Sunday, January 31, 2010

Living In The Bell Curve, Part 3

In the last two posts I've been talking about a conceptual model to describe the effect of advancing technological process on the workforce. If you haven't read it, you might want to do so, because this post is going to be more of the same. The basic idea though, is that some amount of effort is spent doing things that could be automated but aren't for cost reasons, most effort is spent doing things that can't be automated, and a bit less effort is spent on automating new things. Further, I made the claim that those areas of effort are roughly distributed along a scale representing the complexity of the task, and that the distribution of effort is roughly in the shape of a bell curve. There's a handy graphic that illustrates all this in the first post.

I also claimed, fairly I think, that the effect of technological advancement and automation of processes tends to push existing jobs into the red zone, where they're in danger of being replaced by automation, and that this acts as a forcing function to drive people toward more complex jobs, both as a way to find job safety (further up the curve) and just out of necessity when trying to find work. So what does this really look like, for someone in this situation? It should be self evident that the things that get automated first tend to be the simplest tasks. The stuff that's left over is more creative, more complex, and generally harder to do, and on average also tends to end up creating and touching more in the same period of time, because every human task at this point is using any number of different automation technologies in the process of their work.

For those of us who fall somewhere on that scale, and I'm definitely one of them, this means that we're constantly in danger of losing our jobs. Even worse, this isn't at the level of a single company, or a section of an industry. It's not from a downturn in the economy which will end at some point. We're in danger of losing our jobs to an automated process that encodes a large part of what we know how to do. We're in danger of having our skill set made entirely obsolete, across the entire culture.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Living In The Bell Curve, Part 2

In the last post, I claimed that someone was actively trying to steal your job, and mine as well. I also proposed an abstraction for the concept, which involved human effort being distributed along a bell curve of complexity, ranging from those doing jobs that have already been automated, up to being the ones working to automate new things.

One of the most important points of the Tech Bell is that it's self modifying. Specifically, the work represented by the green area (effort put toward automation) will likely change the shape of the curve itself, as well as altering the distributions of the zones within it. This is especially important because any alteration in the distribution of the graph will affect the green zone itself, either magnifying or dampening the effect of the change over time.

The other key point is that the entire graph shifts horizontally over time, being pulled along to the right (toward higher complexity), again due to the effort represented by the green zone of new automation. So although the change in the shape of the graph may be more gradual -- and I suspect it is -- the specifics of the work represented by each zone from one decade to the next may still be drastically different despite the overall shape being largely unchanged.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Living In The Bell Curve, Part 1

Right now, somebody is plotting to steal your job. Somebody is plotting to steal mine too, and if you happen to be a programmer it may even be the same person gunning for both of us. It doesn't matter where you live, or what you do for a living. Even worse, they're not just trying to take your job for themselves, they're trying to make what you do obsolete.

That's not to say that this is a new phenomenon. The entire point of the industrial revolution was that machinery and automation could make large swaths of production fast and predictable, which they could never be when they were in the hands of individual craftsmen. Automation gives you fast, cheap, and interchangeable parts without which most of the modern world couldn't exist. Still, it's a bit unnerving to think that there are people out there who will, if they do their jobs right, make your knowledge and skill set pointless.

Here's my version of what this idea looks like on paper.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On Unintended Consequences

So far I've mostly used this space to write about technology, and in pretty abstract and wishy-washy terms. That's not all I want to talk about, but I felt like I needed to get some core stuff ironed out for myself and expressed in concrete language. I may change my mind on a lot of it a couple months from now, but having it recorded in some solid form helps me to direct my thoughts.

This week, though, I've been thinking more about economics. Without question I blame the media for this; Congress is back in action, and the usual public circus continues, with Libertarians and the Right continuing to scream the glories of the free market at the top of their lungs to anyone who will point a camera in their direction. In a better world their energy could be directed toward something more useful -- possibly shoveling literal rather than metaphorical bullshit -- but unfortunately they do get attention, and enough of it that they've already succeeded in derailing some of the most meaningful portions of the health care bill that existed a few months ago.

I have to admit I'm more socialist than not. I can accept the idea that the free market as a concept is useful for explaining the interactions of parties in an unrestricted system. I can even go along with the idea that strict market control from an external policy organization such as the government would be a bad idea when implemented on a very fine-grained level. Trying to plan the production of goods down to a single bar of soap or loaf of bread is likely not going to turn out all that well (although probably better with modern data analysis methods than it did in the 50s without them).

So why am I a socialist rather than a capitalist? Because agreeing that a scientific theory does a good job of explaining a certain system has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with liking the end result of that system. What comfort is there, when everything around you is going to hell, in being able to explain exactly how you got to that point? Some, maybe, but not enough that I'm willing to just sit back and let it happen.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

We Are Legion

I firmly believe that the human race are cyborgs. It happened years ago, and because we were looking for a specific vision of our sci-fi future we didn't notice that it had already arrived, only in a different form. I think maybe we were waiting for literal biological implants, because that assumption seems to underly a lot of the fiction that deals with this concept. But why would you undergo invasive surgery if you didn't have to? All it does is make it more difficult and dangerous if you want to repair or upgrade something. So instead we have a softer, gentler cyborg. Instead of implants for data storage and access, we have pervasive access to the network; instead of implants for telepathic communication, we have cell phones.

The two necessary features of this state of existence, in my mind, are the capacity of machines to augment human physical prowess, and to add new senses to the human experience. As I've mentioned before, technologically augmented physical prowess is obvious, in the form of functionally expanded brain capacity through the cloud -- or for a low(er) tech version, super-human speed through mechanical transportation. Somewhat less obvious are the addition of new senses, but without loosening the definition too much I believe that requirement is met as well.

One we've had for millenia -- a compass, one of the simplest tools around, lets us sense magnetic fields. More recently, the construction of the GPS system essentially fabricated a new sense for the entire species, letting us sense our physical location with amazing precision on a global scale. Infra-red goggles allow us to see more parts of the electromagnetic spectrum; cellular phones allow us to selectively hear anyone in the world from anywhere; rapid access to a network containing public commentary lets us almost instinctively know whether an experience (movie, restaurant, etc) we are contemplating will be enjoyable.