“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
Where have you been? It's alright we know where you've been.
You've been in the pipeline, filling in time.”
We talk a lot about illegal immigrants taking our jobs (most of which the average American won’t do except under duress anyway). We scream about our jobs being outsourced to other countries where workers are forced to work harder for less. However, there is another, more insidious, factor at play here, one that has already taken away many of our jobs, and one that will certainly eliminate many more in the years to come. Should the White House be alerted to this threat? No need: they already know. Patrick Thibodeau, writing for Computerworld Magazine and citing Federal economic advisors, claims, “If you earn roughly between $41,000 and $83,000 ($20 to $40 a hour), there is a median probability of 31% that your job will be automated.” He goes on to alert us that the “probability of being replaced by robotic systems is as high as 83% if you earn less than $20 an hour. Those who earn more than $40 an hour face a negligible chance of being replaced by automation.”
It doesn’t stop there. Erik Sherman, writing for Fortune, weighs in with the results of a 2013 Oxford University study that finds “47 percent of total U.S. jobs could be automated and taken over by computers by 2033.” We’re not just talking about factory workers here, as Sherman points out how robotics and similar technologies have already affected job numbers in white collar fields like medicine (anesthesiologists, surgeons, and diagnosticians) and law.
In an article for The Huffington Post, Stowe Boyd, the lead researcher for the future of work at Gigaom Research, asks the question we need to pose: When Robots Take Over Most Jobs, What Will Be the Purpose of Humans? In the article, Boyd makes an important distinction between job types so that we might understand what occupations are at stake. “An occupation is routine if its main tasks require following explicit instructions and obeying well-defined rules. These tend to be middle-skilled jobs,” he informs us. “If the job involves flexibility, problem solving or creativity, it's considered nonroutine. Job polarization occurs when employment moves to nonroutine occupations, a category that contains the highest—and lowest—skilled jobs.”
In other words, it’s largely what we consider today’s middle-class jobs that are going the way of the dinosaur. What that leaves us is underpaid, disrespected service/manual labor jobs at one end and highly specialized professions at the other. What remnants of the middle class will survive, SHOULD survive, as we move into a new world fraught with anxiety, war, global warming, diminishing resources, outrageous overpopulation, and more? What skills are there that humans still can do—and presumably will continue to do—better than machines?
The ironic answer is that among these are several of the least respected but most important jobs in our culture. These include, first and foremost, teachers. Rather than respect the nearly impossible job teachers do as they try to satisfy the multitudinous demands of, frequently, irrational parents, politicians, and students, we instead pay them as little as possible, belittle their incredible efforts (we who have no freaking idea about how hard it is to teach classroom after classroom of troubled, poorly-supported, undisciplined students), and blame them for all of the ills we associate with our students’ poor performance in school.
We should include in this group that should be better respected and supported in the years to come our skilled laborers, like electricians, plumbers, and HVAC technicians. We should include those who bake artisan breads and cakes, chefs who prepare food from farm to table, brew masters who craft and dispense beers and other libations locally, and carpenters who produce unique, artful tables, benches, and bookshelves that can’t be purchased at IKEA. We should include artists of all kinds. I could go on and on, but I’ll leave you with one last group that has never enjoyed the appreciation of the U.S. culture in the way it has elsewhere: writers.
I mean the few real journalists who remain, those that deal in substantiated facts and primary research rather than ignorant opinion and nonsense. And I do mean those who write literary novels of the sort that rarely are read these days. I mean essayists, I mean short story writers, and I mean, especially, poets.
Jim Morrison wrote, “If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it's to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel.” As we move deeper into a future where we will be less and less sure about what people are for, it seems almost inevitable that—unless we address it head on with vigor and self-consciousness—we will suffer from even greater fear and anxiety than we do now. Who among us is NOT on some medication—prescription or otherwise—taken to reduce our anxiety, our feeling of impending doom, of shrinking into some insignificant blemish on the cold, shiny machine the world is becoming? We need to feel bigger. We need to attach our minds to the open spaces of possibility and human engagement beyond the marketplace.
Even as university presidents and trustees, even as governors and senators and representatives blinded by outside money and propaganda, even as the small among us continue to insist higher education and tax dollars all should follow the market, we need to remember that the market is a machine made of machines. It’s computers and slot machines and mechanized factories farting out stuff they insist is sustenance. We need to hacksaw out of this metal mentality a human space, we need to deliver ourselves from the limitations placed upon us by the marketplace, and poetry is one way we can begin. We need to respect poetry more and disrespect the machine in equal measure.