CT551--Week 11--Lecture notes


Technology and Work



It is a bit obvious to say that changes in technology change the way people make their livings. But judging from the way people object to those changes--even when the technologies are welcomed--it is worth saying. At the same time, we must point out that technology changes more than jobs. It replaces jobs, of course, but it also replaces industries, moves people from the country to the city and back to the suburbs, alters the balance between work and leisure, and more.

In Chapter 9, Work in Nonindustrial Societies, Volti notes that primitive (hunter-gatherer) peoples manage to meet their needs with relatively few (12-19) hours of labor per week, spending the rest of the time socializing. We think of technology as saving labor, but in our modern, technological society, we spend a much greater proportion of our time laboring to meet our basic needs.

Have we been had? Well, primitive people have very limited "needs." Food, shelter, clothing, a few tools... If you're a hunter-gatherer, you want no more than you can pick up and carry. Today, we need food and shelter too, but our clothing fills closets, and then there are the garden tools, the books, the computers, the furniture... To carry it all, we need a truck. Maybe even two trucks!

As technology advances, more goods become available, people want more, and people put in more time to get them. In addition, the shift to agriculture made it possible for fewer workers to feed more people more reliably, freeing erstwhile farmers to become everything from accountants to priests, but at a cost in time. Further advance worked similarly. We wound up on something of a treadmill--we are so dependent on technology that we cannot stop using it, or people will die (it's not just a psychological dependence--without modern technological agriculture, we could not come close to feeding the world's billions).

What else did agriculture do to us? It gave us cities. Workers freed from the farm could specialize, and we got accountants, engineers, priests, and a thousand other specialties. Specialties meant that individuals developed intensely focused skills (hunter-gatherers are generalists, though they may be better at and may spend more of their time at some things than others). Exchange systems grew more elaborate. People came to be dominated more by self-interest than by group-interest, though groups persisted as hereditary castes and craft-guilds that excluded outsiders and new ideas. Technological advance was fastest in places like England, where the guilds were weak and there were fewer barriers to innovation.

Technology also changed attitudes toward time. Once, workers were fairly laid-back about their days. They socialized freely, left the workshop and returned, and everyone was happy as long as the work got done. Medieval (13th century) monasteries adopted the newly invented clock to mark the times for prayer. Very soon the clocks were being used to regulate the pace of civil life and work. By the time of John Calvin, it was not at all hard to claim that work or industriousness was a cardinal virtue, and from that came the "work ethic" that still keeps people hustling.


In Chapter 10, Technology and Jobs, Volti speaks of technological obsolescence, noting that in developed nations there has been a huge loss of farm workers, but not a huge concomitant unemployment problem because of new technologies and new industries, so far serving very well to compensate. Technological unemployment is local and temporary (as well as inevitable). Indeed, in the long term, technology tends to increase employment because of the increased supply and diversity of goods (including services) technology makes available.

Can this go on forever? Our economy is based on continued growth, but as population stabilizes or declines (and current demographic projections see global population as beginning to decline by the end of this century), a lot of that growth has to stop--unless rising expectations increase demand, as Volti notes has been happening with the demand for health care. If people's appetites for more goods and services saturate, more growth stops. And a hallmark of technological advance is that efficiency improves--i.e., fewer workers are needed to produce the same level of output.

How bad can it get? One of the "disruptive technologies" that may be about to hit us, our jobs, and the economy is the 3D printer. When I mentioned it a few weeks ago, I said that one Cornell professor sees a potential revolution. Once they are affordable and widespread, it may become possible for everyone to manufacture--at home!--almost anything they need. All they will need is designs (CAD-CAM files) and raw materials. What will this do to the manufacturing sector? Retailing? The economy? The government (which runs on taxes upon economic activity)? "Disruptive" is hardly the word for it! Consider that the world's current economic crisis is having many of the same effects.

"Change" means that any educational system that focuses on past ways of doing things, past expectations of normality, will quickly prove inadequate. Today's young people must be educated to be flexible, educable, and willing to change or adjust (with computers, does the constant need for upgrades help to create this mental flexibility?). We really can't expect the railroad featherbedding approach (paying people who have no work) to be repeated. The world owes no one a living.

Or do technologies such as 3D printers and their more versatile and powerful descendants get us off the treadmill at last? Nanotechnology promises to meet all our needs (at the price of utter dependence on it), but history shows that our list of needs tends to expand. What will people "need" in the future that are perhaps only "wants" today? How much time will they put in to satisfy those needs (remember that we have more needs than do hunter-gatherers, and we work longer hours)? What will they spend that time doing?


In Chapter 11, Technological Change and Life on the Job, Volti is concerned with the impact of the shift from working for oneself to working for an employer. In Ye Olden Days, skilled workers had more independence. If they worked for someone, they had some control over the employee-employer relationship because they could threaten to walk and take their skills with them. Today, a huge amount of the skill has been embodied in machines and procedures, and the worker is replaceable, "de-skilled" and regimented and controlled and largely powerless.

Today? Well, says Volti, it isn't as bad as it was a few years ago. High technology resists the process until it becomes routine. "Scientific Management" and its treatment of workers as obedient little robots has long since bitten the dust. And modern management styles do claim to give the worker more clout (TQM, quality circles, etc.), although skeptics have displayed a tendency to think management uses TQM etc. more as morale gimmicks, something to make workers think they have some control.

And for the future? Does the manager's urge to control the worker remain? How do managers deal with workers who want to work from home (modern network technology makes this a real option)? Does the 3D printer revolution that may be coming promise to return the workers' independence? Does it threaten managerial jobs (if a manufacturing business dies, managerial jobs die too)?


Questions for Discussion

1. Technology increases productivity and thereby reduces employment. At the same time, it increases employment. How can those two statements both be true?

2. "High" technology resists the deskilling of the worker by ensuring that skills related to the "high" tech are highly valued. Surely this statement must apply to computer workers. Under what conditions will it no longer apply? Under what conditions will it continue to apply?

3. If it becomes possible for people to manufacture much of what they need at home, what skills will be in demand?