Planned Obsolesence #2: Future

This is a follow-up on my first post on Planned Obsolesence - the design principle of making things last shorter than they need in order to drive demand and increase production. There's some good discussion on the related Google+ post on both negatives and positives; e.g the increase in waste vs the extra cost of inventing/making materials that will last that long and providing support.

Today's post instead features something I've mused about before - automation of jobs. You see, as mentioned last post, we have the Man-in-the-White-Suit issues where making stuff that lasts longer negatively impacts both manufacturing companies (selling fewer things) and their employees (less stuff to get paid for making). With the increase in automation, we're still making as much stuff, but the employees don't get to make it.

It's easy to see why it's happening, but hard to know whether it's good or not - take content distribution for example. It used to be that an author would write a book, then work with publishers to sell it to distributors, who'd employ retail staff in a store to further distribute it to a reader. Online stores then arrived, to automate the browsing/purchasing step, and consumers flock there as it removes the cost of the retail staff step. Then eBook usage grows and authors start to avoid publishers, consumers avoid physical distribution, and soon the producer-to-consumer flow has very little overhead; great for both ends of the line, so of course that's where it ends up, hopefully with more content produced and consumed.

The downside now is all the people in the middle having nothing to do. Sure, the usual response is that these 'middle-men' are not contributing in any way, dinosaurs holding on as long and hard as possible (c.f the music industry, and all the SOPA/DRM debates) but it's also miners, checkout-chicks, librarians, ... gradually being automated away, but sadly, we don't have the long-lasting products that caused it in Alec Guinness' movie.

The next obvious question is what can be done about it? For that, I don't think anyone knows yet, otherwise it'd be done already. Assuming it continues, we need to somehow increase the amount of stuff for people to do. The obvious step is a better education system, leading to employment for educators, but also the likelihood that more will end up being able to produce goods or content (e.g. more artists/authors/...) - that said, there's enough trouble running the current system, so it's unlikely any time soon.

So what's left? Perhaps better taxation of the profits being made from automation - e.g. profits made from cutting jobs should in theory be partially used to create more, ideally in things that can't easily be automated but also don't require a functioning education system. I've always liked the much older european architecture, maybe it'd be worth getting people who's full-time job was making the more modern cheaper buildings look better? Graffiti murals (popular in my area), curated gardens, intricate detailing, all stuff seen in much older buildings but missing now due to cost/lack of time. 

I'm sure there are many other things - e.g. aged care is always in need of more resources but requires additional training - so suggestions are welcome though I don't think I know anyone who can make them happen (especially the funding bit...). And maybe I'm just a pessimist and it'll turn out there's still heaps of stuff to do. Oh, and if having long lasting products is no longer bad for (mechanical) employees, can I please have stuff now that lasts 50 years and is modular enough for incremental repairs / restyles?

(Note: Glebe mural image from this blog. Seems like it captures the detailing round the area really nicely!)


  1. A couple of things. The light-hearted and short one first (which should come as no surprise to you) which is a snippet of conversation in Coles while I was waiting in line for the one available cashier and about five self-checkouts were open.

    Coles employee: Would you like to use the self-serve? I can help you.
    Me: No, thank you. I like people.
    Man standing behind me: Good answer.
    Me to the man: I don't like robots! Besides, if we don't use these check-outs, where are high school and uni students going to get their first jobs?
    Man to me: Exactly right.

    And to your other point. Firstly, I don't think that self-publishing is a great thing. Editors and proof-readers should be considered obsolete just because anyone can write anything and put it on the internet or turn it into a book. They provide valuable feedback on structure, characterisation, vocabulary, length of paragraphs/sentences/chapters/whatever. They are highly trained professionals and I think that what they do *is* important. Proofreaders are also important - it is so easy to make typos and often you can't see it in your own writing. A different set of eyes comes in really handy. If anyone can publish, it means less quality control and makes it harder for readers to sort the good from the bad.

    There are, of course, good points about self-publishing, but I don't think that should be the *only* model.

    As for librarians and bookshop workers/owners - I don't think they should be considered obsolete either. Librarians in particular are gatekeepers of information, and navigators. There *is* a lot of information out there that anyone can access, and that's why librarians are important. They can help you find a path through the information minefield so that you find the information that is accurate and reliable. And sure, you might already know that, but not everyone has the advantage of your natural intelligence and your education and qualifications.

    Librarians help level the playing field when it comes to information and knowledge. They ensure that anyone, no matter what their level of income or education, can access the information they need. Sometimes it might be a simple Google search that will provide the answer, but sometimes it's more complicated, like how to navigate the ABS website or use databases to their full potential. Librarians perform more valuable functions than simply scanning books.

  2. I wish I could edit... I meant editors and proof-readers should *not* be considered obsolete. As I just demonstrated with my typo.

  3. Yeah, I don't think librarians are obsolete, in the same way that I don't think sales people in physical stores are obsolete - it's more that as they number of services they provide become more automated (e.g. I'd call search engines 'navigators' that 'help you find a path through the information minefield') then the demand will lessen, so fewer people will be librarians. There's probably a while until machines can answer any language query, but progress on that sort of stuff can be scarily quick.

    And yes, there's always an audience for people who like people (and hopefully that stays), but if new generations grow up ordering stuff online, it's likely the emotional attachment they have buying stuff from people will not be as much as yours.

    One example - telephone operators. When making a call, you used to interact with someone to help you; should we bring that profession back too?

    But yes, there's definitely going to be a lot of use in domain experts like librarians; I think travel agents are in a similar boat - you can do it yourself, but it's often better to get experts who know the system better. That said, I'd be interested to know if the number of people employed as travel agents is increasing or not too.

  4. Mm, search engines are only helpful if you know how to search, which is what I was saying before - not everyone does. Not everyone knows which websites are reliable, how to set up alerts, what databases are out there, and how to use boolean to make searching more efficient. Which is where librarians can help.

    I know that you're right in that the world is changing and more things *are* becoming automated, but I still think that fundamentally (most) humans are social creatures. We need interaction with other people, and sometimes the only time you will see another person is when you go and buy something or go outside or go to a library. It's all well and good to be efficient and automated, and there are a lot of advances and technologies in today's world that I would not want to take away, but I like making eye contact and smiling at strangers. I like polite chit chat with whoever is scanning the products I'm buying. I like randomly meeting new people and making new friends.

    I am not an island. I'm not one completely independent person who does not need anyone else to function. And a lot of these sorts of discussions (and you're not the only one I talk about these things with) make me a little bit sad, as though one day humans will become obsolete and all the world will be left with are robots. And that's a *good* thing. Which I don't think it is at all. Humans are lovely.

  5. Certainly, librarians can still help, but as mentioned above, there's less demand, so there'll be fewer librarians; and this trend will only reverse if people acknowledge that and come up with more useful human-based things for them to do [hopefully that'll happen, hence this blog post!].

    Humans are lovely, and noone should be forced to avoid strangers and polite chit-chat; but doing it in a supermarket seems unusual. Imagine if you buy stuff online, and then instead with the free time you gain, now spend longer at a gym, visit a coffee shop or a library, or form a discussion group with people interested in what you are [e.g. movie club, baking group, watching live sport...] - I feel it'd lead to much more rewarding social interactions if I'm doing it with people interested in what I am, or facing the same struggles.


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