Deskilling Attacks

The WSJ frightens its readers with computers making humans dumb. About automation:

This philosophy traps people in a vicious cycle of de-skilling. By isolating them from hard work, it dulls their skills and increases the odds that they will make mistakes. When those mistakes happen, designers respond by seeking to further restrict people’s responsibilities—spurring a new round of de-skilling.

By “automation,” the author means CAD, decision support, and plane navigation systems. Thanks to them, doctors and pilots become dumber.

Maybe that article was written on paper and with ink, but most people would prefer keyboard and text processor. Why? Because keyboard and software reduce routine work, just like the other technologies mentioned there. Computers can’t steal creativity they don’t have.

Deskilling is a hypothesis from classical economics. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, c. 1776:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Compare to the WSJ piece:

As software improves, the people using it become less likely to sharpen their own know-how. Applications that offer lots of prompts and tips are often to blame; simpler, less solicitous programs push people harder to think, act and learn.

(The master of the deskilling genre was, of course, Karl Marx. Is anyone surprised that Rupert Murdoch publishes Marxists?)

But the 19th century technologies replaced artisans because machines plus humans did better than humans alone. Engineers and workers got the jobs that artisans had lost, with a huge surplus in productivity. Workers have never been deskilled because most of them came from agriculture, which is dull, hard labor all over the day. You had to know tricks in agriculture, but these tricks didn’t make a skilled farmer by definition.

The present. No deskilling on horizon. Jobs demand more skills, actually. Degree premia in the US are increasing, and they’re positive in other countries. Wherever you can learn more skills, they pay off. Technologies replace middle-skill jobs by reducing routine operations, but it has implications opposite to those the WSJ implies. We need more, not less, education as workers look for more skilled jobs.

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