Yes, Technology Is Taking Jobs Away, But Here’s How It Might Give Them Back

Back in March, I wrote a column arguing that smartphones, tablet computers, Internet TVs and other personal technologies are delivering an unexpected bonus. Rather than depreciating, the way most equipment does, these gadgets actually get more valuable over time thanks to the hundreds of new apps that debut every week, plus free upgrades for existing apps. I argued that even though this kind of value isn’t captured in traditional economic measures like the gross domestic product (GDP), it definitely increases our gross satisfaction—and that we ought to be more thankful for these kinds of improvements, even as we struggle to see signs of real gains in other parts of the economy.

Today I want to look at the flip side of this phenomenon and explore some of its more troubling implications, especially for employment and economic growth. I think there’s room for optimism about the long-term economic future, but it’s important to acknowledge that in the short term, better gadgets and better software aren’t doing much to help the average consumer get or keep a job.

There’s a fancy word for the technological trend I was writing about in March: ephemeralization. Buckminster Fuller coined the term back in the 1930s to describe the general concept of “doing more with less” by building more human understanding into our machines and factories. Fuller had process innovations like Henry Ford’s assembly lines in mind; he wasn’t thinking about software, which didn’t really exist yet. But the idea still applies to devices like the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which replace dozens of other artifacts by recreating their functions on their stupendously versatile touchscreens. If you have a tablet computer and a broadband Internet connection, after all, you don’t really need a laptop, an alarm clock, a watch, a still or video camera, a television, a radio, a phone, an e-book reader, a digital picture frame, an MP3 player, a CD or DVD player, an external hard drive, a game console, a digital audio recorder, a music synthesizer, or a GPS navigation device, not to mention print books, newspapers, or magazines. And that’s just a partial list.

This kind of consolidation is exactly what Fuller was talking about when he predicted in his 1938 book Nine Chains to the Moon that you’ll be able to do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.” The remarkable thing is that we’re only a few years into the era of the iPad and the iPhone (which is basically a mini-tablet)—which means we’re likely to see even more of the information-related tasks we carry out every day subsumed by apps. “The reason tablets are going to take over the world,” Y Combinator founder Paul Graham wrote in this December 2010 essay, “is not (just) that Steve Jobs and Co. are industrial design wizards, but because they have this force behind them. The iPhone and the iPad have effectively drilled a hole that will allow ephemeralization to flow into a lot of new areas.”

Even business IT is bending to the force of ephemeralization. Last week I talked with Adam Wiggins, one of the founders of Heroku, a Web application hosting company incubated by Y Combinator and now owned by Salesforce. You could argue that Wiggins’s whole business is about ephemeralization (he says exactly that in this April blog post). The company takes the burden of Web server setup and maintenance away from software developers, so that they can focus on writing great code, in a language—Ruby on Rails—designed specifically to save them from having to reinvent common business functions with every new app. Not so long ago, Wiggins notes, deploying business software meant physically walking into a data center to wire up servers. Today Heroku is “ephemeralizing IT to the point that I’ve seen tweets from people who have deployed their apps from Wi-Fi on an airplane.”

Now, while the benefits of ephemeralization for the end users of technology are obvious and powerful, there are some downsides. And here’s the big one: ephemeralization may be a net destroyer of jobs. Heroku has about 45 employees servicing its thousands of customers; balance that against the hordes of consultants, sysadmins, and other support staff every enterprise once needed to keep its IT systems afloat. The music industry is another classic example. The rise of the digital download has been a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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