Marc Andreessen is certainly bullish on the value of software if his recent op-ed in the WSJ, entitled “Why Software Is Eating The World,” is any indication. Andreessen writes that “My own theory is that we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy.” He then proceeds to list almost every industry in existence (no really, he has separate paragraphs for all of them) and how they are being affected by software.
His main point though, is that these developments in software “makes me optimistic about the future growth of the American and world economies, despite the recent turmoil in the stock market.” I’m not optimistic.
No other force in existence today is driving greater social inequality than the development of software. The death of Border’s also means the death of the jobs for almost 20,000 employees in the United States, yet those jobs are not re-materializing in quantity elsewhere in the economy. Amazon.com, theoretically the most important competitor for Borders for instance, only has 34,000 employees. This disruption is at the heart of the current internet revolution.
I believe in progress. I don’t shed a tear at the demise of the buggy-whip manufacturers who confronted the rise of the automobile - Detroit’s rise provided a bounty to millions. I worked at Google this past summer building a new social network, and I saw progress happening in real-time. But is software really providing progress? Software disruption has often meant replacing thousands of people with a single piece of software designed by a few dozen or hundred people.
We are approaching a society in which the only occupation will be software programmer. That may seem a little ridiculous, but consider that some 70% of jobs in America today are in the service sector - the prime territory for software disruption. These people aren’t going to the primary (agriculture) or the secondary (industry) labor markets. Instead, they are existing, moving from temp job to temp job or just sitting home unemployed without good options. What do you do when you have to compete against a computer?
When we talk about software disruption, we have to remember that there is a human price: that industries disrupted means lives disrupted. We can’t stop this progress, nor would we want to. But we have to develop policies that support and assist people in a society that is rapidly changing. We must remain sympathetic and empathetic of the vast changes our lines of code have on real people.
More than a century ago, H.G. Wells wrote a famous book about a time machine in which he peered forward at human society and how it changes over time. The surface-dwelling Eloi who came from the elite of our society and the underground Morlocks who came from the labor classes had separated, split by evolution. Unless this is the society that we want, we need to take concrete steps to find meaningful work for people - a dignity that should be universal.