I was honored to give the opening keynote for the SEFLIN 2016 Virtual Conference, entitled “Innovation & Disruption: Past, Present, Future” where I talked about why innovation is important in libraries, how structures disempower innovation, and what technologies I am watching for their capacity for disruption. It was this last topic that garnered the most comments during the talk, and even afterwards via email and twitter.
I have come to believe that we’re on the cusp of some truly weird societal changes due to the exponential growth of technology. AI/Machine Learning, Robotics, ubiquitous presence and sensornets via the Internet of Things, decentralization….all of these things are beginning to turn the corner from interesting ideas into realized technologies in the world. A couple of them in particular that I spoke about have what I think are truly frightening outcomes over the next decade, and I’m hoping to expand my thinking on why and how here. Let’s start with robots, in the form of autonomous automobiles.
Robots, in the form of self-driving or autonomous vehicles, are going to transform the US economy in ways that, for certain populations, may be disastrous. I think it’s fairly clear at this point that we are moving towards autonomous vehicles at breakneck speeds, and there seems to be a pretty clear map that gets us from the current state of somewhat-partial autonomy to autonomous-on-interstates and finally to fully doesn’t-need-a-human vehicles. The consensus among people who do this stuff is that the easiest problem to solve is that of long-distance interstate or highway travel, and the largest target for disruption to this type of driving is that of commercial trucking.
When it comes to automation, commercial trucking has a lot of things going for it. From the perspective of the companies doing the movement of goods around the country, fewer drivers is better in almost every way: fewer accidents almost assuredly, but also lower fuel costs (as computers are very, very good at optimization algorithms), fewer delays (same reason), and over time huge costs savings…robots do not yet require health coverage and retirement plans. There are benefits of partial autonomization as well…we don’t have to have fully self-driving trucks for there to be huge benefits for the companies involved, since the reduction of humans in the equation will garner cost savings immediately, and one can easily imagine a pathway that begins reducing drivers gradually: instead of needing 3 drivers for 3 trucks heading across country, 1 driver in the first truck acting as “lead” could be followed by 2 robotic trucks in sort of psuedo-autonomous caravan.
This move from One-Human-per-Truck to One-Human-per-X-Trucks to No-Human-At-All is going to happen over the course of the next 5-10 years. Currently, one of the most common middle-income jobs in the entire US is that of a truck driver…not always over-the-road, but again as we move from pseudonymous to autonomous the disruption will happen at ever-more-local levels. As this job is displaced by automation, there will be larger and larger numbers of workers that go from middle-income to greatly reduced or no income over the course of the next decade. These workers disproportionately live in rural areas of the country, and are the most vulnerable economically as there are fewer secondary labor options for them.
The people in rural areas often also have higher than average relocation burdens to overcome. Simply “moving to where the jobs are” isn’t really an option at all, for both emotional and practical reasons. In my areas of interest (KY, TN, the rural South) there is a huge emotional and psychological connection to the place and the community…getting out has a huge cost and those that do move to more economically vibrant areas are seen as deserters or traitors. More practically, there is a cost-of-living gap between the rural US and cities/suburbs that is a barrier for movement for many. When you sell your $50,000-$100,000 home and the land that your great-grandfather settled and was passed down to you, the move to any city is simply impossible financially. The math just doesn’t work to be able to reasonably move your family into a home even in the suburbs for that much, and trading the stability of a mortgage for renting an apartment when the entire reason you are moving is wage depression and loss…well, it just isn’t possible.
We have a situation where, over the course of the next decade, one of the most common middle-income jobs in the rural US could disappear, and it could mostly affect areas where the secondary job market for these workers is very constrained. The social services for everything to information about re-skilling to job application fulfillment will fall to the public library in their communities, as they are very often the only easily accessible and well-trusted governmental program in rural areas.
In addition to largely helping to deal with this crisis on an individual level, libraries will be stuck with ever-decreasing budgets in areas where said budgets are based on local taxes. The slow-motion economic collapse of rural america that has played out in the areas that I care about the most (the rural south, Eastern Kentucky, Middle Tennessee) will accelerate, and as these jobs collapse, families will be devastated and the tax base for library support will dwindle.
Libraries will be in a situation where they are asked, yet again, to do more for their local communities when the very communities that they are trying to save can’t possibly contribute to their budgets.
Since we love to argue with each other, when I pointed out on Twitter than I thought this round of economic upheaval due to automation was different, Tim Spalding of Librarything said:
Tim points out a common refrain from people who are skeptical of the ability of automation to “take jobs” from humans. He’s right to be skeptical, as every previous time this has happened, the overall economy has grown and individuals have re-skilled and found new jobs. Automation hasn’t, in the past, actually ended in a removal of jobs on average from a country, nor has it decreased average earnings.
The problem with that argument is that it generalizes from large-scale to small-scale. On average, the numbers for the US might still look ok…but the small towns, the places that are only still places at all because of their ready access to an interstate, those places and the people in them are going to have a very rough time of it. There are more jobs in the energy sector than ever before, but that doesn’t help the coal miners in Appalachia.
This highly localized effect will disproportionately affect the rural parts of the US, and thus will also disproportionately affect the libraries in those areas….libraries that are often already vulnerable to small changes in budget. My concern is that as this change begins, we will see a sort of wave of challenges: first the trickle of job loss, which begins to put pressure on local economies, and as the trickle becomes a swell and then a wave the combination of decreasing wages and localized economic depression will increase the movement out of rural areas. This will further depress the tax base, and rural library systems will see an ongoing downwards slope of budget.
There is an admitted problem of what the timeline looks like for this entire process. The automation of trucking is likely to begin affecting local economies in the next 5-10 years, but the rest of my prediction (the increased exodus of youth from rural areas, the mobility of those that can move quickly as opposed to the generational resettling that this movement begets) will take perhaps decades to fully unfold.
Is it possible that there will be a counter-balancing effect of some type that maintains the economy of these areas? Some form of job replacement that offsets, even partially, the jobs lost to autonomous trucks? For the country as a whole, of course there will be. There are going to be yet-unimagined new opportunities. As depressing as this possible-future is for rural America, I am overall a technological utopianist. I think that big-picture, we are moving in positive directions. If nothing else, I would absolutely be willing to trade localized economic disruption for the massive savings of human life that we will see as humans are replaced as drivers.
But the places that I love are going to be hurt. And even when I know that the good outweighs the bad, the bad is still bad.
How can libraries make a difference? Simply being aware of this possible future is the first step, and watching for leading indicators in their communities. Strategically, getting in front of the job loss wave by preparing for re-skilling and educational opportunities, making connections with other community resources in those arenas as well as other governmental offices that will be needed could be a way of preparing to be of the most use to the community. Rural libraries should have a relationship with their nearest community colleges or other formalized higher education options and should have strategies in place that help people move into formalized training or other economic recovery options.
In the next installment of Disaster Scenarios, I hope to take a look at AI/Machine Learning and see if there’s a similar story to tell about the way it is going to change not only how people interact with information, but how they are able to interact with information and the risks therein. I think information professionals might be in for some real weirdness in the next decade.