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Is tech a trickle-up benefit

14 October 2020

Technology is wonderful.

Technology allows us to automate the dull, dreary, tedious tasks that previously required human labour to complete.

From that perspective, technology is improving the lives of many.

Not only are those boring, undesirable jobs being performed at a lower cost and with improved efficiency, but those who might otherwise have had to work in those mind-numbing roles are now free to get better jobs that provide increased incomes and a greater feeling of self-worth.

Or at least that's the theory.

Sadly however, I think this theory is a bit like the "trickle down" theory insomuch as it sounds great on paper but fails to delivery on its promises in real life.

Now I'm sure that much of what I'm about to say was also espoused during the industrial revolution of last century but that doesn't make it less true or relevant.

The promise that technology and automation based on it can free up the working class to improve their own situations is somewhat flawed and here is why.

Firstly, it is based on the assumption that those who are disenfranchised by the dissolution of their job through tech-based automation will be able to simply retrain and get a better job. Sadly, this isn't always, or even often, the case.

Indeed, there are only so many semi-skilled positions in the world and now, thanks to the increasing power of computer-based technologies, even those jobs are coming under increasing threat.

For example, who would have thought, just a few short decades ago, that the role of company receptionist would be phased out in favour of automated voice-response computers that answer the phone and direct incoming calls to the appropriate member of staff... or perhaps even answer general inquiries without involving a human at all?

Another age-old employment opportunity also looks to be close to being phased out. I'm talking about your friendly taxi driver. Yes, self-driving vehicles with instant access to remarkably comprehensive and accurate mapping information look set to cause a swathe of redundancies in that industry within the next decade.

Delivery drivers? Yep, they're for the chop as well. A significant amount of the work currently done by courier drivers will be performed by another set of self-drive vehicles or (excuse the muffled laughter) perhaps even delivery drones :-D

As I've mentioned recently in a previous column, bricks and mortar retail operations are either scaling back staff numbers or shutting down completely. Here in Tokoroa, the local Noel Leeming store has been shut (adding to the ever-increasing number of "for lease" signs in the town's CBD) and The Warehouse is shedding staff hours like there's no tomorrow.

Online shopping is the future we're told and although that may create a few warehouse jobs, the reality is that those jobs don't come anywhere near to matching the numbers of jobs lost to this change. In fact, in some overseas operations, the picking process is also completely automated.

Amble down to your local fast-food outlet and you'll find that the complement of faces behind the counter has been slashed in favour of self-service terminals where you can "build your own burger" using a touchscreen and pay for it with your plastic.

The local Westpac bank branch here in Tokoroa now only opens for three days per week and even when there are people behind the counters, those folk are often directed to use the ATM outside in the street for their banking chores.

The sad reality is that not all those who have lost their jobs to automation will find alternative employment. Automation is reducing the total number of jobs and it's affecting those least able to adapt and retrain. These days, training and education costs money so if you're unemployed and trying to make rent and power whilst still feeding the kids and keeping them warm, the prospect of leaving your low-skill job and spending a few years at university so as to become a lawyer or accountant is not really a starter, is it?

Unfortunately, automation is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The financial benefits of all this technology-based automation flows decidedly upwards.

That doesn't mean we ought not automate where we can. Nobody wants to be the guy bored out of his skull, working eight hours per day at a job that sucks your very soul from your body. However, we're going to have to find better ways to use the manpower that such automation frees up. We need to provide opportunities that allow those people to learn more, earn more and also benefit from the financial gains that this tech provides.

Any ideas from readers as to how this could be done?

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