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Friday, April 01, 2011

The Redundant Human

Originally published in The Peak, Volume 13, Number 7
July 1997
The End of Work
by Jeremy Rifkin

The End of Work is a must-read for anyone interested in the future of our global civilization. Author Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Washington DC-based Foundation on Economic Trends, presents us with a chilling choice: be prepared for a fundamental change in the way our society is structured, or face the consequences of global unemployment on a scale never before seen in our history. Even the elites should take heed, according to the author, for they will not be immune to the tragic effects of massive worldwide poverty and the disappearance of the middle class.   
Rifkin opens with a grim statistic: over 800 million people are unemployed on Earth, the highest level of joblessness since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The cause?  Technology. The author is not a modern Luddite; he acknowledges that the new information and computer technologies have created many new jobs - but not nearly enough to replace the jobs lost due to the increased use of machines to supplant human labour. Bucking the current conventional wisdom - that being the argument that we are merely in a "transitional phase" and that technological change will eventually result in more wealth for everyone - Rifkin provides compelling evidence that unless steps are taken to prevent it, producers of goods and services will discover that the vast majority of the population, rendered unemployable by the new computer revolution,  cannot afford to buy what the producers sell. The results, needless to say, would be catastrophic. 
The first four-fifths of the book is tough reading - not because of any deficiency in Rifkin's skills as a writer, but simply because the picture he paints is almost too bleak to withstand. Through the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of thousands of workers in every stream of the economy have been laid off, from unskilled labourers to clerical workers to bank tellers to middle management. Teenagers and college graduates are unemployed or underemployed in record numbers. (After investing thousands of dollars to obtain a university degree, I spent three years earning a subsistence wage doing menial labour because of the intense competition for the few jobs left for college graduates.) But, Rifkin notes, productivity is up, profits are up, and today's most popular buzzphrase seems to be "jobless recovery,” a seeming oxymoron. How is this possible?
The key lies in humanity's newfound ability to produce more goods and services with less human labour.  Computers, working together with robots and other labour-saving devices, have made it possible for corporations to drastically reduce their employee overhead costs while at the same time creating more goods more quickly and with fewer defects than ever before. So far, the labourers hardest hit have been those working in the traditional industries: auto manufacturing, steelworkers, farmers, machinists. But, Rifkin warns, no one should be complacent. With the speed and capabilities of computers doubling every eighteen months, tasks once thought to be the exclusive domain of human beings could fall into the realm of automation. One telling example is that of the potboiler novel Just This Once, two-thirds of which was written by a computer. While not a work of art, this book is, according to critics quoted in Rifkin's book, easily as readable as any number of Harlequin romances on the bookstore shelves today. Even actors are not safe. We have all seen the Coca-Cola ads of a few years back featuring Humphey Bogart and Fred Astaire frolicking with Paula Abdul. The film greats were digitally inserted into footage shot in the modern era; these commercials already seem crude in contrast to the amazing special effects we see in movies and television today. Soon, it will be possible to create new episodes of television series cancelled decades ago, using stock footage edited and digitally enhanced by computer. Actors will find themselves competing for roles with stars of the past, or even younger versions of themselves!

Every day, we use devices that have replaced human beings: we bank at instant tellers, we purchase goods through television and internet shopping networks, and we even buy CDs from robots - at least, we do in one American shopping mall, and that shop has been so successful that more are surely on the way. The convenience is undeniable, but what is the ultimate price of our love affair with modern technology?     
The simple fact is that machines work longer hours, never complain, never get sick, and are much cheaper to use than humans. Sometimes instant tellers are friendlier than their overworked human counterparts. It's no wonder that corporations, in a continuing battle to remain competitive, turn to machines to reduce costs. 
The potentially catastrophic side effect is that hundreds of thousands of people are thrust into poverty, and that many of them slip into hopeless lives of despair or turn to crime, frustrated by their lot. The gap between rich and poor is widening at a dizzying pace, and fear and suspicion between have and have-not threaten to boil over into armed confrontation. Already, we see evidence of what was once considered science fiction; a privileged minority of super-rich individuals are cowering behind stone walls, perimeter guards, and security cameras  in many North American communities, sealing themselves off from the increasingly violent urban landscape that surrounds them. 
If this were all there was to The End of Work, I could not recommend it, for too many books provide criticism of our society without suggesting solutions. Fortunately, Rifkin is not of this doomsaying ilk, and the final part of his book provides several possible ways for humanity to escape the seemingly unavoidable fate that awaits us.  To reveal too much here would be unfair to potential readers; suffice it to say that Rifkin's solutions are refreshingly free of naive idealism. Nor does he suggest that we return to a simpler, pastoral life, free of machines. Rifkin acknowledges that you cannot turn back progress. Rather, his ideas are hard-headed, practical approaches that are well within the capabilities of our society, if we can muster the political will to carry them out. Rifkin ends the book on an cautiously optimistic note, pointing out several localised examples of a new economic dynamic at work, one that may give us a way out of a stratified, rich vs. poor future. The End of Work is not light entertainment by any means, but Rifkin's prose is clear and precise, so much so that he makes a heavy topic a relatively easy read.  Give it a try sometime when you're feeling pensive about the future and want some ideas on how to build a better world. I, for one, will try to take heed of the author's advice - after all, my next column might be written by my once-faithful PC.                  

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