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Is technology a job killer?

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To workers being pushed out of jobs by today's technology, history has a message: You're not the first.

From textile machines to the horseless carriage to email, technology has upended industries and wiped out jobs for centuries. It also has created millions of jobs, though usually not for the people who lost them.

"People suffer — their livelihoods, their skills and training are worth less," says Joel Mokyr, a historian of technological change at Northwestern University. "But that is the price we pay for progress."

A look at breakthroughs that made the goods we buy more affordable, our lives more comfortable — and our jobs more precarious:

THE FIRST INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

For most of history, people made many goods themselves. That changed with the First Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the mid-18th century and lasted about 100 years.

New mechanical devices that allowed one man to do the work of several flooded the market with products, most notably textiles. Using cords, wheels and rollers, inventors sped up the twisting of threads to make yarn and the weaving of yarn to make cloth.

Next, steam was used to free the new machines from the limits of man's muscle and make them run faster. The new machines produced so much, so fast and so cheaply, more people could afford to buy textiles. Demand soared and so did jobs manning the machines and doing other work.

In America in 1793, Eli Whitney freed slaves from the laborious work of picking sticky seeds from cotton bolls by inventing a cotton gin that did that automatically. It led to widespread planting of cotton — but even more work for slaves.

Whitney also is credited with another invention: interchangeable parts. At a workshop he ran for making firearms, he had his staff make the same part many times so that his guns could be assembled quickly. It worked, and industries such as watch makers copied his method.

In 1831, Cyrus McCormick invented a reaper that cut wheat stalks as it was pulled by horses and piled them on a platform. Farmers could harvest faster.

In 1837, John Deere stuck the blade of a steel saw onto a plow and invented the steel-edged plow to replace cast-iron ones. Farmers could cut a furrow in the earth more easily and sow faster.

And so began a series of inventions that made farming efficient, and began to drain farms of people. In 1800, two-thirds of Americans worked on farms; today, 2% do.

THE SECOND INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Life sped up more in this second period of innovation, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, an age of steel and electric power, expanding railroads and the automobile.

In 1856, an Englishman discovered a way of making steel fast and cheap, and other inventors soon improved the process. Railroad companies started using steel for their rails instead of wrought iron, which bent easily and needed to be replaced often. Trains could carry heavier loads, which meant businesses could send more products to distant markets. Sales increased, and so did jobs.

In 1861, a telegraph line was strung from coast to coast in the U.S., vastly improving communication. It also wiped out the Pony Express delivery service; it went out of business the same year.

In 1879, Thomas Edison made a light bulb that wouldn't burn out in a few hours. Factories replaced gas lights, reducing the number of fires.

In quick succession came a string of breakthroughs — the automobile, an automatic typesetting machine for printing, a tractor propelled by an internal combustion engine instead of pulled by horses and the Wright brothers' airplane.

Henry Ford started his eponymous car company in 1903. He put men and their tools in stationary positions and had a car being assembled roll from one man to the next. The moving assembly line was born, and cars could be made faster and cheaper. As with textiles earlier, car prices plummeted and demand soared, creating new kinds of jobs in a new industry — and helping to wipe out 100,000 jobs for carriage and harness makers.

THE INFORMATION AGE

The inventor's focus shifted from building things to manipulating information. The tools of this new period help people gather and analyze data and communicate faster, cheaper, better.

No invention is commonly accepted as first of the age, but one contender is the first digital computer in 1937, created by George Stibitz of Bell Labs, the former research arm of AT&T. Stibitz seized the idea of using the open and closed positions of metallic devices when electricity runs through them to do simple math.

In 1947, a team at Bell Labs led by William Shockley discovered how to amplify and switch electronic signals using semiconductor material. It was the first transistor. A decade later, many of them were crammed onto a small chip, dubbed an integrated circuit.

Before the transistor, electronic products worked with bulky vacuum tubes. Now computing power could be miniaturized, a breakthrough that led to small radios, personal computers, cellphones and an array of other devices today.

In 1971, the first email was sent by a Defense Department computer engineer.

The same year, John Blankenbaker built the Kenbak-1, the first computer small and cheap enough for the masses to buy. They didn't. Fewer than 50 Kenbak-1s were sold, mostly to a community college, according to oral history by Blankenbaker at the Computer Museum in Boston. His company went out of business within two years

In 1981, the National Science Foundation set up a network linking university computers, a milestone in the development of the Internet. Its impact could scarcely be imagined then.

The past three decades, new products and innovations have allowed people to entertain and inform themselves anywhere, anytime.

In 1983, Motorola introduced the first portable cellphone, a 2-pound clunker called the DynaTac 8000x. In 1984, the first PDA, or personal digital assistant, was sold — the long-forgotten Psion. In 1994, BellSouth sold its first Simon, the start of a stream of ever-smarter smartphones from which you can access virtually any information while on the run, including that staple of the telephone operator — a phone number.

Which helps explain why there were just 36,000 U.S. operators in 2010, down nearly two-thirds in 10 years.

A job that rose in the same period? Software engineer. They numbered 1.03 million in 2010, up nearly 40%.

© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

14 Comments
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The two opposing forces of humanity, which are in constant battle:

One one side, you've got the ever increasing creativity and increases in productivity of humans, and all the increased wealth and benefits that come with it. Great for society as a whole.

One the other side, you've got the individual, always fearing for their livelihood. Nobody wants to be forced out of a job for any reason. Progress can be a frightening thing.

Of course, this is made much worse by governments that tap into the fears of Joe Sixpack and promise them everything will be OK so long as they keep electing them.

Society, as a whole, is destined to create wealth.

Governments, as a whole, try to destroy it.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Interesting article ! It's good to remember just how fortunate we are to be able to contribute to these comments so easily ! I remember the day when - if one wanted to make a comment in a newspaper, it had to be either clearly handwritten, or typed out, then sent by "snail mail"...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

NO - Technology is not a job killer. . . .it makes some jobs redundant and obsolete................................But AT THE SAME TIME creates NEW jobs.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Well it certainly created my jobs.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It should be killing jobs, but it isn't. Actually, what it should be doing is reduce the hours we work. We should not have to work so many hours. Before the invention of the electric light bulb, few people worked when it got dark. We are working longer hours than we used to in spite of technology.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

And there's your history lesson for the day.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Gaijintraveller - I often think about that. My grandmother who had 9 children, washed clothes by hand,walked everywhere and had never heard of the internet always seemed far less rushed than I am today.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

What most of this debate misses is that we are actually competing against other people. Technology doesn't really change that underlying truth. We (well, many people) want more money, toys, bigger houses etc than our neighbours, and employers want more production. Technology possibly increases pressure by widening the pool of competitors.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Technology kills jobs and destroys our planet by pollution but at the same time is giving a base for acquiring super-technology that is needed for future generations ability to extend life on earth or someplace in universe.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Technology can greatly help to reduce pollution.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

To all those out there whose job it is to manufacture or distribute CDs and DVDs, yes, technology will be the killer of your jobs. Just ask those folks who no longer work at Blockbuster and Tower Records.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If only there was a technology that would make the super rich realize that they don't need more wealth.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Technology comes in waves. In the beginning, it brings a number of new jobs to those who create it. Later, it kills lots of jobs which become obsolete, even among the creators of the new technology. Finally, when the technology settles and progress slows down, it brings back jobs, typically many more than than it had killed before. So the answer to the initial question is not a simple 'yes' or 'no'. We have to see the time effects.

The driving force behind the information age is semiconductor technology. There are some indications already about a slow-down, but it will probably take at least one or two more decades to happen. There will still be progress afterwards of course, albeit more steady and easier for people to adapt to. It will a a period of stability and prosperity. Until then, unfortunately, we will continue to see massive job losses. Most of us who read and write here are just in the middle of the danger zone...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

i agree. Technology Is a job Killer.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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