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The sky is falling because of technological change

If you read my post from a while back about how all economic news seems to be interpreted as bad, you’ll love this one. I am increasingly seeing seemingly intelligent folks explaining how the relentless march of technological innovation is very bad for us. Here’s a beauty by a learned professor on how technology will yield 50% unemployment in 30 years.

Let’s step back for a minute.

First, no one knows what is going to happen in 30 years. If you think they do, then just watch Back to the Future and its sequel again, and see what they predicted. (As a Cub fan, I really wanted the Cubs to win the 2015 World Series–and the hoverboards we are seeing don’t come anywhere near what was predicted.)

But maybe you put more stock in our learned professor than movie writers. Fair enough. The basis of his unemployment prediction is that computers in 30 years will be able to do every job that people do now. The result of this, beyond 50% unemployment, could be world revolution, such as the similar upheavals that surrounded the industrial revolution.

That’s his story and he is sticking to it.

But, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, really. Sure, we could see societal upheavals based on technological change, but I haven’t noticed that the world has ever been all that placid for very long, so if the world is a volatile place, then there will always be something going on that we can point to as a reason.

That’s not really my biggest problem with this prediction. I don’t think anyone believes that improved technology will lead to world peace (even if some believe it will lead to world war). My problem with this analysis is how limited it assumes the human imagination to be.

Let’s assume that the professor is correct that computers will, in fact, in 30 years be able to perform every single job that people do today. The idea that there won’t be any new ideas for new jobs for people to do seems ludicrous on the face of it.

I mean, the industrial revolution seemingly ushered in a time where most of the jobs performed by hand in the 1600’s were automated by the 1900’s. But think about how many jobs we have now that did not exist in the 1600’s–or even the 1900’s.

It is undeniable that automation of any kind causes disruption. If you were a blacksmith, your market for horseshoes took a dive even while the new profession of gas station attendant took off. But it is wrong to focus only on the losers in the technological shift and not leave the possibility that there are winners.

Despite the horrific description of world revolution from the industrial revolution, is it true that unemployment is vastly higher than before? I don’t think so. Now, could the professor be right? Sure, he could. I don’t have a crystal ball that reads into the 2040’s either. But he hasn’t given me much of an argument to convince me so far.

As I look out at the world of marketing, I don’t see the gloom and doom outcome. Yes, there are many marketing jobs that are going away that are based in traditional media, but digital marketing is booming. It’s possible that human beings won’t be needed to select ads or other content for audiences, because data analysis does a much better job of it. But who will invent the new ways to analyze the data? If the machines can invent that, too, who will invent the new ways to improve the machines?

I am always wary of the idea that technology will somehow solve all the problems we have, because we human beings have a great way of coming up with new problems once others are put to rest. That’s called progress. So, maybe we should at least accept the possibility that human beings might have more they can aspire to than hanging onto work that computers can do better. That’s true for marketing jobs and every other kind, too.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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