Today we straddle two remarkably different worlds. On one side sits hotels, taxi cabs, newspapers and the dog-eared atlas stuffed in your glove box. On the other side reside Airbnb, Uber, Twitter and Google Maps.
Businesses that ride the tidal wave that is the digital revolution are steadily wiping out those that don’t. This is a dominant theme of our lifetimes, as new jobs are being created and others are being eliminated at a pace humanity hasn’t seen before.
The changes have struck up a whirlwind of conversation about whether technology is a good thing, and what we should do about these changes.
I spoke with two authors of recent books on the subject, Jerry Kaplan (Humans Need Not Apply) and Geoff Colvin (Humans Are Underrated.) They caught my attention because of how thoughtfully they present both the positives and negatives of the seismic changes we’re undergoing.
Countless jobs were eliminated in the past as we transitioned through economic revolutions. And in the long run humanity was better off for it. Most Americans once worked on farms. But even as those jobs disappeared, we found new ones. And the economy and our quality of life kept growing.
“I don’t think of Benjamin Franklin as living in the time of abject poverty,” Kaplan told me. “But the truth is, everyone was poor. The facts are just staggering about how long people lived, what happened, when they stopped working. Food cost more than 50 percent of your income back then. Today it’s less than 10 percent.”
Just as the agrarian and industrial revolutions made us more efficient and created more value, it follows that the digital revolution will do the same.
Colvin believes as the digital revolution wipes out jobs, new jobs will place a premium on our most human traits. These should be more satisfying than being a cog on an assembly line.
“For a long period, really dating to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, our jobs became doing machine-like work, that the machines of the age couldn’t do it. The most obvious example being in factories and assembly-line jobs,” Colvin told me. “We are finally achieving an era in which the machines actually can do the machine-like work. They leave us to do the in-person, face-to-face work.”
Colvin notes the current success of the conference business, which exists despite the ability to recreate it with online video chats.
“The human interactions holds tremendous value for us. We hunger for it and it can’t be duplicated,” Colvin said. “Each experience is unique. A competitor can’t put on a conference that’s precisely the same because it’s a human experience, it’ll be unique. All of these things give it value and that’s only going to increase.
Women are well-positioned to thrive in a digital economy.
“The skills of human interaction are ones that women, to some extent, are hard-wired to do better than men,” Colvin said. “Culture and socialization also contribute to the effect. But when you put it all together this is going to be an important fundamental change. And women are going to be advantaged in the coming economy.”
Yes, we’ve been through revolutions before, but never one this fast. Computing power doubles every two years. This makes it harder for us to plan out our careers, and identify the skills that can’t be automated. Because these changes are happening so fast, the number of workers whose skills suddenly become worthless will be larger than in past transitions.
Men will especially feel the brunt of the changes.
“Men, again on average, do extremely well with systems, rules, analyzing systems,” Colvin said. “That has in general served them extremely well for hundreds of years as the economy has developed. But those kinds of jobs are exactly the jobs that tech is now displacing.”
If self-driving cars and automated drone delivery become a reality, what happens to every delivery driver, truck driver and cab driver? Swaths of the population won’t be able to be retrained with skills needed in the new economy. Inequality will rise.
“One way or another it’s going to be kind of brutal,” Kaplan said. “When you start talking about 30 percent of the U.S. population being on the edge of losing their jobs, it’s not going to be a pleasant life and you’re going to get this enormous disparity between the haves and the have nots.”