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So here’s an old thought that’s not going away anytime soon. Anyone with a healthy fear for their future, security and how they’re going to make a living will surely have wondered what will happen when the robots take over.. or the computers take over. But I’m not talking about any Terminator scenario here, I’m talking about technology making each and every one of us either equal or irrelevant.
So what’s the problem? Well as technology gets better and has more features, those of us in the implementation game are stuck if we don’t move quickly. There’s an exponential growth in technologies, so that it is literally impossible to keep up. As every person with an idea has the means to share it with the world, we’re left with an abundance of producers, and diminishing value on the professional. That’s not to say that there’s no value to a professional, there is, but there’s definitely a lot to be said for the lesser skilled masses taking over what previously was something only trained people would be capable of.
Take Peter Page.. he’s a nice enough chap, probably (sorry if I’m wrong here Peter) in or around his 60’s. Peter has a trade.. he’s a goldsmith. Now I know little enough about this to not even know if I’m calling him the right thing, but over some celebratory Saint Martins graduation drinks a couple of years ago, we stood musing the future.. and I can’t say that I was without a little bit of envy. Peter has a trade.
For the last 33 (probably 35 by now) years, Peter has specialised in all things gold. He works partly as a technician for St Martins BA Jewellery degree. So what’s my problem?
Peter’s trade has left him with years of metal experience, and it’s very niche. If you need to know something about what he does, google may be able to answer the question, but what google can’t (yet) do is take you physically by the hand and guide you into making the connection between knowledge and knowing. We are missing this connection in the online world. We do have other connections of course.
When I started doing computer things, it was either home users doing fun things, business people doing things that they could do anyway, just a bit faster, and super scientists trying to figure out what things are next. Technology wasn’t a threat, or at least not as it is today.
If I overhear my mum on a work phonecall (she’s a financial advisor) I am instantly hit with the fact that her life now revolves around e-this and picking-it-up-off-the-system that. I have no idea what she’s talking about, not that it affects me personally, but is technical jargon all that separates professionals from the masses these days? That’s a terrifying thought.
So once knowledge is a commodity, what happens to society? How long can I use Photoshop before these tools are available to everybody and the “I’ve got 14 years of experience with Photoshop” turns to “I’ve got 20 years experience with Photoshop” to which the reply becomes a “who cares” eye roll. Old media is dying and along with it the jobs that many of us thought were vaguely secure.
I’ve run my own design company for the last 8 years, but I do see that the commodity of skills from recent graduates is displacing what’s historically taken a long time to learn. Technology moves so fast that two years after a software’s release, you still only have maybe a month’s headstart on some computer savvy person picking it up for the first time. Usually, after you’ve hit certain amount of screen time, you’ll have figured out everything that’s relevant to what you use it for. If you get stuck, you google it and find your answer, but apart from that, what you don’t know, you probably don’t need to know.
This is not true of all software of course, some professional software, like the high end 3D packages take what seems like years of learning to fully master, but the workaround is, you just master the bit you need and avoid the rest.. Maya for example is good at hiding the bits you don’t need until you do to go some way to avoiding being completely overwhelmed by the hundreds of functions accessible. Complex software is made to be easy to use, sometimes by making it modal. Photoshop has layouts for design, painting, 3D etc. hiding the less relevant features to simplify the user interface. That hierarchy makes learning easier, and actually need to be translated into other things that are still linear, but I won’t get into my thoughts on that right now.
There are many usage patterns and types of people, some will just click what they can read and not even explore unlabelled icons, some will learn shortcuts, and some will try and figure out what makes it work under the hood and how far they can (ab)use it.
Programming however is a different beast. I’ve heard it’s increasingly difficult to hire people for iOS programming for example, because they’d rather do their own projects and take all the money than share with some big greedy company. The learning curve for programming is fairly steep and moves much faster than the software it creates. If you take a single language, like the classic C, it has not significantly changed since it’s introduction, and rather than change it, there have been other languages based on it, extensions to it, all so that what you learnt in the 70’s translates nicely into experience today. New libraries however, come out frequently, or are updated, functions deprecated, superseded. Open source projects spit terabytes of code into repositories, some of the more popular projects bubbling up and generating enough momentum to reach their goals, others stuck in the long tail with little or no contributors, die off once the last members move onto something else.
When I was a bored nerdy teenager, there were chat rooms, now, a bored nerdy teenager with the right motivations can create applications for Facebook, iPhones and their siblings, desktop machines, create games for free based on some of the most advanced game engines around, and share them with their friends, or more likely, with people they’ve never met.. learn about all manner of things, and so the nerdy youth of today, that grew up with touch screen tablets and computers in their pockets, their ability to pick up and utilise these technologies outstrips the generation merely 10 years behind them.
Progression is not a linear path. Multicore programming created a large hiccup in the race for speed, requiring a huge rethink of how software is written. Similarly the move from fixed pipeline to programmable in graphics was a leap, although to those involved it was most likely a step up in the simplicity. If you’re used to writing shaders in assembly then you probably welcome a higher level language, from the outside, it’s still complicated enough to buy the book and get distracted after a few chapters, which leads me to the danger in the connected world that we live in.
There’s infinitely more opportunities than ever before, and it comes at a price. If you can’t concentrate on one thing for long enough to see it through, it will fail. Certain things can be done very quickly and run in parallel, while others require dedication of solid chunks of time to fully understand and appreciate, and what with running a company, it’s certainly not easy to put aside chunks to do that. I can see that without the investment in time required, the cash cow that Jeff Jarvis talks about (the work that brings in money so don’t touch it), will die, and there will be no calf to replace it.
The global economic issues from 2008 to present could be seen as another of these hiccups. Not directly related to the bank’s failures, society is part way through a reset. This was a mini one to test the waters. Bigger resets are still to come..
So, in the future all jobs will be replaced by .. us?