with modern technology, everything will work out fine—ultimately

“ ‘Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle,’ declares economics reporter Annie Lowrey in a [New York] Times Magazine piece on the job-displacing effects of automation technologies, ‘because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.’ The challenge today, she writes, ‘is for humans to allow software, algorithms, robots and the like to propel them into higher-and-higher-value work.’ The idea is an old one. Aristotle compared tools to slaves: both provide their masters with time for more refined activities.

There’s something deeply comforting about the notion that labor-saving technology inevitably pushes workers to higher pursuits. It salves our anxieties about job losses and wage declines—everything will work out fine, ‘ultimately’—while playing to our unbounded sense of self-importance.

The ladder of human occupation goes forever upward; no matter how high our machines climb, there will always be another rung for workers to clamber to. But like many of the comforting things we tell ourselves, it’s no more than a half-truth.

Of course, in evaluating the long-terms effects of automation, we have to look beyond individual job categories. Even as automation reduces the skill requirements of an established occupation, it may help create large new categories of interesting and well-paid work. That’s what happened, as the endless-ladder mythologists will happily tell you, during the latter stages of the industrial revolution.

Times are different now. Machines are different, too. Robots and software programs are still a long way from taking over all human work, but they can take over a lot more of it than factory machines could. It seems pretty clear now that that’s one of the main reasons we’re seeing persistently depressed demand for skilled workers in many blue-collar and white-collar sectors.

Recent experience suggests that computers may have very different consequences. What they seem to be particularly good at is concentrating wealth rather than spreading it, narrowing the work that people do rather than broadening it.

My argument is that we can’t take it as a given that that’s going to happen, and we certainly shouldn’t assume that machines have the best interests of workers at heart. Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle—except when it’s a vicious one.”

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The excerpts above were taken from an article titled “The myth of the endless ladder” by Nicholas Carr for the Rough Type website (April 6, 2014). The original article is over 1,200 words in length, the paragraphs above total 350 words, so there is plenty left to read on the Rough Type site.

Mr. Carr’s most recent book,The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011. The opening chapters detail how daily use of the internet affected both his work habits as a writer (he fought the editing of his pieces on screen, preferring hard copy and an old-fashioned pen, but lost), his reading-for-pleasure schedule (it stopped), and his non-work habits (he felt a near constant need to be turned onto the ‘net, looking things up).

These mirror my own experiences. I recommend The Shallows to anyone who uses the internet on a daily basis and has noticed some changes in their working or reading habits.

The worst effect that hours upon hours of internet exposure day after day has been to drastically reduce my reading time. I used to read 1-2 books per week; now it’s 1 -2 books per month. I do miss reading, but I write so much (currently two blogs with a third on the way and a book) that I need to research so much that I simply don’t get around much anymore when it comes to things with actual pages.

Postscript: The title of this piece is an example of irony . . .

Comments, suggestions, additions, and arguments welcome!