Can computers help reverse falling employment?

Andy Oram
September 29, 2003

Information technologies are implicated in a worldwide and world-historic crisis: falling employment. As the wealth of nations increases, those who have lost jobs or had to accept menial ones over the past three years are left with only a wealth of culprits to blame: financial scandals, wars, tax cuts, stagnation, etc. But there is little doubt that a large contributor to rising unemployment is rising productivity, which in turn can be laid to advances in computerization and communications. I can no longer avert my eyes from the consequences of the field I have chosen, and no one else who programs, administers, or promotes the use of computers can morally avert their eyes either.

The gigantic combine of capitalism has always obsessively pursued efficiency, and computers make the pursuit almost child play. Capitalism has succeeded in sowing a cornucopia of innovation up and down society. But capitalism is atrocious at distributing the fruits of innovation. Each labor-saving device means the idling of thousands of people, wasting their years of experience, rigorous training, and practical insights.

People who work with computers remain fixated on efficiency. Every week I hear the debates over whether businesses should use Linux or Windows, the commentators always wrangling over which systems will save the most money. I find this battle increasingly tiresome. I'm more interested in finding the systems that will put more people to work.

I have a sinking feeling that we can't wait for the next upturn in the employment cycle, as optimists would have us do. I sense that this upturn may never come, unless people in a position to influence innovation make a conscious effort to involve the worker. Anyone who writes programs or plans system deployment should start thinking, "What can I do to bring average people back into the process of wealth creation?"

It is not my goal to place restrictions on investment or innovation; it is only to present a new way of thinking that some people may find stimulating. I am simply stretching a new canvas on which others may spread their oils; I am not providing a frame for the canvas. Just to illustrate what's possible, though, I offer a few tentative suggestions.

Write free software for individual industries

A lot of programmers are pounding their treadmills in the free software movement in order to create pleasant desktop experiences and improve general-purpose applications. These help everybody and are worthwhile in themselves, but think how society might benefit if a few hundred of these programmers took a trip down to small, local, cutting-edge businesses and asked the proprietors, "What would you like on your computers to make you more productive?" And think of what would happen if the programmers went on to write industry-specific software that solved immediate, felt problems and distributed it for free.

Businesses can afford to pay for software. But small businesses cannot pay as much as one would think, and specialized packages can be incredibly expensive. Proprietary packages also suffer from limitations, bugs, and lack of guarantees that they will meet user needs. Free software opens more possibilities, and perhaps can drive the expansion of job-creating businesses.

Make devices more responsive and easy to customize

Personal devices and cellular phones are growing in power and complexity, particularly as Java applications become available, but they still don't provide the flexibility to augment the ordinary user at work (as visionary Douglas Engelbart first suggested in the 1960s). I would like a computer to plan ahead for me, track things that are too much trouble for me to remember, and combine inputs to suggest efficient courses of action. My desktop computer has software to do some of that, but my cell phone does not. And soon I'll be able to have a dozen devices in my office with the hardware capability to augment my intelligence--I'd like to have the software capability as well.

In the previous item I suggested very specialized software. But very generalized software on cheap, available devices can also be liberating. I am reminded of the power that desktop publishing brought to ordinary writers in the 1980s, a power that made a social force out of the same Apple Computer that is currently doing innovative things to make a mass movement out of another medium with even more relevance and social impact--video. It's nearly impossible to overestimate the advances that users can make when they are presented with flexible, open-ended technologies. Maybe it can make more of them into productive members of society.

A key part of the solution is easy scripting languages. Current languages always seem to develop tangled syntax; they look easy enough for "Hello, world" applications, but as soon as you start to work with real data and serious tasks into which you can sink your teeth, they slap on braces and other indigestible characters. I want a scripting language that is really simple enough for a kid to learn and powerful enough to run a small business with.

Create a truly public key infrastructure

People have been trying to get corporate communications and negotiations online for years, and probably the biggest beneficiaries of such a move would be small businesses and individual contractors. After all, who finds it hardest to pay travel costs and conference room fees for expensive legal help?

The move online has been held up by deep and serious problems in the processes for validating users and dealing with such issues as certificate revocation and non-repudiation--social aspects of security, or what I call the social infrastructure for technology. But perhaps we're asking too much. Perhaps the average user could be happy with a less universal and less ambitious system.

When you want to contract with some professional or service, it might be enough for you to verify that he or she is a dues-paying member in good standing in some association. Individual associations could provide authentication services for this. Perhaps a contract could be sealed by the combination of recorded voice messages and a digital signature on a computer file. We have to be flexible and creative.

Those ideas are here just to get people thinking. We don't have all the time in the world. Already, educated professionals are griping about jobs moving to other countries, a form of heightened national and racial tension that not only bring their own horrific consequences but dampen the spirit of exploration that can raise everyone's opportunities. And meanwhile governments, businesses, venture capitalists (whose wealth may well have come thanks to the current skewed economy), universities, and NGOs seem paralyzed in the face of this economic disaster.

There are precedents for this type of thinking. In the 1970s, a movement called participatory design started in Scandinavia to develop technologies that enhanced and strengthened workers' skilled contributions, instead of eviscerating them. I have written about other elements of the program suggested here in earlier articles:

But a few good examples will promote change more than all the talk in the world.

(This article was originally published on the O'Reilly Media web site. The article generated a discussion on the Slashdot tech site.)

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