I think that Labor Day can be a slightly ambiguous holiday for a computer technologist such as myself.
On the one hand, although I am not a member of a labor union and my profession infamously resists being organized, I enjoy many of the benefits of past union efforts, including the weekend and subsidized health insurance. I was not forced to work as a child, nor could I have been legally employed as one, and I have recourse if I were to lose my job.
On the other hand, one of the points of computers is that they can perform certain kinds of tasks more quickly than any human could. This often gives people the opportunity to do more interesting work and promotes economic growth. In my particular niche, library automation, the computer taking care of the recording of checkouts means that fewer people are needed to do things like send out overdue notices, in principle freeing up staff time to do more interesting things like run children’s story hour.
Now, new technology does not inevitably mean that the robots instantly take over all the jobs. While on the face of it ATMs are an obvious threat to a bank teller’s job, between 1970 and 2010 the number of bank tellers actually increased. Why? While fewer tellers were needed per branch, banks had various reasons to open a lot more branches (which nowadays are largely sales offices that somewhat grudgingly also accept small business deposits and convert coins into more useful cash). But with the rise of mobile banking and the decline in number of branch banks as the industry consolidates, the prospect for bank teller employment is looking grim.
However, sometimes the robots really do quickly take over. When’s the last time you’ve encountered an elevator operator?
Let’s get back to libraries. Computers have allowed the creation and maintenance of big global databases that gather together the efforts of lots of library catalogers. Let’s say your public library just received a box of the latest James Patterson novel and needs to get it into their catalog. It’s been decades since your library — and each and every one of its 9,000 peers in the U.S. — had to enter the record from scratch and figure out what subject headings to assign. Grabbing a record from one of those big databases and adapting it (or not) suffices. Thus, you don’t need a full time professional cataloger in each and every library because technology facilitates sharing the work. There’s still a lot to be done with library metadata, so library cataloging (viewed broadly) isn’t about to disappear.
However, that can be cold comfort to somebody whose job actually does disappear or gets radically changed because of a new computer system. Computerization, if nothing else, leads to change. Sometimes that change is good, but often it is indifferent or negative for somebody who just wants to work their way to a dignified retirement.
Thus, the ambiguity: computerization doesn’t necessarily lead to destroying entire occupations (though sometimes it does), but it is often the cause of change, or at least the avatar of it. And that means that the computer technologist is sometimes not the friend of labor, whatever other public benefits their work may provide.
- Erik Loomis is a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. Sometimes frustrating, but always interesting, he regularly blogs at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. I recommend his “Erik Visit an American Grave” series.
- Barbara Ehrenreich passed away this week. Her book Nickel and Dimed remains essential.