Letters to LIFE
reprinted with permission
Technology, Jobs and GLI dialogue
A LIFE member (C. L'Hirondelle) had an in person discussion with a professional technology person in the fall of 2005 which continued by email. The point was to find out what affects new RFID (Radio Frequency ID) technology would have on jobs in the service sector. Permission was granted by the professional to post the following email discussion to the LIFE website if they remain anonymous. The technology professional will be referred to as Tech Pro in the following dialogue.
But first, some back ground information on RFID tags:
Scientific American article, Jan 2004 which stated:
"Already common in security systems and tollbooths, radio frequency identification tags and readers stand poised to take over many processes now accomplished by human toil."
USA Today article, 2003
"think of RFID tags as high-tech bar codes... [they] only need to come within 10-30 feet of a reader and don't have to be pointing a certain way."
European RFID Centre
Canadian RFID Centre
RFID simple explanation of the technology
Letter #1 to Tech Pro:
Re: our discussion, I would be very much interested to hear further on RFID tags and displacement of cashiers. on a related note, I was recently told how there are more self-service checkouts at Home Depot here in Victoria. C. L'Hirondelle
Reply #1 from Tech Pro:
I think the issue of using RFID tags in retail stores is a separate one from self-service checkouts. Self-service checkouts exist today, and they use UPC bar code scanners to let customers check out their own goods. RFID could do the same task as the UPC bar code, so I don't see a difference there.
What RFID tags CAN do that is different from UPC bar codes is help people with vision disabilities to do their shopping with a much greater degree of independence. They can do this in two ways:
1) They can let visually impaired people know what's in each aisle of a store. Just as we see the signs describing the general category of goods in each aisle (baking needs, sugar, spices), blind folks could use an RFID reader to get the same information. Further, as they head down an aisle they're interested in, an RFID reader could tell them more specific details about the products at each location on the shelf.
2) RFID tags are increasingly being used as electronic cash. This has huge implications for visually impaired people, who can't tell denominations of currency without help. They can have their own RFID tag "charged up" at the beginning of the month with an amount of currency that they feel they'll need to spend that month (or week, or day, or however often they like). At the point of sale, they can pay for the goods with their RFID tag, and the system automatically deducts the cost of the goods from the balance on their RFID tag.
So, while I don't see their use related to displacement of cashiers, I do see them making life easier for people with disabilities.
Letter #2 to Tech Pro from LIFE:
I think you might be thinking that I'm opposed to RFID tags, or other forms of automation. I'm not and when things are easier for people with disabilities they are easier for us all (as we are all TABs - temporarily able bodied).
My point is that it would only make sense to pursue all sorts of technology innovations if there were also a movement for a guaranteed livable income so that people would not be competing with machines for jobs. If jobs are societies main way to distribute the resources that we all need to stay healthy and alive, then automation would be seen as a threat. Yet it would be stupid to do away with all machines so that humans could have more jobs.
I know the argument that tech progress opens up more areas for employment, but then what is the point of trying to increase efficiency if the stated goal is just to try and make people work for work's sake? Of course no business would pursue automation if they thought it wouldn't save them money.
" the economic goal of any nation as of any individual,
is to get the greatest results with the least effort... It is for this reason that men use their ingenuity to develop
100,000 labour saving inventions. ... The progress of civilization has meant the reduction
of its employment not its increase." Henry Hazlett, Economics in One Lesson, 1946.
There are other technology people who are very interested in guaranteed income for these reasons:
James Hughes: Getting paid in our jobless future,
James Hughes: Embrace the end of work (Discussion Paper 81 on the US BIG website)
This information is from our automation page:
Society has a techno-moral conflict. 21st century technology with the 16th century work ethic morality of John Calvin. What logical reason is there for work just for work's sake? Look forward to hearing from you or any other technology people on these issues.
Reply #2 from Tech Pro:
Re: "My point is that it would only make sense to pursue
all sorts of technology innovations if there were also a movement for a guaranteed livable income so that people would not be competing with machines for jobs."
Please don't take offense, but I don't see how the two are related. Technological innovations are persued because they make our lives easier, increase efficiency, and decrease our misery by taking away dull, routine, mind-numbing tasks. Roll the clock back 75 years and look at Henry Ford's assembly lines. Hours were long, vacations were few, the work was dull, repetitive, and workers suffered under conditions that would not be allowed in today's WCB-ruled factories.
Robots in today's modern car factories do the dull repetitive jobs and free humans to do what we do best - think, share ideas, and be creative. We enjoy work that is much more rewarding than it was in the past because we have machines that do much of the hard labour for us that used to take up much of our day.
Re: "If jobs are societies main way to distribute the resources that we all need to stay healthy and alive, then automation would be seen as a threat. Yet it would be stupid to do away with all machines so that humans could have more jobs."
I don't see automation as a threat to jobs. Automation increases productivity and temporarily displaces workers who are doing mindless drudgery. Those workers are free to find more rewarding jobs in a society that is incrementally more advanced. Automation makes goods and services more affordable so that people living at or below the poverty line can make their few dollars stretch further.
Re: "I know the argument that tech progress opens up more areas for employment, but then what is the point of trying to increase efficiency if the stated goal is just to try and make people work for work's sake?"
Where is it stated that the goal that is to make people work for work's sake? I don't know any employer who hires workers just to give them a job. Workers are expected to bring a return on their employer's investment. If they don't, either they'll be fired, or the company will eventually be bankrupt.
I'm not sure what the ultimate goal is here. If it's to reduce poverty, I'm completely on your side. If it's to reduce the overconsumption of earth's precious resources, I'm with you all the way. I just don't see how the guaranteed income approach meets these goals. Respectfully yours, Tech Pro
Letter #3 to Tech Pro:
Thank you for writing back. One of our organization's purposes is
to create dialogue on the subject of guaranteed income. With that in mind, I would like to ask if I could post what you wrote to me on our letters section of our web site. This could either be with your name or you could be an anonymous writer I would like to respond to your points and would like to invite other LIFE members to do the same. Let me know, C. L'Hirondelle
Reply from Tech Pro:
You may post the content of this email to your website provided my name is anonymous.
Note from LIFE: Refer to the writings of Marshall Brain and Dr. James Hughes (see links above) which refute the points raised by Tech Pro's that technological change does not necessitate a GLI for displaced workers because "Those workers are free to find more rewarding jobs in a society that is incrementally more advanced."
Email LIFE if you want to join the dialogue.