Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Panic Now

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I was wandering around on City Journal this morning when I found this:


It’s not anything that hasn’t been said on this blog before, or even anything I haven’t responded to before.  It’s distinct only that it comes from the American Conservative, while observations of this kind here tend to come from people on the left.

The observation is, in my opinion, both true and of no particular  importance, and it goes as follows.

We’re getting really really good at designing software that can substitute for human beings at all kinds of tasks.

These tasks include not only the typical targets of automation–work of brute force, or work done by people (like fast food cashiers) who cannot be assumed to hold even the simple skill level required to make change for your five–but increasingly jobs considered to be “middle class.”  These include, as the article states, the basic grunt work of research in law firms and the kind of “journalism” that results in newspaper pieces that read “The Red Sox beat the Yankees at Yankee Stadium last night 3-2.”

I said at the beginning of this post that I think these things are true–these things are actually happening, and will probably accelerate, and take over more and more of what we now think of as “middle class” or (as the article put it) “middle skills” jobs.

I will give this article one point against the liberal expositions of the same thing: it doesn’t engage in the kind of frenzied panic and commands to freak out now that are a staple of progressive articles (and FB posts, and…) about this kind of thing.

I see this as a plus because I, myself, am not panicking, and it’s not because I think it’s impossible that my own work will be taken over by computers.

Okay–not impossible, but probably unlikely. There are many different kinds of books in this world, and the kind of thing I like to read is unlikely ever to be written by a computer, unless we advance to the point something like Data.

I can see an economy where certain kinds of best sellers are generated by formula and computer, thereby choking off traditional publication for riskier kinds of books.

But I don’t have to look deep into the future or posit the existence of supercomputers to see my way into that future.  It’s happening now.  Most of the major publishers have been taken over by large media conglomerates who expect returns on investment in the range of 17%.   Books never did return much more on investment than 4-6%.

The result is a shrinking traditional marketplace, bookstores failing right and left, dropped authors without number, and the distinct feeling that publishing as we know it has come to an end.

And yet, here I am, not panicking, and it really, really, really isn’t because I have a gazillion dollars in the bank.  I don’t.

Why I’m not panicking, is, I think, the result of a number of things.

The first is that I never, ever expected that I was likely–never mind entitled–to live in a world of safety and security. 

For whatever reason, I always did assume, from the beginning, that life would always be a risk, that there would be no place to rest, not even in “retirement.”

Of course, I’ve also never been interested in retirement, so there’s that.

But the sudden appearance of this particular risk doesn’t hit me as hard as it hits other people because it just didn’t surprise me.  I’ve always expected it to be, to quote Roseanne Roseannadanna, “always something.”

That, however, is a matter of temperament, and temperament (if you believe Steven Pinker) is mostly a matter of genetics.  So let me chalk that one up to luck.

I have other reasons not to be panicking, and those come down to common sense.

In the first place, these things have happened before.  The proverbial buggy whip makers lost their livelihoods, as did the hand weavers and seamstresses who fueled the original Luddite movement. 

It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t a holocaust of people starving in the streets, even though “social programs” were virtually nonexistant and “poor relief” was poor without leading to much relief.

For all the fear and panic, people did eventually find other means of livelihood and life went on.  We are not poorer because the machines came into do the brute work once done by hand.  The end result was not less available employment but more.

In the second place, I know that an economy requires buyers as well as sellers.  The fantasy that Big Evil Corporation X will take over all the jobs, reduce them to wages that don’t allow a person to eat, and then triumphantly march away with all the money is delusional.

And it’s delusional on more than one front.  The world so described, for instance, would be one in which the stockholders and upper management of Big Evil Corporation X  would have nobody to sell their product to, and therefore no way to make money.

At some point, if rich people want to stay rich, something would have to give.

The only other alternative would be for Big Evil Corporation X to reduce itself to artisan status–to make one product at a time, custom, for only the richest customers.

But although that would always be possible, we’ve been there before.  Rich people weren’t richer then.  They were poorer.  And there were a lot fewer of them.

The next thing is that, given history, what should happen next is that the people released from the drudge work by computers should start to find other things to do and other ways to make a living.

This doesn’t mean that everybody who tries will succeed–in fact, under the best of conditions, most people won’t.

But little by little, day by day, week by week, year by year, a new work landscape will emerge out of the changing conditions of the old.

I’ll admit that it’s likely to take longer this time than it did the last, because we’ve put up a lot of barriers not only to people starting new businesses but growing to the point where they can challenge existing large firms.

And we’re made even worse off because both the Democrats and the Republicans collaborate in this attempt to protect large corporations from competition–the Republicans by simply doing it and the Democrats by promoting “solutions” that actually make things worse (any company with over 50 employees must…).

Even so, the change will happen and the new landscape will emerge, and it’s beyond my comprehension what people think they can do that would make it work otherwise.

Reality is what it is.  It can’t be denied.

And if traditional publishing becomes a set of conglomerates producing computer-generated novels, I’ll write my own, publish them myself as e books, and see where I can go from there.

Written by janeh

June 4th, 2014 at 11:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Panic Now'

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  1. I was going to say, Jane, you have a large and still popular back list. If you could get your ebook rights back and self-publish ala Joe Konrath, you’d clean up. Seriously. The guy is making over a million a year with 47 books in digital. You must have nearly that many, among all your series/pen names.

    Plus you could write a few stand-alones.


    4 Jun 14 at 12:09 pm

  2. I’ve lived most of my life in an area which has an economy based on primary industries, which in turn means frequent severe ups and downs in response to the international economic changes plus, sometimes, the complete collapse of an important sector due to, well, books have been written and there are lots of villains.

    Personally, I’ve always managed to keep a roof over my head (largely due to NOT being employed directly in the extraction of primary resources), although I had relatives who assured me I’d have done much better if I left for greener pastures as so many did.

    But, as Jane says, change does come. It’s not always pretty – communities die, families split up, people despair over the poor options available, there’s often the loss of home, community and the sense of identity some people get from their work. Some people do well – even better than they were doing – some do far worse, especially if they happen to be at certain ages when the blow hits. Middle-aged people with few transferable skills, little opportunity (“too old”) for jobs after re-training, and dependent children seem the worst off. A few will be driven by despair to suicide. But most struggle through, endure their losses and continue with their lives.

    Maybe I grew up knowing that economic situations are temporary. I remember my mother commenting when I was a child that there wasn’t much point into putting money into some expensive addition to a community building, a church, I think, since the local mine was expected to last only another, oh, ten years I think it was then.

    Other people seemed to think that because the life expectancy of the mine had been fairly short since the 1930s and it was still there, there was no need to worry. But of course, the mine and all those jobs are now long gone, and life moves on.


    4 Jun 14 at 12:33 pm

  3. The fantasy that Big Evil Corporation X will take over all the jobs, reduce them to wages that don’t allow a person to eat, and then triumphantly march away with all the money is delusional.

    Somehow I find myself thinking of the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt and the peasant tax base. Or Saddam Hussein. Governments can do it but I don’t think corporations can.


    4 Jun 14 at 7:37 pm

  4. People keep telling me that THIS wave or automation, or the NEXT one, certainly, will lead to mass unemployment, but so far, unemployment rates seem to have more to do with prosperity and the welfare state than to the adoption of labor-saving devices–and there is no serious movement to, say, ban mechanical harvesters and bring back all those jobs as farm hands.

    But that’s no particular comfort the middle-aged when the new technology hits. The old retire, the young learn new skills, but always there’s some middle-aged shoemaker with a family to support when the factories halve the price of shoes. It would be nice to find a way to cushion the blow for such people, but it’s tricky. When they piped water to Athens, such concerns led to the Society of the Descendants of the Water-carriers of the Pireus. For all I know, they may still be paying them. Perhaps some day we can find a way to do this without creating a hereditary class of useless mouths.

    As for automating creativity–as opposed to aiding research–I have my doubts. For all Jane’s scorn of “best-sellers” I don’t see a computer replacing Margaret Mitchell, Ayn Rand, Tolkien or even George R.R. Martin. But if the work is purely mechanical, that’s another story. There might be real hope for automated writing of partisan political treatises and “campaign books.” I would welcome such a development myself. It might lead to greater accuracy, and superior prose. Or does someone think the new Hillary “memoir” will advance the cause of history or improve our understanding of politics?

    Me for the machine.


    4 Jun 14 at 8:03 pm

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