I recently heard a conference speaker make the statement, “The slowest rate of change you will experience in your whole life is today.” In that single statement he summed up the fears of an entire generation. Since the early 1990s we have seen enormous change wrought by the appearance of the World Wide Web and its associated technologies. The rapid pace of innovation has impacted not just what we once quaintly called “the computer industry” but has also jarred retailing, distribution, communications and consumer fashion off their foundations.
Entire industries have been rendered obsolete over the span of just a few years. The dislocations extend to employees and contract workers who had made a comfortable living and expected to continue throughout their lives. There is nothing quite so discouraging as to walk through the door of your home on a Friday evening carrying the contents of your desk in a box. Being placed in this situation tempts one to conclude this is the end of everything.
For the purposes of this article I propose to ignore the human pain and suffering that occurs after traumatic change. This is not out of disinterest, but rather out of seeking to understand how to deal with technological change through examining its history.
Innovation since the Industrial Revolution
Periods of dramatic, dislocating change have been a feature of our civilization since the Industrial Revolution. Whole generations of craftsmen were impacted by the water wheel and the steam engine. The automation of production threw the craftsmen in the cottage industries out of work.
The introduction of the internal combustion engine, among other things, rapidly automated the farming business and threw generations of farm workers out of their jobs. The development of mechanical tabulating equipment replaced roomfuls of clerks in every business that adopted the new technology. The rise of microcomputers such as the IBM Personal Computer in the early 1980s doomed the minicomputer industry and consolidated the mainframe manufacturers. The job losses were astounding.
The rise of e-commerce has taken distressed businesses such as Sears and J. C. Penney and put them into serious trouble. When businesses like this fail, they put tens of thousands of workers on the street. And this disruption will continue.
Innovation Prediction for the Future
Looking to the future, consumers are watching the development of modern electric cars with avid interest. But because electric cars have hundreds or thousands fewer parts than a conventional automobile, this disruption will wash through the supply chain like a tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost.
There is widespread panic about the rise of automation in the fast food industry. Kiosks and smartphone apps have replaced clerks for order taking in many restaurants. We will soon see robots delivering prepared meals to consumers. Even more jobs will be lost.
The Good News
A careful reading of the previous paragraphs can easily lead you to assume we are living in a developing dystopia. Things must be really bad right now. Something needs to be done. Right?
Wrong. What I have done is summarize all the bad news. As of the spring of 2018, the unemployment levels in the country are the lowest they have been since the great recession of 2007–2009. In fact, the unemployment levels for some minorities in this country are the lowest they have been in a generation. The businesses that utilize relatively unskilled labor are now begging for workers. That is something to think about. The people who are the most vulnerable now have a much easier time finding work. Granted, some of the work is thoroughly unpleasant. The pay is not always great. It may not match anyone’s career goals. But, as they say, it’s a job.
Technological disruption is rarely the cause of widespread unemployment. When hundreds of thousands of workers are abruptly thrown out of work, it is invariably because of a financial panic, ill considered monetary policy, or restrictive trade policy. Another cause is governmental regulation, but that is outside of the scope of this discussion.
The upheavals caused by the arrival of new tech generate far more opportunities than they destroy. We can make this statement confidently because history has always borne this out. Let’s follow a chain of events as an example.
The monied class in England invested in water and steam powered factories that produced woven goods vastly cheaper than the self-employed craftsman and his wife with a loom in their living room. Over the course of a decade, an entire class of jobs disappeared. Those who could adapt (which practically speaking meant everyone who didn’t want to starve), took jobs in the factories. And factories popped up everywhere there was water power or steam power. And with the rise of factories, people thought of new things to manufacture which led to more factories and more jobs.
A majority of the jobs probably paid as well or better than people experienced before. They could afford to purchase items they couldn’t afford before. Their lives got better. A rising middle class began to pay attention to such things as risk, leading to the rise of the life insurance industry. This created new jobs—the business owner needed someone to sell the life insurance policies and then hire clerks to file the policies and record payments. The insurance businesses began generating huge amounts of cash, which in turn stimulated the rise of the investment industry.
These new businesses had to manage large amounts of information. They were tracking accounts and financial transactions for more and more people. This eventually led to the development of the tabulation equipment industry. The man who invented the first successful tabulation machine started a company to produce the machine, and this company eventually became known as IBM.
Businesses continued to grow because of that original industrial revolution. IBM built factories to produce tabulating machines and created tens of thousands of jobs. The growth of commerce eventually strained the ability of the tabulating industry to keep up and (along with World War II) drove the development of electronic computing.
The rest, as we say, is history. Along each step of the way, the disruption destroyed jobs. But it also created vast new opportunities. And along the way the pace of disruption increased. With the arrival of the web, the pace of change increased exponentially. Within the space of twenty years things changed so dramatically even older people do not remember what it was like to live without an internet connection, or a cell phone, or streaming video, and so on.
Human beings do not like change. Change threatens people. Change is uncomfortable. Yet as believers we must recognize that change offers opportunity. We have rich resources for Bible study and instruction on the internet, and much of it is free. We can communicate with other believers around the globe instantaneously. Foreign mission opportunities abound and are affordable for those who want to give their vacation time to the Lord.
So we cannot always determine whether disruptive change is bad or good. It simply is. The real challenge is learning to deal with it and using it to our advantage and for the advantage of God’s people.