Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The End of...

During a trip to Southern California more than a decade ago to visit some good friends of mine, I had the opportunity to visit the Computational Biology department at CalTech University. My friend Stephen had worked there for many years and his profession intrigued me greatly. Now, I am no scientist by trade or vocation, but I revere good scientists and the results of their exacting work: the application of science to create the incredible products we all enjoy and often take for granted.
On this particular day, Stephen explained to me what computational biology meant in terms I could grasp:
‘Do you see those blips on the screen moving closer together?’ he asked me. ‘Those blips represent genes’.
‘What is the purpose of the computer program?’
‘To track movement of genes, but also, it frees the scientists to engage in higher level thinking’.
‘So it’s like office automation in a way, right? Instead of having to perform tedious office tasks, secretaries can now focus on more interesting things’.
‘That’s exactly right! Scientists can focus their energies on solving even more complex problems because the computers are now performing the menial work of gene mapping’.
This exchange many years ago got me thinking about human progress, and more specifically how technology enables us to think better and to come up with ever more innovative products. What is technology but the rational mind applied to the creation of the tools we need to thrive and advance?
Not everyone loves technology the way I do, but everyone surely benefits from it. Nevertheless, over dinner conversation recently, a friend of my partner’s was discussing how he thought all the iPhones and iPads were great gadgets, but sooner or later they would eliminate work. His theory was that with our lives so completely automated, there would be no jobs left for people to do.
Does this viewpoint sound familiar? It isn’t a new one. For a century or more, one pundit after another has declared the end of work, the end of education, the end of reading, the end of relationships - all due to technological advances. After all, with everything done for us by machines, why bother making any effort to live productively at all?
The problem with this thinking is it limits the person who believes it from considering the infinite possibilities for working and living. Who could have imagined just 15 years ago that many of us would be enjoying our lives with fantastic, always connected computing devices that perform an ever more dizzying array of tasks. Thanks to the iPhone and smart phones in general, the charming expression ‘there’s an app for that’ has crept into our modern vernacular. We may use the phrase with irony, but we also love the ability to get things done quickly and with seemingly little effort. We have scientists and technologists to thank for this happy existence.
So what is the future of work? What kinds of productive endeavours will our children and grandchildren engage in decades from now? Who can say? We are only limited by our ability to think and by political systems that erode our freedoms, with the latter being the greatest threat we face today. The late, great economist, Julian Simon, titled one of his books The Ultimate Resource. He was not referring to the natural resources we convert to make the products we need to survive, but to man himself. Man is in fact the only resource whose protection we ought to cherish, for it is the reasoning mind that makes everything we enjoy possible.
Every day, I raise my glass in silent thanks to those men and women, who, through their active minds, make my very existence possible and my life worth living. The end of work? Not by a long shot.

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