What’s our next job?

As programming jobs get progressively simplified, and more people learn how to do them, will all of our skilled high-tech labor end up working at Wal-Mart?

Well, no. First of all, our skilled high-tech labor won’t really be through with programming until Wal-Mart’s run themselves – checkout would be done by detecting RF tags as they leave the store, and charging it to a credit card you swipe on your shopping cart, which has a bag dispenser so you put your items into the bags as you take them down from the shelves, while the shelves get stocked by automated wheeled gizmos that read that same tag and know where everything goes. The Indian programmers will be helping with that, too, of course; us programmers aren’t the only ones their programmers will be competing against.

And don’t think plumbers and other tradesmen are safe either, nor anyone that thinks they add value by being on-site. Given enough bandwidth and the right software, you can remote-control a humanoid robot to do everything from the other side of the planet from fixing someone’s toilet to waving your hands and drawing on a whiteboard at a meeting.

Second, there’s plenty more work to be done by people that can use their brains and solve problems. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the sky. Air traffic is depressingly thin; most of our traffic crawls along the ground on little narrow strips and keeps getting caught in innumerable bottlenecks. The Solar System is completely deserted, as is everything beyond. The aging process is still just as lethal as it’s ever been. Portable computers are still kind of clunky, since you have to either have a big, bulky keyboard or input letters one at a time through an awkward phonepad-style interface; gizmos to read brainwaves are still in the prototype stages. While we’re on the subject of brainwaves, a reliable lie detector would be most helpful.

Oh, and those monster particle accelerators? How about little tiny ones instead? I’m sure we could find all sorts of profitable uses for those.

And that’s just the beginning. Down the road, we’ll be looking into things like breaking Einstein’s speed limit and seeing if there’s something interesting we can do with dark matter. We’ll work on gravity generators; couple those with brainwave interfaces, and everyone will be able to move things and build things just by thinking about it.

The point is, there’s thousands of years worth of work for all of us to do at the very least. Maybe millions of years. Maybe there isn’t a limit at all. If there is, we can’t even see it from here. It’s extremely short-sighted to say that we’re all going to be working at Wal-Mart because foreigners have learned how to program – if programming is the ultimate in human achievement, then the human race isn’t what I thought it was.

Whether foreigners learn to program or not, there’s so much other work to do that the most important questions we should be asking ourselves is:

1. What barriers can we remove to make it easier to turn a profit chipping away at that multi-millenia backlog of advancement that stands between our pathetic Earthbound civilization and our future as a truly advanced species? The computer industry offers a clue; it’s the closest to pure laissez-faire that we’ve seen in quite some time, and it’s had unparalleled success in pushing performance and quality up and prices down in its offerings.

2. How do we best streamline the process of retraining for the new tasks as the old ones become commoditized? Universities are not especially efficient at this task; we need something better, for everyone from the high-end talent on down.

3. How do we ensure that we continue enticing the world’s best talent to our shores? Lots of economic and personal liberty would be my suggestion.

6 thoughts on “What’s our next job?”

  1. You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

    But how are “us programmers” supposed to get through the next couple of years?

  2. Dick and everybody else out there complaining: Those Indian programmers too cheap to compete with? Hire some! Start your own thing: you are limited only by your imagination. Don’t know where to start? Let me solve your problem:
    Elance: http://www.elance.com

    Its an Ebay for outsourcing (its also owned by Ebay) and damn is it good (from personal experience). Good luck, gentlemen! I feel like we need an Elance evangelist website to get the whiners to stop whining and start doing cool stuff instead.

    Nice piece, ken.

  3. “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

    If you need some motivational reading, try out the one-two punch of :Decline and Fall of the American Programmer” and “Rise and Ressurection of the American Programmer.”

    Software development may be a new trade, but it’s been around long enough that we’ve been through this cycle before. In the 70’s and 80’s, programmers were distraught that their trade, once an almost exclusively American profession, was being taken up by foreign labor who were at best providing downward pressure on wages and at worst simply taking American jobs. In the first book, the author (Yourdon?) predicted that the simplification of software development would lead to an increasing trend toward what we’d now call outsourcing. His conclusion was that programming would eventually become un-Americanized, and that the American programmer was an endangered species. In the second book, Yourdon realized his mistake – established technology can and will move, but cutting edge technologies will not. The skill of American developers, and their ability to demand high wages, depends not on their command of tried and true technologies, but on their innovation. Thus, as AS400 programming jobs fled for cheaper pastures, microcomputer development and later, internet technologies replaced them as the bread-and-butter technologies of American programmers. In between the two times, there is a lull – the early adopters of whatever the new technology happens to be have high risk/reward, and they will define the technology that will come to dominate the American scene, at least until it, too, becomes a commodity technology.

  4. “Everything that can be invented has already been invented.”

    — Charles Duell, Commissioner of the United States Patent Office, speaking in 1899

    Amazing what a hundred years can do, isn’t it?

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