The Information Revolution

A big part of the reason Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016 was his promise to bring jobs back to America. He spoke primarily of manufacturing jobs, but also more broadly. This resonated with many people in the United States as they face the legitimate problem of their jobs disappearing both overseas and to automation.

The issue is that all repetitive jobs are being automated. While bringing work back to the US from overseas will increase GDP, it will have a limited long-term effect on jobs, given the type of work being brought back.

Technology Review has the data behind this assertion for the manufacturing sector:

[T]he total inflation-adjusted output of the U.S. manufacturing sector is now higher than it has ever been. That’s true even as the sector’s employment is growing only slowly, and remains near the lowest it’s been.

Line graph showing output steadily increasing from 1980 to 2015 while employment decreased slightly over the same time period.

The manufacturing sector is arguably the furthest along in automating human labor, but other sectors are quickly moving in that direction:

The fast food industry is starting to see orders taken by machine, rather than human. It’s not a stretch to imagine the entire cooking process being automated with the assembly-line nature of a fast food kitchen.

Restaurants have started placing screens on tables, allowing patrons to place orders and pay for their meal without interacting with a server. Given additional time when compared with fast food, it is also not hard to imagine the cooking and serving processes in restaurants being automated.

All driving jobs are being fast-tracked to replacement by autonomous cars. This includes taxi drivers, truck drivers, delivery drivers and more.

Farming is becoming more automated as machines are fitted with GPS systems so that they can drive themselves.

The list goes on. If a job is repetitive, it’s primed to be automated; it’s what computers are best at. While we don’t know how long it will take for all repetitive jobs to be automated, we do know it’s happening quickly and the impact is starting to grow.

(Note that human involvement will still be needed for the foreseeable future due to machine maintenance, handling errors and luxury industries, such as five star restaurants and hand-crafted goods. These are comparatively low-employment areas, thus not obviating the job problem.)

As I’ve come to realize the scale of the issue at hand, provoked in no small part by the election of President Trump, I’ve started considering possible solutions. I present them below to help clarify my own thoughts, provoke others to think about the problem, and start a discussion.

The most simplistic solution is to preserve the status quo and halt the progress of technology. This seems both counterproductive - we want humanity to move forward, not stand still - and extremely unlikely, as companies are incentivized by the free market to produce their good at a cheaper cost. I present this “solution” for completion’s sake; I don’t believe it will happen.

Government infrastructure investment, a la The New Deal, has been proposed by many as a solution. While it would work in the short-term, once infrastructure is brought up to date many of those jobs will disappear leaving us where we are today. Additionally, it’s not hard to imagine many parts of construction becoming automated over time, further emphasizing the short-term nature of this solution.

Perhaps something more radical, like Basic Income, is the solution. As defined by Wikipedia:

A basic income (also called unconditional basic income, Citizen’s Income, basic income guarantee, universal basic income or universal demogrant) is a form of social security in which all citizens or residents of a country regularly receive an unconditional sum of money, either from a government or some other public institution, in addition to any income received from elsewhere.

Basic income is a controversial idea for many reasons, so I want to focus on its merits with respect to the job problem. In that respect, I see it as treating the symptoms as opposed to the root cause. While basic income would keep people without jobs alive, it wouldn’t enable them to continue to contribute to the progress of humanity as the same restrictions to creative jobs would still exist.

The previous ideas are based upon two common assumptions: the creative jobs of today will remain inaccessible to a significant portion of the population forever, and creative jobs won’t continue to become more advanced. Instead, I would like to present something different.

I’ve heard many times over the years that we’re now living in the Information Age. I always interpreted this as an over-exaggeration, just a way of recognizing the proliferation of the internet; however, a conversation with a friend the other day caused me to re-evaluate that assumption: what if we are in the transition between ages, at a scale similar to the Industrial Revolution?

Assuming we are currently in a revolution, what needs to happen to complete the transition between ages? I would argue change in education is vital. Currently, creative jobs are inaccessible to many due to the requirement of higher education. The simple answer to this is to get more people into higher education, but that doesn’t scale long-term. As human knowledge continues to increase, ever longer amounts of time would be required in education.

Instead, what is currently taught in higher education should be taught in elementary and high-school. To make room, much of what is currently taught at lower levels of education would be removed.

Looking back over time it can be seen what is regarded as fundamental in education has changed, with increasingly advanced math and science topics becoming standard in elementary and high school. To accomplish this, the finer details and methodologies are eschewed, left to higher education for those pursuing a subject with more rigor. This ensures students leaving high school are well-rounded, having enough understanding of topics to allow for critical thinking in the workplace and their life.

Moving some of the curriculum that is currently taught in higher education into elementary and high school would allow basic creative jobs in all fields to be as accessible as current blue-collar jobs. Additionally, this would make room for higher education to focus on more advanced topics, pushing humanity further forward.

In the new age, the creative jobs of today are the blue-collar jobs of tomorrow.

I want to emphasize that if we are in the Information Revolution, the other solutions I proposed may still occur. Infrastructure investment may be needed as a stop-gap until the education system can be updated and the next generation starts working; entering the Information Age and having a low unemployment rate doesn’t preclude the implementation of basic income.

What do you think? Are we amid a revolution, or is there a less grandiose answer to the job problem?

If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend reading the recent Wired article, Programming is the New Blue Collar Job, that was published while this post was in draft:

Politicians routinely bemoan the loss of good blue-collar jobs. Work like that is correctly seen as a pillar of civil middle-class society. And it may yet be again. What if the next big blue-collar job category is already here—and it’s programming? What if we regarded code not as a high-stakes, sexy affair, but the equivalent of skilled work at a Chrysler plant?