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.

There are a couple ways to avoid this situation. One way is to stick with the curve -- if you're good at learning new things, and don't mind putting in some extra hours along the way you can keep up with the curve as it shifts, at least for a while. Better, but more challenging, is to stay ahead of the curve. If you can position yourself somewhere in the green zone, where a decent amount of your effort is in automating things out from under other people, there's a fair bit of security there. If you start to fall behind at some point, there's a lot of room to go before you get dumped off the other side into the red, and because you're working on things that increase efficiency far beyond your individual effort, the pay is usually pretty good.

If you don't want to play inside the system, there are options there too. This curve is a large percentage of society's output, but you can bail for another area entirely in a number of ways. Artisinal production is a booming business right now, and it's literally never going to be made obsolete by automation -- you can't automate the perceived benefits of producing something without automation. It may fall out of fashion at some point, although I have a feeling that it's here to stay for several decades at least.

There's also an opportunity to leapfrog the curve entirely. Automation is essentially the process of standardizing the sections of a task that don't require creativity, so the model really only includes those things that have some non-creative element to them. Everything I've been talking about is based on the idea that humans are good at both repetition and creativity, but technology is only good at repetition. Every person on the curve could jump to an entirely creative job, given some effort, and avoid the issue altogether. Not that they could do it at the same time, of course, at least not with the level of technology we have today.

Those are some of the optimistic options, but there's also a less happy way to react. For whatever reason, call it stubbornness, laziness, or lack of creativity, there are people who don't want to play along. I can't say they don't have a point, either -- being stuck in a system that demands increasing levels of effort for the same payoff can seem like a dismal prospect, and the ways out that I mentioned above will only get more competitive as more people try to get out of the curve.

If you're of that mindset you can straggle along at the tail end of the curve, doing the minimum you can get away with to keep up with the rest. Living that way, though, would put you in constant danger of being replaced, and the times where you do move up the curve will probably be forced by external circumstances rather than done proactively at a time of your choosing; not a pleasant way to live. Even more extreme are those who abandon the curve entirely, but in the other direction -- not for a creative job, but for none at all. If you lose out in the scrabble for the tail of low-complexity jobs, there's always the option of doing nothing.

So that's my model of human society, at least in terms of work and technology. Is it accurate? No idea. I think with the past three posts I've demonstrated that you can frame a lot of the broad changes in society in terms of this model, which seems promising. I'm not sure whether this it's particularly novel; I suspect it's not, but that was never really the point. I'm pretty satisfied with it as a description of how things work, because it makes sense to me. Whether it makes sense or seems particularly interesting to anyone else I don't know, but I feel like I have a better handle on some things for having written this, so I'll leave it at that for now.

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