Here’s the dirty little secret about automation: it’s easier to build a robot to replace a junior attorney than to replace a journeyman electrician. And that fact helps explain why economists and politicians are feeling misgivings about “creative destruction,” which, up to now, they have usually embraced as a net good for society. Technology and automation, they’ve argued—correctly—boost productivity and create more jobs overall (even as some kinds of work get eradicated).
In the age of the algorithm, though, they’re not so sure any more, and no wonder: instead of creative destruction coming to factories and farms, it’s sweeping through city centers and taking white-collar jobs. The chattering classes have talked and written for years about the “end of work.” Doubtless many fear that the end of their work is in the offing, this time around.
Understandably, most of the media focus has been on the replacement of manual labor—real robots doing real tasks provide better visuals than an invisible service “bot” in the cloud. But focusing on hamburger-flipping androids is a distraction from where the real revolution is taking place. In any case, automation doesn’t really explain the decline in factory employment: manufacturing-sector investment in information technology has been flat or declining for more than a decade; and productivity, a critical indicator of (and the purpose of) automation has also been flat. Factories are actually underinvested in technology.
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