Environmental talk: Does technology make life easier?

Since the advent of powerful computers in the 1960s, the popular model known as Moore’s Law has been used to quantify the evolving capabilities of computers in the future. Gordon Moore, serving as the director of research and development at Fairchild Semiconductor, played a pivotal role in introducing this concept. In his 1965 article, “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits,” published in the thirty-fifth-anniversary edition of Electronics Magazine, Moore proposed that computing power would double every two years for the next decade. Subsequently, computing power has nearly doubled annually, surpassing Moore’s initial predictions. In the same year, 1965, Harold Wilensky published his article, “Technology, Work, and Leisure: Reflections on the Gains and Costs of Abudane.” He noted that the technological advances made in 1965 had given rise to a lifestyle offering “more freedom” and an escape from the “inflexible rules of guild” imposed during the Feudal Age (Wilensky, 510). Wilensky observed that as technology made life more manageable, individuals dedicated more time to freedom and leisure, moving away from traditional daily chores. However, as society embraces this newfound leisure, it raises the question: can everyone benefit?

The words “easy” and “life” trace their origins back to ancient Greek as “aisie” and “lijf,” with “aisie” initially referring to someone sexually unrestricted before evolving to denote anything of low difficulty. An intriguing aspect of the phrase “Technology makes life Easier” is that its original meaning holds true: data collection has made society more sexually unrestrictive. Nevertheless, a recent study by Dylan Walsh titled “Social Media use Linked to Decline in Mental Health” revealed that access to social media, a significant product of the digital revolution, “led to an increase in severe depression by 7% and anxiety disorder by 20%” (Walsh). Walsh exposes one of the many adverse consequences of technology, placing the responsibility on society to decide whether well-being or leisure is more important.

Since the digital revolution of the 1960s, the overarching objective of technology has been the near-complete automation of society. Our heartbeats are now measured using technology rather than a watch, and our house’s temperature is monitored and controlled through technology, not the tiny buttons on our thermometers. However, not everyone is prepared for this level of automation, and many must ready themselves for the repercussions it brings. In his article, “The Effects of Technological Developments on Work and Their Implications for Continuous Vocational Education and Training: A Systematic Review,” Patrick Beer highlights that workers, particularly those with lower skill levels, are ill-prepared for our evolving reality. Beer suggests that vocational training, a path to successful careers for millions of Americans, may eventually become obsolete as “manual work is reported to decrease on many occasions” (Beer). As numerous labor positions shift towards automated alternatives, Beer anticipates that vocational training courses, once vital, will lose their relevance. Beer goes on to assert that “employees need strategies to deal with higher levels of workload, autonomy, and complexity” (Beer). According to Beer, technology has outpaced society, compelling millions to retrain themselves to remain employable. This not only thrusts millions of low-skilled workers into unfamiliar realities but also eliminates numerous positions that traditionally offered lifelong careers. With no public resources allocated to educate 44% of American workers or fifty-three million low-skilled workers, a considerable portion of the population is unprepared for the automation of their professions.

A professional in a dying profession (Photo creds: Tima Miroshnichenko)

Examining the potential impact of technology on labor demand reveals that, contrary to making life easier for millions, it poses significant challenges. In her article, “Debating the Future of Work: The Perception and Reaction of the Spanish Workforce to Digitization and Automation Technologies,” Carolina Rodriguez-Bustelo discovered that “about 47 percent of total United States employment [is] at risk,” with the figure rising to 60 percent in Europe (Rodriguez-Bustelo). Additionally, she identified occupations in the service, sales, office and administrative, production, and transportation and material moving industries as most vulnerable, all of which traditionally provide career paths for low-skilled workers (Rodriguez-Bustelo). While technology may streamline operations for business managers, it leaves workers with limited career options, particularly in industries central to the livelihoods of many.

Rodriguez-Bustelo highlighted the apprehension her interviewees felt about their future, a concern that seems justified given the prevalence of American jobs in service and labor industries, which are increasingly being replaced by technology. For instance, automated cars that heat your pizza in self-contained ovens  are replacing Pizza Delivery Drivers.

Beer and Rodriguez-Bustelo underscore how technology, while easing the lives of some, also exposes our social incapacity to keep pace with technological advances. Notably absent from their discussions, however, are the tangible consequences of technological progress. In Peter Dizikes’s article, “Study Finds Stronger Links between Automation and Inequality,” he presents alarming statistics on the disparity exacerbated by technology and automation. Dizikes explains that low-skilled workers face a “double whammy” as they not only experience displacement but also find that the new tasks emerging benefit high-skill workers more slowly (Dizikes). Contrary to Rodriguez-Bustelo’s perspective, much of the low-skilled labor is being replaced by highly technical jobs, which are significantly fewer in number. Dizikes supports this assertion by revealing that “across the U.S. from 1993 to 2007, each new robot replaced 3.3 jobs,” a disconcerting statistic given the delayed integration of robots into the corporate workforce until the 2010s (Dizikes). In his words, Dizikes contends that where automation is implemented, “lower-skill workers are not just failing to make gains; they are actively pushed backward financially” (Dizikes). He further explains that, instead of the previous four workers in a warehouse, a single worker, educated in robotics, is now required to manage the robots that replaced those four workers.

The ones who will be left behind (Photo creds: Oloruntoba John)

What stood out in Dizikes’s article is the thought he leaves the reader with: “There is nothing that says technology is all bad for workers. It is the choice we make about the direction to develop technology that is critical” (Dizikes). In a similar vein, Matt Zwolinski’s article, “Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation,” echoes a comparable moral stance in defense of “sweatshops”—underfunded factories in developing countries that offer minimal wages for arduous labor. Like Dizikes, Zwolinski attributes the abuse faced by these workers to our consumption choices rather than the absence of regulation or support. Unfortunately, just as our consumption choices have given rise to the need for sweatshops, our mismanagement of technology is poised to create even more challenging lives for millions of American workers.

Former United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Omar Bradley, aptly warned, “if we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner” (Bradley). While society has embraced technology as a servant, it has lacked the wisdom or prudence in its development. The prioritization of technological leisure for the affluent few over the well-being of society at large mirrors the Tragedy of the Commons concept. Technology will likely only benefit those who can afford its private costs. Once technology becomes “free,” the Tragedy of the Commons problem may arise, leading to overuse by those relying on the public good. This can result in declining technological performance and advancement, coupled with an increase in the cost of private technology.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge the limitations of the argument that technology does not make life easier. Without technology or its products, society would not have advanced to its current state. While proposing a solution involving public education on advanced technologies to prepare future workers for higher-skill positions, it does not directly address the plight of current low-skilled workers most vulnerable to technological advancements. It is crucial to retain technology while recognizing that our workforce is inadequately prepared for the imminent technological changes in the next five to ten years.


This piece was edited by Rafael De Alba as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University. 


You must login to post a comment. Need a ViaNolaVie account? Click here to signup.