By Y. Z. Ya’u,
I watched this advert on CNN marketing online training programmes and telling people how they could get fabulous jobs. The mantra is that with technology, there are simply too many jobs, all you need is to get the needed skills. This eldarado of affluence and abundance being created by technology is increasing. As a technology enthusiast, I might have also marketed the future in similar terms but in my most sober self, I know that this does not present a realistic picture of the future. It is either a marketing gimmick by training firms who want sell training so as to make money or is a naïve reading of the dynamics of technology in society.
To be sure technology is enabler of economic transformation. Countries that have better access to technology and more digitally connected have their economies growing faster and bigger. China and India are the usual examples, but it is not just only in the context of countries. Even within countries states or regions with better technology tend to prosper better than others. That is why today California, the host of Silicon Valley has its economy stronger than those of many other states of the USA. But not all economic transformation generates jobs, otherwise there would be no unemployment in countries like USA, China, etc.
It is also true that technology is creating new jobs as well as transferring jobs from one country to another, we have seen that many jobs have moved out of say USA to countries that have built capacity for outsourcing such as India, China, Malaysia, etc. Teleworking and now working remotely means that jobs would travel to meet people rather than people traveling to meet jobs.
But there is another mechanism of jobs transfer, signifying that job transfer itself id not one way traffic. Arising from the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is the commoditization of education among other services such as healthcare. As commodities, they are now tradeable. As investors seek for profits, these services would be concentrated in the richer segments of the society that could afford them. Thus, many poor people will experience the paradox that while availability of these services has been enhanced, affordability has greatly been diminished. Such a paradox will exacerbate exclusion not only in the national space but also globally since Nigeria will have less affordability for these services. As more advanced countries flood developing countries such as Nigeria with their services, they outcompete our service sectors, thus creating jobs back in their countries through the selling of their services to us. In this case, our consumption of their service transfer jobs from our country to their countries.
So, the chief character of technology is not job creation but jobs transfer and recomposition of jobs out of which some increment in quantum of jobs may result. However, even at this, for a number of reasons, the capacity of technology to create new jobs is not unlimited. This rather hyper optimist view assumes that there will also be surplus of jobs that supply of skills is unable to meet. The reality is that growth in a linear economy is exhaustive and sooner or later, an equilibrium between skills demand and supply will be reached after which there would be more skills than is demanded.
You may say that it will take long for that equilibrium to be reached and you would be right but there are also other dynamics which place limits to job creation. First, take the more commonly acknowledged that technology, through outsourcing, is creating new jobs. Outsourcing is not a net new job creator. It merely transfers jobs from one country to another such that while the receiving countries gain in the totality of new jobs created, the supply country suffers job lost in equal measure and records net increase in unemployment. That is why is policy makers of the technology decoupling hue in the USA for instance are crying about job losses due to companies moving to China where labour is cheaper compared to the USA.
The second challenge to this infinite growth is that technology is not job additive mechanism in a linear fashion. What it does is to decompose and recompose the skills needed at any given time in society. Such decomposition and recomposition means that as it creates new skills for new jobs, it kills other jobs that are no longer needed. Take for example, typists. Younger people today will not know the place of typists in organizations because they have disappeared. We have now become our own typists. Typists could retrain to get new jobs in the areas that are needed, that is what we are told.
You would be right to suggest as most technology evangelists do that it is destroying hazardous and difficult jobs or tasks. For example, there is the case of smart toilets project in India which has thrown thousands of workers who earned their livelihood cleaning toilets out of jobs. While we could frown at toilet cleaning as not a decent job, the fact is that these smart toilets have not created the new jobs that could absorb those who have lost their jobs.
Deployment of robots in factories has seen millions of workers thrown out of jobs in the industrialized countries and many of them have not yet been absorbed by the creation of new jobs. Here in Nigeria, many bank clerks and other workers were through out of jobs when banks outsourced cash disbursement/collection to ATMs and POS and there are no new places to get their jobs back. Rather banks have succeeded in trimming their workforce.
Even a leverage of technology by big competitors can result in huge job losses. This is what has happened when mobile national operators (MNOs) used their technology clout to take over the role of internet service providers (ISPs), in the process killing hundreds, if not thousands of ISPs and with that, killing millions of jobs that were provided by the ISPs but for which the MNOs have no place for. it is easy to win the argument that digitization is weeping out non-decent jobs such as the example of digitalization of toilets in India, but the creation of new decent jobs is not matching up with the job lost.
A third challenge comes from the very motive that has been fueling the evolution of technology. At the core of that is the desire by industrialists to wrestle control of job processes from the workers, reduce the cost of the cost of labour by simplifying complex industrial processes through Taylorism that breaks the tasks into simple routine and repetitive tasks. Here technology promotes deskilling. These looking for evidence of this might well recall what was needed to use the computer before the era of graphical user interface operating systems (GUIs). Users had to remember the codes before they could use the computer whereas with GUIs all you need to do is look for the icon that represents the task. So, if you want to print, you just point your mouse to the icon of the printer and click. It is that simple, no skill is needed or remembering of any code.
Technology is generated sold as a means to ease the burden of people. Yet while it can and has changed the way we do things and has invariably made life “easier” for many people this in fact is not the key reason for technological advancement. Technology is driven by three key motivations. The first is to control the labour of workers. The second is to maximize surplus extraction and the third is to expand the scope of profit extraction. All these aim at profit maximization which is at the root of capitalism. These are the arena of capital accumulation and not about making life better for the people. It is also about reducing the labour needs so that you have less number of workers doing the same work. This is at the core of the efficiency discourse: to maximize profits while reducing the cost of production. Not that there are no other reasons for technology advancement, but many other benefits of technology are accidental to the purpose of its development. The internet is a typical example. No one set out to invent the internet as we know it today. It arose out of the need to coordinate advanced research that was being done jointly by a number of universities, sited in different locations.
The fourth is direct extension of the third is which automation. Automation, a process or procedure in which factories and systems run with minimal or no human intervention beyond pressing a switch, is marketed as freeing human beings from hazardous and difficult tasks but in fact it is about doing away with workers who would take holidays, want pay rise, and could go on strike which the automated systems with have no need for. No one who deploys automation will claim to want to create new jobs or enhance employment. Deploying robots to do the work that human beings are doing cannot create new jobs. When you have self-driven cars and planes, you have no need for drivers and pilots. Similarly, when you have robots cleaning buildings, doing construction work, assembling products, supervising stores, you have no need for cleaners, labourers, clerks, etc.
As we enter into the world of internet of things, in which everything can be done by a click from wherever you are more people will be displaced by artificial intelligence-controlled systems. Consider this: Imagine closing from work. It is about 45 minutes’ drive to your house. You do not want your food cold. You click your auto-kitchen from your office and give it instructions of what you want to eat. By the time you get home, the food is laid on the table ready for you. You have discarded your cook. As you continue to give instruction to the auto kitchen of your likes, it stores, analyses and learns from this pattern of your instructions and with time, it discards you. It simply decides what you like to eat any particular time and prepare it for. It has done an extensive profiling on you. It simply takes over your decision-making function, making you feel being more like a mechanical structure yourself.
Finally, we have to consider the limitation of linearity in production and manufacturing. Extractive and consumerist models will have to hit a limit when we exhaust all the resources we are using. Linearity in technology is not just about extraction and consumption but also about creating waste whose management will continue to be a major challenge. Aside from occupying space, and generating hazardous elements, waste also contributes to the stocks of carbon dioxide that is inducing climate change. Even we go for greener energy, such as changing to solar in place of fuel-based energy, we have to remember that the elements with which solar cells are made are extracted from the environment on the basis of linearity model. That means that even renewable energy sources are not in themselves free from the challenges of linearity.
What does this mean? I should not dampen your enthusiasm or belief in technology. It can transform economy and society. It has revolutionary impact on how we live and how we produce and reproduce. But it is not that the internet produce of jobs. All those that speculations about jobs waiting for the people are either naive or simply being cynical. The truth is that technology can increase some level of availability but availability without redistribution and equity will only result in greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people while many will suffer in want. No technology has been invented and none will be invented that will address questions of fair play, justice, and redistribution without which there can be jobs for many, not matter how skillful they are.
Technology can improve economy and transform societies but creating jobs is not the calling of technology. Creating jobs is in the realm of politics and policy options. Let us not continue to invest technology with what it cannot do: limitless addition to the world stock of jobs from which we can make our selection by what skills we decide to acquire. Those who control technology are not interested in creating jobs. They want to maximize profit. Technology creates profits for those who own it and makes life easier for those who can afford it and only accidentally creates jobs for those that can be absorbed to the extent that it does not affect profit margins.