I’m sure that mechanization is a big deal, but has anybody measured the jobs impact of dematerialization?

Because my bet is that dematerialization has already had a big effect on jobs. Brilliant friend Kevin Holliday and I were at lunch the other day, and we got to talking about all the thing-things that people don’t really need to buy anymore because everything is consolidated into one device.

  • Radios. (we buy speakers, maybe)
  • Television sets. (we buy screens)
  • Watches (ok, I supposed wearable technology watches are thing, but my students think I’m just adorable with my little Timex)
  • Notebooks
  • Books
  • Film
  • Cameras (yes, those of us who publish photos do have to buy digital cameras, but how many people just have their phone camera now?)
  • GPS devices
  • Magnifying glasses (yes, there is an app for that)
  • Keylights (yep, phones)
  • cds and discs
  • DVDs
  • VCRs
  • pens, pencils (I know, still used, but you would not believe how many people though it was just *adorbs* that I needed a new pencil sharpener)
  • newspapers
  • puzzles and games (they seem to have become a niche market. When my students see a picture of me with puzzle, they say “have you ever done a digital jigsaw?) Why??? Why would you do that?
  • carbon paper
  • calculators
  • kitchen timers
  • alarms clocks
  • clocks in general
  • Levels
  • Recipe cards
  • Rulers
  • atlases, maps, globes
  • phone books
  • planners, address books, desk blotters
  • ledger books
  • checkbooks
  • passbooks
  • analog phones

etc. I’m sure there are things that I am missing. Certainly, old-timers like me, with my broadsheet newspapers and clocks in every room, still exist. But there going to be niche markets for various things just because people like the objects. Will that be enough to employ people? Will there be enough jobs making artisanal cheese to make work for folks displaced?

I’ve been reading the Universal Basic Income material for my social policy class next fall, and I have to say I am not convinced by any of the arguments on the pro or the against side. On the pro side, we have the technophiles breathlessly telling us about how great it will be for people to be free from poverty (it would be nice). On the “no” side, you have free marketeers absolutely convinced that people will begin a life of indolence and sloth, thereby killing off all innovation and productivity. There are things I very much like about the universal basic income, including the universality: by making it available to everybody, I would have to hear less whinging about “teh Blacks on welfare” and we would not have to deal with all the means-testing and deservingness nonsense. I do not buy the argument that productivity and innovation will halt; it could even go up. Freed from the necessity of working two jobs, somebody might pursue their interest in small-scale robotics in a home workshop, for example, and come up with something nobody has thought of before. And it’s not like people who inherit wealth never do anything productive. Plenty of people from moneyed families get out and find a profession or a set of causes to work for even though they do not have to do so, financially. We could have more poetry and art, and I see little wrong with that. What if there are diminishing marginal returns in innovation anyway, and we’ve gotten as far as we are going to in all but entirely new directions that right now we can only dream and tell stories about?

Anyway, I’m arguing myself in circles on it, and I’m sure there are other macro factors I’ve not thought about. And I do understand that we can’t just experiment with it, as taking away would be a disaster once people got used to it.