OVER THE PAST YEAR, David Nordfors and I have orga- nized several invitation- only seminars we call “Innovation and Jobs.”
Our purpose has been to draw upon
many points of view from experts
in many fields to understand more
deeply how innovation relates to the
workplace. One of the first surprises,
for me at least, was the observation
that, once there is food on the table
and a roof over one’s head, everyone
is not necessarily looking for remu-
nerative work. What seemed very
important was meaningful work. As
this thread was teased out, we rec-
ognized that a significant fraction
of some economies depends on
or benefits from a lot of volunteer
work. There are even websites de-
voted to connecting volunteers with
work they find meaningful, such as
the very successful www.volunteer-
match.org. One wonders how much
of the world’s economy involves
this kind of non-remunerative work
and to what degree we are depen-
dent as a society on the gratifying
sense of having contributed to the
well-being of others or satisfying an
itch that happens to produce bene-
fits for others (think of volunteer do-
cents in museums, volunteer nature
walk guides, and people who volun-
teer in hospitals).
In this column, I would ask you
read jobs in the most general sense as
work that may or may not involve conventional remuneration (that is, pay).
As the title asks, do we know whether innovation creates or destroys jobs?
The answer is yes to both aspects. Novel ways to do things, especially with
forms of automatic production, clearly
take away the need for manual jobs.
The Jacquard looma is a perfect example. But it also created work. Someone
had to design the cards that drove the
loom. Someone had to build and maintain the loom. The productivity of fabric manufacture must have increased
with the introduction of this invention.
The same can be said for many other
inventions. The development of production lines actually increased the
availability of jobs and while also increasing productivity per capita.
What should be fairly obvious, on
reflection, is that new jobs created by
innovation often require new skills
and some displaced workers may not
be able to learn them. Even when there
is a net increase in jobs resulting from
innovation (think of the invention
of the integrated circuit, the World
Wide Web, YouTube), not everyone
displaced will find new work unless or
until they are able to learn new skills
or apply new knowledge.
This need for new knowledge and
skills applies very well to our field of
computing and its applications. Programs are the equivalent of the cards
in the Jacquard loom and the production of programs requires specific
skills. If we have learned anything over
the course of the computer’s development, it is that the designers of hardware and software must keep learning new knowledge and skills to be
relevant and to be able to continue to
undertake new work. While there was
an intense increase in the need for
COBOL programmers leading to Y2K
Python, and Ruby on Rails (I know, I
did not name your favorite language—
feel free to send in your suggestions!).
What this suggests is that innova-
tion and longer lives are driving the
need for continuous learning. The old
model of going to school for a while,
having a career (maybe at the same
company), and then retiring is being
replaced with a more continuous need
for access to new knowledge and skills
throughout a career that may take
many unpredictable twists and turns.
In our own disciplines, the seeds of
the solution may lie in the technol-
ogy. The Internet, the World Wide
Web, Massive Open Online Courses
(MOOCs), and related infrastructure
may supply some of the necessary
educational needs we see emerging.
Not every job will admit this form of
education, of course, but we can see
a society emerging in which learning
becomes a lifelong necessity for sub-
stantial portions of the workforce.
Peter Diamandis’ book, Abundance,b
paints a very optimistic view of the future and while one can be somewhat
skeptical, it seems fair to say innovation has brought us the potential for
abundance and new work. The role
of computing in our society has increased dramatically in the past half
century and it is my belief it will have
a major and perhaps increasing influence on innovation in fields well
outside of traditional computing and
programming for the simple reason
that computing tools are becoming
essential to or at least involved in almost everything we do.
Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and Chief Internet
Evangelist at Google. He served as ACM president
Copyright held by author.
Does Innovation Create
DOI: 10.1145/2685035 Vinton G. Cerf
or Destroy Jobs?