Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Technology: The Central Issue in the Election

It's the morning after. The people have spoken and the people say they can't agree on either who should lead them or on what the real issues are.  By a narrow slice of the popular vote (but a strong majority in the electoral vote), President Obama returns to the White House for a second term. But looking at the Red State - Blue State map of the country shows just how differently people feel in broad swaths of the country.

The drumbeat of this last election was jobs and the middle class - the economy.  But that is only the symptom. One cause of our distress is the unstoppable forward flow of technology.  Technology gives us our prosperity but (reflecting the economist Joseph Schumpeter's famous phrase) it also brings creative destruction.  The unemployed (and worse, the unemployable) might argue that destruction is never creative.

Technology raises our standard of living. We enjoy the benefits of the technology every day of our lives. Most of us love new technology. We are willing to stand in line for hours to get the newest iPhone or iPad. We love our DVRs, our internet, our reliable cars, and our ATMs.  We notice the loss immediately when there is a temporary power blackout. When a big natural disaster occurs, as just happened with Hurricane Sandy, we are literally off the grid. We can no longer function without the technologies that support us.

Technology, like time, moves in only one direction: forward. Older technologies are replaced with better versions or are made entirely obsolete by new technologies.  It is that change that brings so much disruption.  People whose skills are based on an old technology lose their jobs. They don't have the skills for the economy enabled by the new technology. It is not that they need to somehow just get retrained to do the same job using a little newer technology. The old job is gone forever, replaced by technology. It's the same story whether you think of a manufacturing job now automated by robotics or a bank teller replaced by a computer-enabled ATM.  The bank teller can't take a computer class and compete with the ATM. Technology has simply wiped out the need for the human teller.

And so this election which seemed on the surface to be about jobs and the economy is really about how to cope with changing technology. How do people find work in the new economy when they lack the skills needed? The answer is always the same: re-education.  People need to get themselves retooled just as their former workplaces have been retooled.  This is by no means easy. Most people have mortgages, children to support, bills to pay. How do you they gain new skills when they can barely put food on the table?  I believe this is one of the most important issues we face in the coming decades. Because technology isn't going to take a breather. It isn't going to stop at this point and say in effect, "Time-out to catch up." The engine of creative destruction will continue to inexorably plow forward. The single skill that everyone should learn is the ability to continually re-educate ourselves. Obsolescence is not a theoretical discussion. It is critical to putting food on the table.

Technology contributed to this election in more subtle ways than simply displacing workers with automation. The very nature of new, computerized technology allowed financial institutions to play fast and loose with our money in unprecedented new ways. The result was the financial meltdown.  But that same technology provides the ability to attract foreign investments and allows more effective competition in global markets. But if you just lost your home to a mortgage foreclosure, foreign investments seem irrelevant. It feels like an economic problem, not a technology issue.

So where do we look for relief from problems that are enabled by new technology? Still newer technology will bring some relief but also new problems.  We will need everyone to understand these issues more clearly. We will need the means to continually redevelop job skills. We will need better schools for our children that prepare them for this exponentially-changing world. We will need more ways to retool in mid-life. We will need the leadership at every level - business, government, community - that helps us to manage the inevitable changes ahead.

While I might sound naively utopian, I believe that it can be done. Why? Because we have done this over and over again in our history. Think of the changes that occurred when manufacturing was first industrialized in the 19th century. Think of the impact of electrification, the automobile, and the internet. All these have made our lives immeasurably better. But they made many skills obsolete. We don't need telegraph operators or buggy whip makers. We have managed our way somehow through the changes. We will continue to do so. It has never been easy. But I believe in technology and I believe even more, I believe in people's ability to adapt.

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