A few weeks ago I ran into a friend who works at one of the companies creating driverless cars.
“Oh man,” he told me, “this whole thing is happening way sooner than anyone thinks. Two to three years, max, until driverless cars are everywhere in the Bay Area.”
The mark that driverless cars will have on society can’t be understated. Ultimately they’ll lead to far fewer crashes and fatalities while also eliminating traffic congestion. But what’s not being discussed nearly enough is impact driverless technology will have on the job force. People who currently drive for things like Uber and Lyft are already on the fringes of employment.
Whether it’s someone in their 70s who still needs income but can’t get hired at other jobs, or it’s a younger person who’s full time work just doesn’t pay enough to make their ends meet, these gig economy jobs are helping keep millions of people afloat (Yes, there are many issues with gig economy, but that’s for another article.)
With the advent of driverless cars, over a million Americans will be losing a job.
Similarly, companies are currently working on revolutionizing the trucking industry by making driverless big rigs. A self-driving truck has already done a 2,400-mile Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Fla. trip and Uber’s self-driving trucks are already hauling freight in Arizona.
While on one hand, this will ultimately make the trucking industry far safer, on the other, it also will eventually put 3.5 million truckers out of work.
The horrific irony about all of this that Tr*mp got elected, partially, by promising to bring back coal mining jobs, of which there were only 177,500 in 1985. That’s a joke considering that automating cars and trucks will put 4.5 million Americans out of work.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. As I mentioned in my column a few months ago about Universal Basic Income, a recent Oxford study predicts that 47 percent of jobs in developed countries will disappear in the next 25 years.
All this illuminates a few very important things that are pretty ominous for, well, …most of us.
The first is that the tech ideal of “move fast and break things” is cute until really important things, like access to housing, healthcare and a job, are broken. Part of what makes the tech industry amazing is that, at its core is the question, “Can we do this?”
What gets lost, though, is that not nearly enough of these companies are also asking, “Should we do this?”
They rarely take into account the social impact of their creations. When you have brilliant young people with limited world experience being funded by venture capitalists whose main concern is making fuckloads of money, there aren’t enough grownups in the room to say things like, “Hey, don’t you think helping people rent out their places might lead to greedy landlords evicting tenants and turning properties into hotels?” or “Hey, what’s going to happen to the 4.5 million people whose jobs disappear when we automate cars and trucks?”
This gets compounded by the fact that technology and its impact moves much faster than legislation. By the time lawmakers realize the implication of a new technology and try to create laws to protect those getting burned, the tech companies have so much money that they can pay the best lobbyists and lawyers to fight for them. By this point, a handful of people make fortunes, an even smaller amount get to add to their already existing mountains of money, and some PR people are paid to say, “Sorry we didn’t know that would happen. We were busy moving fast and breaking stuff.”
We’ve seen this play out over and over again with Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, Twitter, Facebook and scores of others.
The other issue is that as a nation and a society, we are woefully unprepared for the coming jobpocalypse. The regular working people on the right have been so heinously misled that they are worried about immigrants taking the jobs they don’t want instead of focusing on robots taking the jobs they already have. If a boss gave your job to an immigrant because he could pay the immigrant less, and you’re mad at the immigrant instead of the boss, you’re an idiot. On top of that, that same boss is soon gonna give the job to a robot and nobody is gonna have a job.
If Oxford is right, and 47 percent of the jobs that exist now won’t in 25 years, this country will be a handful of gated communities surrounded by shanties as far as the eye can see. Our current government on both the left and the right have spent decades empowering the corporate greed that has gotten us here. They don’t even want to give you healthcare, let alone help you figure out what to do when your job is eaten by a robot. The speed of technology combined with the slowness of legislation and the federal government’s empowerment of corporate welfare are setting us up for a disastrous future and our government is terribly unequipped for.
So how do we stop this not too distant terrordome of existence from becoming a reality?
You can sit around and hope that working hard for a company – one that will eventually trade you in for a few lines of code – will somehow save you (it won’t – you’ll still be in the shanty town). Or you can get involved with organizations working on a future where everyone is entitled to healthcare, housing, income,and education. If that sounds like a good plan, join the Democratic Socialists of America. I’ll see you there.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.