February 10, 2013

The challenge of automation

Living close to Lake Champlain, we know about the tension surrounding cormorants who feed on the fish that are eaten by the fish that sports fisherfolks like to catch.

Are the cormorants an invasive species? Loosestrife, the beautiful purple plant with the electric purple hue, is classed as an invasive species because it will crowd out some of the other plant species considered to be native. This could mean that birds that depended on the native seeds for food will have to migrate elsewhere and animals that depended on those birds become the dominoes in a cascading sequence of cause and effect.

But let’s not forget the ultimate invasive species: mankind. We move around a lot and do have a habit of trying to modify our environment so that it’s more to our liking, and often these changes are not for the better. When we use technology to make these changes and these changes create and destroy jobs, we call it automation.

I have recently been reading some books that deal with the problem of automation. One of them is “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” by Martin Ford. In this and the next column, I will be discussing Ford’s views on the problem and some proposed solutions.

I received “The Lights in the Tunnel” as a Kindle e-book, so it’s ironic that while it attempts to explain and suggest remedies for humans losing jobs to automation, in fact it contributes somewhat to the problem. How many jobs are replaced when Amazon wirelessly sends me this book? Depending on how far back in the chain we go, we had to get in our car, drive to a bookstore to purchase the book and then drive back home. From the supply side, there were trucks driven by people delivering these books to store, not to mention the owner and the employees of that store.

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