High-Tech Hand Work: When humans replace computers, what does it mean for jobs and for technological change?
Author’s Note: Since its initial publication, I have reframed this post to more fully integrate the argument and data. This revised post reflects these changes. Recent years have brought a resurgence of interest in how the rapid evolution of computer technologies is affecting work. Some have examined how smart machines are replacing manual labor, swallowing up the manufacturing jobs that have driven the growth of China’s economy. Others reveal how algorithms are supplanting knowledge workers. “Big data” and “machine learning” techniques help software engineers create algorithms that make more accurate and less biased judgments than well-trained humans. Software is already doing the work of medical lab technicians and replicating higher-order cognitive functioning, such as detecting human emotions and facial expressions, processing language, and even writing news articles. Technology has long played a role in both eliminating certain types of work and creating new opportunities. Today’s debates often echo those of the past: technophiles believe that “disruption” is a source of social progress, whereas detractors worry that the coming waves of automation will deepen the insecurity and exploitation of workers. Both sides, however, often overlook the surprising ways in which, rather than creating “frictionless” economies, automation can in fact intensify the use of human labor. In the remainder of this piece, I compare an exemplary study of the industrial revolution of the 19th century with a case study from the front lines of the automation revolution that many believe is now underway. In the Victorian era, new machinery did not replace human workers, but in fact often expanded their use. The same was true at a tech startup that I observed, where artificial intelligence was combined with the routinized application of human labor. Both of these cases draw attention to the specific ways in which technology restructures labor markets not only by eliminating jobs, but also by creating new types of work that must keep pace with machinery. (read more...)