Impact of Digital Technology on Jobs

March 12, 2011

United Methodist Church Lenten Program
Talk by Wayne Pearson
March 9, 2011

Lent is especially a good time to see if we are following Christ’s two commandments; namely to love God and to love your Neighbor. Today, I want to focus on those neighbors who were laid off a year or so ago and are having a very difficult time finding comparable employment. These persons were managers, technicians, excellent knowledge workers or skilled workers in manufacturing, or the trades. These persons are not ne’re-do-wells and they are in their prime. The problem is that there is little hope of their being rehired because the jobs they left have been replaced by robots, new digital technology or have been shipped overseas.

Since the first silicon transistor was produced by Texas Instruments in 1954, digital products have gradually been adopted in various industries and service organizations. For example, glass vacuum tubes for radios and televisions were replaced by the transistors, the pay phone found on nearly every corner was replaced by the cell phone, our cameras are now digital and X-rays and MRI’s are read in our doctors’ and dentists’ offices on their computer screens.

It seems that there is a new device or application nearly each week. The new devices include the hand-held Blackberry, the I-pod, the I-phone, I-pad, and a myriad of other devices. The newest applications include, Facebook, Twitter and texting with a cell phone. Stock market transactions are now performed at the speed of light.

Now, this is not the first time jobs have been replaced by newer methods for producing products or managing communications and paper work. But this time, the intrusion is pervasive, world-wide and adoption is rapid beyond anyone’s imagination.

Allow me to use the Kindle and its electronic book competitors to illustrate how fast and deeply a digital device can impact jobs.

Amazon introduced the first e-book, named Kindle, in November of 2007, a mere three years ago. Today there are at least three competitive e-books, and 50 million e-book readers. Over a million books have already been converted from paper to digital and Google and other Internet companies including Amazon, plan to covert all of the books ever published to digital as soon as they can. You can download a book in 60 seconds wherever there is wi-fi, such as at the Senior Center, the Country Porch or your own home. The Kindle can hold 3500 books and weighs less than a pound.

What really shocked me was when I learned last September that the town of Clearwater, Florida bought Kindles for each of their 2100 high school students for the current school year. All of the texts to be used have been down loaded into the Kindle. No more knap sacks for those kids!!

How does the e-book impact jobs? Well, let’s list the number of jobs that are in jeopardy or are being replaced as we speak. First, will be those related to making the paper book. These jobs include wood to make pulp, and pulp to make paper (think Johnsonburg). Also, those who print the paper, those who make the ink and the printers to print the paper, and those who bind the printed paper to make the book. That is a lot of jobs!!

But wait. If the digital book can be downloaded in your home, you don’t need to go to a store to buy the book. Did anyone notice that Borders filed for chapter eleven bankruptcy just this year? Finally, as though this isn’t enough, a local author reminded me, that he could be his own publisher by going direct to Amazon or one of the other digital e-book producers. Shocked as I was by this, it was only days later that an article appeared in the February 9, 2011 addition of USA Today under the title “Authors catch fire with self-published e-books”.

The changes due to digital technology, such as the e-book, are so deep and so rapid that it makes the Industrial Revolution of a century ago look like a walk in the park. And Guttenberg must be rolling over in his grave.

Sadly, most of those who are in their fifties who are being displaced by digital technologies are in dire straights. These persons, though no fault of their own, are being discarded because digital technology has entered every facet of the work place. They are under trained to compete with the new way their old companies will be operating, and are over trained for the jobs that might be available. They are too young to retire, and they have mortgages, car payments and other financial obligations commensurate with the lifestyle they have been living and expected to live until retirement. Many of these out of work have stopped looking for work! Millions of them have been collecting unemployment insurance for two years or more.

What bothers me a lot is that neither the media nor our Government mentions the plight of this group let alone talks or writes about doing anything about it save for periodically extending unemployment insurance. This is helpful, but because recipients are not required to work, to get training or go back to school, it permits the person’s skills to atrophy, thus making their problem worse.

There is little if anything we as individuals can do the change the conditions that have caused our neighbors plight. We can’t reverse or ban the technological factors that have caused this problem, but what we can do is to let these neighbors know that we are aware of what is happening to them and that we understand. Above all we need to offer them solace and our prayers and encourage them not to give up.

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Each Wednesday during Lent, the United Methodist Church of Smethport holds a devotional service that begins at 12:00 Noon. This is followed by a Lenten Lunch during which speakers give talks on topics that relate to Lent.

Lenten Speaker program:

March 9 — Wayne Pearson

March 16 — Harrijane Moore

March 23 — Barbara Maynard

March 30 — John Cleland

April 6 — Clarence Strabel

April 13 — Gail McBride

April 20 — Bill Miller


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