What – replace me with a machine?

The acquisition of Ipad and Iphone together opens the door to a new era in communications customs, and I’ve just entered the era.  As toys, they are fun.  As tools for work, they are amazing.  For me, there was some foreshadowing of the potential effectiveness of these tools when I began keeping my calendar on my old cell phone.  It was not so difficult to submit to the irritation of alarms to alert me in time to get where I might, otherwise, have forgotten to go.  That little forward step was nothing compared to what my little devices are doing for me today!

Yes, I’m in the camp that thinks these are good things, these mind-boggling, expensive, soon-to-be-obsolete playthings.  But the book currently Kindled (that’s a word, isn’t it?  like “Googled”?)–The book currently Kindled on my Ipad is “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.  In the context of their whole picture, the authors explore the particular effect of technology on this year’s most currently pressing issue:  job creation.  Their discussion is sobering.

We seem to be actually stepping into that long-predicted era when jobs traditionally done by humans are, at an alarming and ever-increasing pace, being taken over by technology.  The robots of past sci-fi are today’s reality, and there is no going back.

“Going back” is one of my pet peeves, anyway.  I get very frustrated at  the idea that we can and/or should “go back” to some imagined “simpler” time (which, of course, had absolutely no problems in comparison to our own convoluted decade!).  While I contend that we can learn to co-exist with our technological advances, choosing how and how much to engage, the much larger question becomes how to value the work that is left for humans to do in a way that allows people to live abundantly and with more leisure–as was always anticipated by the introduction of “labor-saving devices.”  Concisely: If my labor is what’s saved, how do I earn a living? 

How do we value, or do we value, contributions to community that are not based on “labor”?  On what basis will we grant members of our communities the where-with-all to purchase their daily bread from whoever owns whatever machine is making it? 

I’m enjoying Brynjolfsson and McAffee’s book and looking forward, not only to their conclusions, but to continued discussion of this topic which has evolved with astonishing velocity during my lifetime.  Remember the Star Trek episode in which an away-team time travels to the late 1980s, and Scottie is so frustrated because he keeps trying to get the computer to respond? “Computer!  Computerr!!!” he growls with increasing intensity, only to be reminded by his colleagues that computers in that century did not converse by voice.  Things moved along faster than his colleagues might have anticipated, and today, I’m conversing with “Siri” on my Iphone, asking her (it!?) to direct me to the nearest pizza parlour and tell me what the weather will be in Seattle when I get there.

So this beautiful little Sharp-shinned Hawk visits our pond most days.  Some days I snap a remarkably lovely photo with my IPad, and share it with a friend.  Other days, I just smile, breathe and gaze in contented awe.  As Robert Lous Stevenson thought happily, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”  After breakfast (bought with the fruits of my labor), I head off to my office wondering how they’re going to replace me . . . and knowing they very likely will.   Sobering.

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