Generally people do not like change. Most of the changes that face us, technological, medical, and scientific, will be beneficial. People will take to most of these changes easily. We queue up for the latest iPhone. However, some people look at coming technological changes with a distrustful eye. I have a friend who is very skeptical about the Google Car and the idea of self-driving vehicles. But I already know the very day that he will take to such things with warm acceptance.
The day he has to go out and buy his daughter her first car, he will look at cars with brake-assist and back-up alert, and crossing the center line warnings, and any other nearly self-driving devices with a sense of relief. When it comes down to putting his teenage daughter in a plain, old no-tech car, or a car loaded with computers and sensors that are designed to help increase safety, he will lean toward the new tech, and gladly.
Most of the changes that are coming will fall into this category, things that we can see are better. They will be safer or faster or lighter or healthier, or smarter. While we do not like change, those kinds of changes we accept fairly easily. Most technological, medical and scientific advancements are created out of a desire to make things better, and we recognize those benefits.
But there is another sort of change that is coming, a difficult one that will be created by those beneficial changes. There is a societal change on the horizon. With our growing technological advancements, a burden will be placed on our social and economic systems. These systems are rather old, and have not changed significantly in several centuries.
Barter is a form of trading for goods and services. Barter gave away to coinage, which is another form of barter. Originally the coinage contained its own value as coins were made of silver or gold. Bank notes became a representation of stored gold. Legal tender became a governmental version of a bank note. The gold backing has been removed for the most part, but the economic system we use today is still a barter-based system. Work for money, money for goods or work.
Barter works when there is some scarcity. When there is a lack of something on one side, and a supply of it on the other side, a barter swap can be made. But barter requires that both sides possess something the other side wants. One has a good, the other has some coinage, a swap can be made. One has time and the ability to do something specific, the other has coinage, another swap is made.
Many of the technological changes that we will live through are designed solely to eliminate one side of the equation. Amazon’s Delivery Drones, once fully functional, will provide an interesting service. But they will also eliminate many warehouse jobs and cut the U.S. Post Office, UPS, and FedEx out of the picture in terms of Amazon delivers. Once it is working, how long will it be before the Post Office and FedEx adopt the same system, eliminating still more jobs?
When every car is a Google Car and no car can speed, will we need highway patrol officers driving the highways? Maybe a few, but with crushing debts, municipalities and counties will cut back wherever they can. That means fewer jobs.
The old drumbeat about machines taking away jobs is not new. But the rate and pace and level of automated change that we will see in our lifetimes will indeed eliminate a lot of jobs. It is happening now. The largest sector of job growth during the recovery of The Great Recession has been in the service industry. Low paying food services jobs, cleaning services and the like. There has not been an increase in high paying manufacturing or high tech jobs. That is what automation is all about.
At some point during this technological advance one side of the barter trade will be shorthanded. The manufacturers will have the goods, but few people will have the coinage to pay for them. It is an interesting tradeoff. Faster, safer travel, faster deliveries, all at the expense of some jobs. Smarter automation will lower production costs of those cars, and other things, specifically by eliminating workers. Those darn workers. They only go for eight hour stretches and want the weekends off, and health care and vacations, and they get sick, and they love paid holidays. The manufactures want those smarter automatons that will work 24/7/365 for the cost of a little electricity and some oil. That is how their profits go up. But with fewer people working, who will they sell to? Without sales, their profits will shrink, and they will look for more automation to eliminate more of those costly jobs.
I am all for the technological advancements we will see. The question is how will we change our economic and social systems to balance out the technological advancements that are coming? We use to say that it would take someone to build the robots. But we are at the stage where the robots building the robots. Moreover, we are entering the stage where the robots are designing the new, improved robots, automatically. Even high tech designers are finding their jobs automated.
The goal is a utopia in one sense, with no one having to work a dangerous job or be at physical risk. Technology that can solve every need, and smartly, and medical advancements that can tackle every medical problem. But once you reach that utopia, how does a barter system function? If the only jobs that are left are artisans and servants serving the rich, how can the mass population afford any of the technology or other goods produced and delivered by the technology? It is a Catch 22. The technology is right at our fingertips, but the non-barter based social-economic system needed to accept that utopia is nowhere in sight. We could be a very troubled generation.