded in the device are the same ones that enable its manufacturing to be almost completely automated and allow me to get a substantial amount of support from Q&A forums archived on the web, rather than using human technical support. On the other hand, that automation and information access requires a lot of energy, a lot more manufacturing, and a great deal of human time to maintain the Internet. It seems possible that much of this could be taken over by machines eventually.

Can all of the work really be shifted to non-humans? Let’s do a thought experiment to see. Consider a small remote village of 100 humans run entirely by robots and powered by an effectively infinite supply of solar energy. One of the human at any given time is an expert roboticist who can maintain and repair all of the robots independently. This roboticist trains one of the village children to replace her, so that when that roboticist dies, there is another to take over. The roboticist has immense power because the other 99 people depend on her to keep the robotic work force functional (including the robotic work force that keeps the rest of the robotic workforce functional). The result is that the 99 people don’t work (because there’s no work to do), and live a life of leisure. The only reason that everyone survives is because of the roboticist’s knowledge and benevolence and that nearly all of the work has been shifted to the robots. In fact, the robots may even become intelligent enough to fix and maintain themselves one day, making even the roboticist obsolete.

There are most certainly things missing from this little story that make it implausible. For example, the population wouldn’t stay at 100 people, especially with everyone living such a life of leisure. Assuming the robots could reproduce themselves and gather their own natural resources, the population would continue to grow until Earth was out of resources, as it does now.

The more significant missing element, I think, is boredom. In such a life of leisure, wouldn’t people create work for themselves, just to be entertained or to find meaning? I could imagine for example, one particularly inquisitive villager deciding to write a book on the meaning of life in a world where there is no human work. She might outsource the editing, printing, and binding of her book to the robots, but would she outsource the audience? The critical reflections? The impassioned rebuttals? Surely the villages would create work for themselves, if only to create meaningful social bonds and avoid listlessness.

Perhaps the reason that “lump of labor” is a fallacy, even for computing, is that work isn’t a separate entity from humanity that can be shifted to and from humanity. Humanity is the source of work. Computing many eliminate forms of work that we are used to in present day society, but we will inevitably find ways to occupy ourselves otherwise. Perhaps its just the disruptive transitions that are painful, where the middle class struggles, starves, and loses, only to be motivated by their hunger to create new work with which to fill their bellies.

1 thought on “computing, jobs, and lumps of labor

  1. Interesting, but I think that in your experiment, you are mixing two different activities of humanity. To me, work and project can not be simply considered identical, as most of us poor human can experience in every day life.
    I am pretty sure that almost every human on earth, once their more basic needs aspirations are fulfilled, want to “make something” if only being “acknowledged” by their peers (see Maslow).
    As Mallory said about climbing the Mt Everest: “because it’s there!”.

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