More thoughts on robots and the future


I wrote last week about the fact that the lapdog media is finally catching up with Obama’s claim that the problem with America’s economy is that ATMs are job destroyers, and that’s why our economy is a mess.  Many of you commented that, in your own industries, you’ve seen automation chip away at jobs so that a handful of people are doing what it once took dozens or even hundreds of people to do.  I agree completely.  Technology definitely destroys jobs.

What I was trying to say, though, is something different.  What’s unique about this ongoing recession/depression, is that the government has been working overtime to depress the new jobs that usually arise as a result of technology.  Absent government intervention, our transitions in the wake of a major technological change have usually been beneficial to the majority, even though there’s no doubt that a minority saw itself lost to history’s backwash.  For the first time, though, we’ve got a government so busy grieving for the minority who are becoming obsolete, that it’s enacted policies to ensure that the majority will suffer too.

I speak quite personally about this, because I’m a perfect example of someone who took modern technologies and spun off a new career.  My new career has been less profitable than my old one, but infinitely more enjoyable, not to mention a better match with parenting.

My graduating year from law school was one of the last years that saw new associates arrive at law firms that didn’t have desktop computers.  We had Word Processing departments, which would use primitive word processing machines (who else remembers old Wang systems?) to finalize briefs or, if they were particularly sophisticated, they had primitive software to do the same task.  To get a brief done, the attorney would hand write or dictate a brief, and then walk it over to a secretary, who would transcribe it.  It was a very time-consuming process.

Law books

Legal research was also done the old-fashioned way, which meant surrounding oneself with heavy books.  To research a legal question, you’d go to the Westlaw Digests.  You’d start by perusing the Decennial Digests (massive volumes that broke the law down into categories).  These were good, because you could do ten years worth of research in a single category.  If it had been nine years since the last Decennial Digest, though, you’d then have to go through nine years worth of annual digests, including the pocket updates stuffed in the back.  Once you had hand written a long list of potential cases, you’d head for the stacks and pull out volume after volume of case reporter.  You’d page through to your cases, and hope that at least some of them were on point.  Once you found them, you’d either write notes by hand, or you’d spend hours (and dollars) photocopying.

Both Westlaw and Nexis did have computer research available, but it had to be done on dedicated machines and it cost a small fortune.  It was much cheaper to pay an associate to do fifty or even one hundred hours of research, than to go onto Westlaw and spend a couple of hours writing and printing.  (Keep in mind that, back in those days, all connections were dial-up and were incredibly slow.)

Old desktop computers

Within a few years of my starting to practice law, the world turned upside down.  Lawyers got desktops and dedicated word processors became obsolete.  That’s when I fell in love with Word Perfect, which is still my favorite word processing software because you have the best control over the look of the final product.

In the beginning, those desktop computers were stand-alones, so you still had to walk to your secretary’s desk, only this time you’d hand over a floppy, rather than a sheaf of yellow paper or a little tape recording.  Just a year or so later, with the firm’s four walls, those floppies were obsolete, as the firms had become networked.  Suddenly, you didn’t even need to stand up to send your secretary that pleading that needed to be finalized.  Instead, you just pushed a button.

Online legal research continued to be expensive, but Lexis and Westlaw now had software that enabled you to use your laptop to connect directly to those services.  This was another technological advance that meant you didn’t need to get up from your chair.  (Right now, I’m seeing, not only a technological trend, but a trend in lawyers getting flabby and gaining weight!)

Woman at computer

One day, I sat at my desk and realized that I was totally self-sufficient. I didn’t need a secretary, since I’ve always been a better typist and word processor than any secretary I ever had, and I didn’t need access to a law library, since my desktop had become a law library.  I also realized that home computer prices were dropping and that the case-reporting services were dropping their prices in response to the increased competition that accompanied increased demand.  Since I hated going to court, and loved doing research and writing, I quit my job and set up a home practice.


As the years went by, having a home office became easier and easier.  In the old days, I still had to put my documents on floppies, or print them up, and then hand-deliver them to my clients.  Within a short time, however, either my clients got email, so I could just send an attachment, or they upgraded their network services so that I could connect from home and simply upload my work onto their systems.

The new systems made hoards of young lawyers unnecessary.  While it had once been cheaper to give a second or third year associate a fifty hour research job, it was now much cheaper to contract the work out to me.  With my on-line research, home computer and printer, and network or email connections, I was not only faster and better than a young associate, I didn’t force the firm to carry me during the dead times, nor did it have to pay any benefits to me.  Technology would have destroyed my old job, but instead it created a new job for me, and one that I liked much better.

In the Obama economy, though, I have no work.  If I were a young lawyer done out of a job by new research and writing technology, it would be impossible for me to set up my own thriving business (and it did thrive for many years), because there is no work to be had for anyone, whether in a firm or outside of it.  The old jobs are dying, but the economy is too regulated, taxed, and constrained to create new niches.

And that’s what I meant when I said only Progressives believe that robots are job killers.  Their belief is true only to the extent they’ve made it so.  I fervently believe that, in the normal, non-Obama world, even as technology kills many jobs, a free market, coupled with human initiative, can create many more (better ones too).

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  • David Foster

    One thing that is not helping here is the growing conveyor-belt attitude toward education and careers. There are too many people who believe they have to be specifically *trained*, via university coursework, for anything they are going to do.
    Another factor to be considered is the mating market. If we consider three young lawyers:
    –James, who takes a job as an associate with a big-name law firm
    –Samuel, who starts his own law firm in a niche specialty
    –Francis, who decides not to practice law at all but to start his own business as a heating and air conditioning parts distributor
    …which one do you think is going to be more attractive (other attributes being equal) to the majority of desirable young women?

  • lee

    I knew where you were going with it. Think of the Model T–it originally took twelve hours to produce one, but with increasing automation and better organization of the the unautomated workers, the time was reduced to 93 minutes. Now, according to Toyota’s kids’ site, it takes about 20 hours–but because of the increasing automation, robotics, etc., the car that now takes 20 hours is FAR more complex than the Model T of a hundred years previous. (And comes in many more colors, too!)

    The automation/mechanization/computerization makes certain services and products cheaper, which can he’ll increase demand. Initially, jobs are generally lost do to a big increase in technology, but once the market figures out how to handle it, the end result is usually an increase in jobs. If we still had the technology that Ford used in manufacturing the Model A, we would not have any where the number of people working in the automotive industry. Cars would still be too expensive, their wouldn’t be nearly the market for them.

    Of course the big problem with manufacturing jobs today is NOT the automation/computerization, but the outsourcing of it overseas. (GM being a great example of that, thank you, Outsourcer-in-Chief.)

  • Bookworm

    Lee: That point about the Toyota versus the Model T is a good one.  Labor saving devices have a tendency to create MORE labor by giving us ever higher expectations. 

    David:  In a way, the marriage (or dating) market is even worse than that, since women are starting to outnumber men in all sorts of professional areas, including (I believe) law and medicine.  Blue collar is going to have to be the new status symbol, or men are going to be out of luck.  As for me, although I grew up in a home that valued education above all, my Dad was still a blue-collar kind of guy who could wire lamps, fix appliances, take apart an engine, etc.  Since he was never much of a breadwinner in his white collar job, his blue collar skills came in awfully handy.

  • David Foster

    The Industrial Revolution in Britain is worth some thought in this context. I don’t think there’s much question that many skilled workers WERE worse off after their jobs were mechanized than they were before, and this was not just a matter of months or years but of decades.
    One important factor in this was the Enclosure Acts, which were passed starting circa 1750 and assigned land which had previously been owned in common to specified local landowners—this was all done via “private bills” in Parliament, so the landowners in question had to be influential enough to get such bills passed on their behalf. While the local common people were supposed to be compensated for the value of the grazing rights, fishing, etc which they lost in the privatization, it’s not clear that these payments were set on any kind of reasonable basis…and most of the people had no experience in handling significant amounts of cash and no access to the banking system…so mostly, the cash just disappeared over time.
    The effect of all this was to make returning to the home village and supporting oneself in the traditional way much less feasible, and hence exerted downward pressure on the industrial wage rates.
    Privatization of the common lands was surely necessary over time to enable more-efficient agricultural techniques, but perhaps it could have been done in a matter more truly capitalist and less crony-capitalist.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Except one of the side effects of the technology revolution is that kids no longer are willing to get their hands dirty.

  • michal

    what interests me more than technology changing the market place, is whether or not the US is going to develop a wide spread alternative market system (black market) for goods and services.
    It is a human nature to avoid excessive regulation and taxation.
    Anyone notice businesses or services that are offering to cut out the state or Federal gov’t?

  • Danny Lemieux

    Michal, I believe that we are already there. I know of many immigrants and tradespeople that operate “cash only”, don’t declare income and collect benefits based on their low-declared incomes.

  • Elysse

    I’m also starting to worry. I’m not a lawyer but a medical technologist. I remember when I was still studying, I had to spend hours in the library to research, draw the specimens we see in the microscope. Now, the students can do all of these in their tablets.
    But what worries me more is that hospitals are using higher technology machines and the need for manual counting is decreasing. Now they have machines where you can just place the specimen and a reading will be given. Manual counting and checking will be done only if the results are extremely abnormal. I’m scared that medical technologists will soon lose their jobs, and the demand might go a lot lower in the future. Hoping that it won’t happen.

  • David Foster

    Note also that there are cases where the impact of automation has been overstated, or excessive reliance has been placed on automation technologies. During the 1980s, Roger Smith of GM famously spent billions of dollars on robotic factories…which didn’t really work all that well…while Toyota, while by no means eschewing robots, chose to focus more on the improvement of work processes and the better use of human abilities.
    I understand that also during the 1980s, the Bureau of Labor Statistic predicted a declining employment profile for air traffic controllers because of expected high automation in the field. It didn’t work out that way, partly because of the failure of the software project known as the Advanced Automation System (“the greatest debacle in the history of organized work”) and partly because the work of a controller is less roboticizable than the BLS analysts apparently thought it was. Actually, there has in recent years been a controller *shortage*.

  • Ymarsakar

    The Gray Market is a more accurate term than the Black Market. The BM seeks to trade in goods that are specifically illegal or banned, whereas smuggling and gray markets tend to trade in things to avoid taxation or to get things that are not normally allowed to the peasant class by consumption laws.

  • Ymarsakar

    Technology increases the free time of a civilization’s people. That results in an increase in the standard of living. However, those who were economically dependent upon the greater demand for services and goods when a civilization didn’t have the luxury of having a machine clean your clothes, find themselves marketed out. They then must be retrained, which requires funding and support from someone.
    The Left’s preferred solution to this cyclical problem is simple. They will reserve the gross majority of technology and standard of living improvements to a specially chosen group of people: the rulers and their supporters. Everyone else will have their resource consumption limited by regulated consumption quotas. Those who are out of work due to a disruption in the markets, will be given direct or indirect employment by the ruler’s dummy corporations or state affiliated branches of enforcement. An organization always needs enforcers. Even the private sector sees the work of “repo men” on occasion. There’s even a reality show by a similar name and subject.
    Whenever a new invention may come about, such as the washing machine, that allows the servant class more freedom and more idle time on their hands, producing a disruption in the demand for certain jobs, the ruling classes will see fit to limit the application of this new invention to only be used and produced by certain classes of people.

  • Mike Devx

    Ymar, you said: whereas smuggling and gray markets tend to trade in things to avoid taxation or to get things that are not normally allowed to the peasant class by consumption laws.
    These consumption laws will be known under the name “Sustainability”.

  • Ymarsakar

    Right now the MPAA is waging war on individuals the entire world over, attempting to protect their monopoly over musicians and other artists. It is a war waged with more money and effect than the war against international piracy.
    The internet has made it so that the old idea of property no longer applies. The monopoly and multi billion dollar industry that people built up over the last few decades, sees a threat in the form of bit torrents, video and music sharing, etc. It is not so much the lack of profit that they wish to avoid, as their profits are decreasing for a very different cause (incompatible ethics and aesthetics from producer to audience), but the fact that certain organizations like the MPAA suck out more than 50% of the profits generated by the individual creativity of artists. They are much like lawsuit lawyers that get 90% of the multi million dollar damages, without having to pay taxes on most of it. The middle men somehow gets more than the victim, producer, and government combined. No, what they truly fear is the ability of the internet to cut out the middle men entirely, by connecting the artist directly to their paying audience, and thus destroy the monopoly or even need for middlemen like the MPAA.
    The Left’s power is composed of many different members with their own interests and economic slave plantations. A key reason why people have yet to be effective in fighting the Left in this country is because they continue to see the Leftist alliance as a united organization of a single purpose and demographic. It really isn’t. The Leftist organization has members who actually hate each other and have equal and opposite goals, but they find it convenient to ally together to defeat America as a whole or in part, before they decide who gets what afterwards. Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt them to be able to use the Left’s power to keep their slaves on the plantation and to recapture escaped ones.
    Devx, as for sustainability, it probably will be.

  • David Foster

    Interesting example of an application of robotics here: sorting and sterilizing surgical tools.