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Why Learning To Code Won't Save Your Job, by Douglas Rushkoff

Stashed in: Awesome, Learn to program., Rich people get richer., Robot Jobs, Machines Writing Code

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Society is automating itself out of work.

"It’s the great paradox of our era," Brynjolfsson explained to MIT Technology Reviewin 2013. "Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up."

There are jobs for those willing to assist with our transition to a more computerized society . . . But it's a temporary position.Yet it’s hard to see this great decoupling as a mere unintended consequence of digital technology. It is not a paradox but the realization of the industrial drive to remove humans from the value equation. That’s the big news: The growth of an economy does not mean more jobs or prosperity for the people living in it.

There have been plenty of economies where harder work did not mean more prosperity for the workers. Look at ancient Egypt: did all the labor required to build the pyramids make the lives of the laborers better? No, because they were pulled from their farms and in some cases enslaved for a religious practice that they did not necessarily even believe in. Sure they had "more jobs" but the most they could hope for in personal benefit was enough to eat while they performed their forced corvée or slave labor.

I sort of suspect that over the entire course of human history, the truth is that harder work did NOT lead to more prosperity for the masses. It almost always just led to more consumption by the elites. The 20th century was probably an historical anomaly rather than the baseline trend.

Your logic makes sense to me. More jobs does not mean more quality of life for most people necessarily.

Coding Can’t Save You

Anyone competent in languages such as Python, Java, or even web coding like HTML and CSS, is currently in high demand by businesses that are still just gearing up for the digital marketplace. However, as coding becomes more commonplace, particularly in developing nations like India, we find a lot of that work is being assigned piecemeal by computerized services such as Upwork to low-paid workers in digital sweatshops.

This trend is bound to increase. The better opportunity may be to use your coding skills to develop an app or platform yourself, but this means competing against thousands of others doing the same thing—and in an online marketplace ruled by just about the same power dynamics as the digital music business.

Besides, learning code is hard, particularly for adults who don’t remember their algebra and haven’t been raised thinking algorithmically. Learning code well enough to be a competent programmer is even harder.

Although I certainly believe that any member of our highly digital society should be familiar with how these platforms work, universal code literacy won’t solve our employment crisis any more than the universal ability to read and write would result in a full-employment economy of book publishing.

It’s actually worse. A single computer program written by perhaps a dozen developers can wipe out hundreds of jobs. As the author and entrepreneur Andrew Keen has pointed out, digital companies employ 10 times fewer people per dollar earned than traditional companies. Every time a company decides to relegate its computing to the cloud, it's free to release a few more IT employees.

Most of the technologies we're currently developing replace or obsolesce far more employment opportunities than they create. Those that don’t—technologies that require ongoing human maintenance or participation in order to work—are not supported by venture capital for precisely this reason. They are considered unscalable because they demand more paid human employees as the business grows.

Training Our Robo-Replacements

Finally, there are jobs for those willing to assist with our transition to a more computerized society. As employment counselors like to point out, self-checkout stations may have cost you your job as a supermarket cashier, but there’s a new opening for that person who assists customers having trouble scanning their items at the kiosk, swiping their debit cards, or finding the SKU code for Swiss chard. It’s a slightly more skilled job and may even pay better than working as a regular cashier.

Universal code literacy won’t solve our employment crisis any more than the universal ability to read and write would result in a full-employment economy of book publishing.But it’s a temporary position: Soon enough, consumers will be as proficient at self-checkout as they are at getting cash from the bank machine, and the self-checkout tutor will be unnecessary. By then, digital tagging technology may have advanced to the point where shoppers just leave stores with the items they want and get billed automatically.

For the moment, we’ll need more of those specialists than we’ll be able to find—mechanics to fit our current cars with robot drivers, engineers to replace medical staff with sensors, and to write software for postal drones. There will be an increase in specialized jobs before there's a precipitous drop. Already in China, the implementation of 3-D printing and other automated solutions is threatening hundreds of thousands of high-tech manufacturing jobs, many of which have existed for less than a decade.

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