21 August 2010

You Won't Have to Lift a Finger

One of my favorite database sites is simple-talk, where I've just posted a comment to an editorial. The subject is more about economics and society than databases, so here is a slightly edited version.

I'm rather an admirer (and more than a little jealous that he got published, which makes it more difficult for me) of Nick Carr. I recently stopped by his blog, and found this older post (I hadn't been aware of the news before seeing this post).

Which has led me to consider, not for the first time, the implications of automation generally and in systems building narrowly. Would we want some software that "empowered" managers and business analysts to create applications as easily as they brush their teeth? Would they not build systems that destroy economies ever more adroitly than the ones built by Quants (who really had been rocket scientists before going to Wall Street and The City)? Is the ultimate COBOL a goal we *should* pursue?

The whole notion that "machines" can take over all of our thinking, and thus make our lives easier and better, is right out of "2001", "Blade Runner", "Robo Cop", or "Soylent Green". For those who've seen clips of newsreels and tv spots from the 1950's (or are old enough to have seen them in real time), machines would take over all the drudge work, and *all of us* would have more *well paid* leisure time. And it hasn't turned out that way. The major problem with the notion is that, we have no theory of distribution in economics; none, at least, that satisfies the Right Wing elements.

What has happened with the efforts so far, is that the owners of these wondrous devices, be they hardware or software, accrue to themselves the monetization of the productivity gain, leaving the rest of us poorer in real terms. At some point, there will be no "skilled" work left with which to earn sufficient income to consume all the largess these machines (sans human intervention) produce. Well, except to explicitly take from the rich to give to the poor, who then buy the production so that the rich can continue to run the machines. I know, I'll call it Recursive Economics(tm). Japan is nearly to the point; no other solutions have worked.

Since the IBM PC and all of its successors have entered the workplace, income and wealth inequality have increased. Part of that is clearly (in the USofA, at least) due to Political machinations (whether these machinations are directly tied to the machines is a longer story), but also in large part to the concentration of computing resources in financial sectors of the economies, starving others. It is known and documented that people working in the hard sciences left for Wall Street and The City; it looked like the work paid better. May be so, but the macro effects of such accumulated micro decisions was a disaster.

If there were such an Oslo, the end result would likely be that, since it would no longer require much brainpower to build systems, those most adept at corporate hijinx would get to build those systems; the Ladder Climbers, Glad Handers, and Back Stabbers. Where 100 really smart engineers would toil for a year to make a system, 3 MBAs (and we now know how smart those guys are) would knock one out in a weekend's pub crawl. I'm not sure that's a measure of progress toward meritocracy.

No comments: