I grew up in the tech industry, more by accident than by design. I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, where not far from my house, Bill Gates had an idea to start a company. After college I would join that company, more by luck than by intelligence and drive. It would challenge me and change me to be a disciple of knowledge. I would be wrong more than I was right. I would fail and be humbled. Once shy and easily shamed, I would develop thick skin and welcome criticism rather than turn my back on it. I would question those I felt needed to be questioned. I learned my limits but developed new areas to explore. I embraced change as it wrapped its arms around me. I always looked over the horizon, trying to learn and understand what was to come next It would open a new world for me, one I have not once regretted in over 30yrs.
At the end of the day technology is really about disruption. When I first started, the word processor was killing the typewriter. The spreadsheet was reducing the need for a handheld calculator. Companies that made these devices all of a sudden needed new revenue terms, some made it and some did not. That trend would continue through the dawn of the internet and the birth of the cloud. As humans we feel naked and vulnerable without a smartphone. We are always connected and any information we need is accessible at our fingertips. Financial market move at the speed of light. People make millions at the click of a button. As we moved forward more disruption will take place as the move to autonomous vehicles is underway (Domino’s will deliver Pizza via autonomous). Artificial Intelligence is in full swing allowing us to make better decisions based on data (the more data the better), across any vertical Oil and Gas, Financial Services, Legal, Retail etc… Internet of Things (IoT) allowing us to capture and analyze data on billions of sensory devices across the globe. All of these technologies have one thing in common, the desire to eliminate or minimize human involvement. To kill jobs.
Throughout our history in the United States we have tended to dominate new industries and rush forward at breakneck speed, often with little thought given to the consequences of our actions.. Sometimes they were environmental costs, such as the Cuyahoga RIver Fires in Cleveland back in the sixties. Sometimes direct assaults on the US labor force as we crippled labor unions and offshored manufacturing in favor of shareholder value. Leaving a wasteland across the middle of the United States. We now enter a new phase as technology moves at an ever faster pace and displaces jobs at a foreseeable record pace – paralegals gone, cashiers gone, taxi cabs drivers gone, FedEx drivers gone, Long haul truckers gone, lawyers gone (ok we can stop and cheer this one) etc..The refrain from many will be they just need to find new jobs. My immediate response is – What new jobs? How long will it take to find? Do they need to get more education in this new the profession? Professional certifications? All while they still have expenses – families, typical children expenses, mortgages, rent, food, cable bills, mobile phone, etc..
How quickly can humans adapt to change? Part of it is generational. Younger generations have grown up comfortable with technology, being wired shortly after they are born. We can thank Steve Jobs.. Older generations struggle more just to keep up with change. We have watched our middle class slowly shrink as if caught in a death spiral. We have a real unemployment rate hovering around 9% (unemployment sits at 5.8% but that does not include people who have just dropped out of US workforce). It gets back to education in the end and for all the emphasis on STEM, not all school districts in the US are equal. If you live in a poor area of the country your chances of a decent education go do, since a large part of public education is funded locally, usually by property taxes. Not everyone learns the same, not everyone has an aptitude to learn, but they are still human and have a right to dream and hope for a better future,
If tech has brought something along with a movement away from big government to free markets, it has brought a boom for the mega wealthy. The below illustrates how wealth is distributed across the globe. Global wealth distribution 2020. % of adults worldwide whose wealth is:
-Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2020
Wealth is power as it has always been and as we consolidate it among a smaller and smaller percentage while the gap between top and bottom increases, we do so with little discussion of the ramifications. In America we talk of the poor we just don’t like to see them. But as we displace jobs at an increasing pace, without change the number will only grow and more and more poor people will suffer the wrath of displacement. While the 1% will grow at an exponential pace.
The thing that I think a lot about is as we rapidly move towards a future based on technological progress, how many people will be lost or left behind? Will real unemployment rates increase to where 15%? 20%? 25%? becomes the norm. History has often taught us when change occurs so do jobs. As we moved from agrarian age to industrial that the jobs created would benefit society. As we moved from industrial to the information age this once again happened, but now as we look at transformation again the jobs created story will not be so simple. According to 2018 census data the US employs 9.8 million cashiers. Amazon is mastering cashierless checkout. Companies as usual will look at cost savings while increasing margins. Where do 9.8 million people go for work? Many are working jobs that pay at minimum wage or just above. They likely receive minimal benefits (paid vacation, health care, retirement etc..not available). This is not skilled labor, but what they are is human. They deserve the right to a decent life. I understand the movement against left wing elitists, who claim to have answers without a core understanding of the people they are talking to. It is easy to propose solutions when the solutions you offer will never cause you any pain.
The new world we head into will be disruptive in ways never imagined in human history. It will transform how we live and how we work. It seems futuristic and dreamy but it will also create new challenges and new sufferings. Technology has the ability and opportunity to make us far more efficient in how we operate – managing energy infrastructure, transportation, water supply, food production etc..these are all things that need to happen and will happen, the only question is when. The flip side is it will create displacement. There will be many who either do not have the opportunity to participate or the inclination to participate. As I said at the outset Technology by definition disrupts and that disruption knows no boundaries, least of all being human life.
Good Night and Good Luck
Hans Hoffmann 6/29/2021