The future of work: Why resistance is futile
Wednesday, May 27, 2020
I’ve had two careers in my life: one as a college English professor (18th century English literature, to be specific — a subject that’s in critical demand these days, as you can imagine), the other as a composer (incredible shortage of those, too…). What both professions have in common, aside from low pay, is that they’re both being transformed by technology that many musicians and teachers find threatening.
Sometimes I’m amazed how much teachers and musicians resist this transformation. Unfortunately, resistance to the incursion of technology in both professions is almost certainly doomed to failure and will deprive skilled workers the opportunity to shape this technology in ways that could benefit everyone.
In both professions, my fear is, if those qualified to use and benefit from this technology fail to adopt (and adapt it), others less qualified will substitute that technology for the skills we’ve worked so hard to acquire. The outcome’s avoidable, but only if we understand that resistance to technology is futile…
“Save Countless Hours…Without Spending Years Learning Music Theory…”
An ad for an automated chord progression finder recently popped up on my Facebook page. It promised musicians the ability to “instantly create pro-level chords and progressions…without spending years learning music theory…”
Chuck Berry’s big hit, “Johnny B. Goode,” used three chords. You don’t need a lot of music theory to write a hit. Presumably, you could avoid both “years learning music theory” and even the very reasonable price for the advertised chord progression app and just follow your heart. That seems to have worked for Aretha Franklin, whose “Chain of Fools” makes do nicely with a single chord, a feature it shares with The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and dozens of other hits.
On the other hand, sometimes a musician — me, for on e —can be stuck partway through a song or a television or film cue and the advertised app can instantly supply a lot of inspiration and good advice. It’s not tyranny — it’s advice you don’t need to take.
But several hundred musicians who didn’t buy it, but read the ad on Facebook, erupted online in denunciation and mockery. Their comments all pretty much said the same thing: “I’ve spent years and years learning my craft, and now some idiot has a two-bit app that proposes to let someone else create music without an hour of study? — utter crap!”
Except — and this is news that may be a little hard for some to take — several friends of mine who have put in those “countless hours” and are quite good composers bought the app and loved it!
AI Technology and Education
Similarly, artificial intelligence technology promises to substantially change the education experience for students and teachers alike. This isn’t a vague statement about some indefinite future. A 2017 research study proposes that between 2017 and 2021, artificial intelligence empowered education will have grown at an annually compounded rate of more than 47%.
I’ve spoken to several teacher friends of mine, and, like their musician counterparts, their attitudes about these changes range from suspicion through disbelief and sadness — that in their view something very human at the heart of education is being thoughtlessly discarded in favor of a new toy that in the near future could also reduce the number of classroom teachers needed — not what teachers’ unions most want to hear.
The Skilled Worker Fallacy
Until quite recently, most Americans have assumed that the technological revolution — and more specifically advances in AI — will render primarily low-wage jobs unnecessary. At some point McDonald’s will be able to prepare and sell the same hamburger they’ve always sold with only one or two technology assistants per venue. We’ve digested the fact that trucks, taxis and eventually buses will soon run as well — actually, more safely — with AI technology than with an overworked underpaid driver.
What many of us have only recently come to realize, however, is that this same technology is going to change office work and skilled work at least as much, possibly more. A 2019 McKinsey study proposed that within 30 years as many as 170 million clerical jobs will disappear, replaced by technology.
A detailed 2019 study published in Nature determined that an AI algorithm outperformed six different radiologists in detecting breast cancer in 29,000 women. AI is coming for us all eventually, which will be either an incredible blessing for mankind, freeing us from compulsory work, or a terrible curse, increasing economic inequality, poverty, depression and suicide.
The Choice Is Ours
Governments will ultimately determine whether this technology revolution will be a blessing or curse. Individually there’s only so much we can do about determining that. But meanwhile, each of us — and I’m thinking particularly of those in the two professions I know best, teachers and, more broadly, artists of every kind — can determine to a considerable extent how well we’ll handle and economically survive these changes.
The technology revolution has already changed work and will continue to do so at an increasing pace. Personal success begins with acceptance, further helped by a curiosity to determine how this revolution in work can actually benefit you, your students and your listeners. Since resistance is futile, the best response is to get involved.
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