with modern technology, everything will work out just fine—ultimately

Es­ti­mated reading time is 3 min­utes.

HOW DOES ONE ADDRESS TECHNOLOGY and the fact that au­toma­tion keeps elim­i­nating the need for human be­ings in var­ious jobs? Nicholas Carr does just that in an ar­ticle ti­tled “The myth of the end­less ladder” for the Rough Type web­site (April 6, 2014). He notes that Aris­totle com­pared tools to slaves in that both pro­vide their mas­ters with time for more re­fined activities. 

Carr quotes eco­nomics re­porter Annie Lowrey: “Ul­ti­mately, it’s a vir­tuous cycle, be­cause it frees hu­mans up to work on higher-value tasks.” The chal­lenge today “is for hu­mans to allow soft­ware, al­go­rithms, ro­bots and the like to propel them into higher-and-higher-value work.” Below are edited ex­cerpts from that article:

“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.


Tools and slaves both pro­vided their mas­ters with time for more re­fined activities.


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.”


Modern Technology: front cover of first hardcover edition of Nicholas Carr's THE SHALLOWS.

What the internet is doing to us

Carr’s 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. Carr’s most re­cent book is The Shal­lows: What The In­ternet Is Doing To Our Brains and was 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 that I need to re­search so much that I simply don’t get around much any­more when it comes to things with ac­tual pages.


Modern Technology: cartoon about smartphone misuse by Matt Davies.

FEATURED IMAGE: The car­toon at the top of this page is by Matt Davies of Newsday. The cap­tions above each image are hardly nec­es­sary, as the jux­ta­po­si­tion of the two “men” make the artist’s point easily and readily understood.


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