My new free smartphone, and some thoughts about technology and unemployment

by Rob Tiller

I got my first free (aka open source) smartphone a couple of days ago, a Samsung Galaxy S III with the Android operating system. I love the larger screen, with its excellent resolution, and the form factor in general — light, thin, and rounded, and still small enough to go in my pocket. It comes with a good array of apps, and there are thousands more available at free or low cost. The touchscreen interface is intuitive. The voice command option does not seem as smart as Siri is reported to be, but other apps load fast and work beautifully.

Will this change the place of a smartphone in my life? Probably a bit, because the bigger screen and faster speeds (4G) make it easier to use. The civil libertarian in me worries somewhat about the ability of such devices to track me and potentially invade my privacy, but I’m also amazed and happy with all the useful things it can do, such as helping me with directions, accessing every type of knowledge on the internet, performing word processing and other computing functions, entertaining me with movies, music, and photographs, and connecting me to people through text, email, and phone. Smartphones can potentially make us more productive and happier.

At the same time, our technology is transforming us in other ways that are more worrisome. This morning’s New York Times has a long story on remarkable advances in robotics, which are replacing skilled manufacturing jobs in electronics and logistics, along with lots of others. The story cites a book I recently read and would recommend: Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

The authors, economists at MIT, present a clear overview of technological change, which they describe as increasing exponentially. Moore’s law continues to double processing power every 18 months, and software advances are moving much faster than that. Technology harbingers like Watson the Jeopardy champion and the Google self-driving car are the tip of the iceberg.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee recognize that computers can’t yet do everything humans can do, but they have already replaced many kinds of routine work, and inevitably will replace more and more skilled work. This accounts for part of our persistent problems of unemployment even as the economy is growing. Traditional economics assumes that new technologies will eventually produce new jobs, but B and M point out that if technology continues to improve exponentially, computers will be able to perform more and more human jobs better and more cheaply. It’s difficult to see how new jobs could equal those that are eliminated.

If they’re right (and I think they are), we’ve got major social dislocations ahead. In our society, people work not only to earn a living, but also define each other and themselves in large part according to their work. Thus unemployment is not just financially threatening — it’s humiliating. With more and more people unemployed, unable to buy goods and services and without social moorings, our social and financial system will face an existential crisis.

What is to be done? We’ll need to change the way we organize ourselves, the way we distribute wealth, and the way we think about value. We’ll need to find new approaches for valuing and caring for others, and for thinking about the meaning of our own lives.

I had a small epiphany on this yesterday when our friends Ken and Carol took us out on Falls Lake for some water skiing. They both retired early, and do things they enjoy doing, like boating, tennis, and travelling. I have trouble imagining myself retired in this sense. But as we sat on their boat on the lake in the late afternoon, we talked about our lives, told stories, and swam a little, and enjoyed the lake and surrounding forest. Then we took turns getting pulled by their quick little boat on one of their various toys. Ken rode a hydrofoil chair and a wakeboard, and I had a go with old school water skis, which I enjoyed enormously. These things have deep value: sharing stories and experiences.