Sunday, January 13, 2013

Who moved my cheese?

[Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes]
[Mood: Amused]

Years ago, the CEO of the software company I was working for mentioned the book "Who moved my cheese?" in a company meeting and encouraged us all to get a copy and read it. He said we could even expense the cost of the book to the company. Why was the book so important? It was a way to convey to all the employees the rapidly shifting landscape in the particular software sector we were operating in. Within a couple of years of that meeting, the CEO sold the company to a much larger company and retired comfortably to a ranch in Montana. Hundreds of employees were laid off during those years. Their cheese had moved.

Here's a very well thought out presentation on how the cheese moved from in front of thousands of Americans who were employed in the manufacturing industry. Certain basic assumptions that held true since the beginning of the industrial revolution started to give way and fall apart in the past 40 or so years brought about by advances in industrial automation, robotics and computerization. Factories today don't need very many people to run them. An entire factory full of sophisticated machines can be overseen by just a handful of employees. The presenter has decades of experience in machine shops and has observed the developments in the manufacturing industry first hand and is able to tie them together to what's happening in the larger economy.

There are many ways to look at the economy that could be considered as accurate as any other. It just so happens that some views appeal to some and not to others because of the particular situation, background, experiences, etc. that each of us find ourselves in. Having said that, the information and ideas presented in the video above constitute a framework through which we make sense of what's happening in America and the rest of the world these days. I had heard of factory automation but never realized the extent to which it has been accomplished until I saw the above presentation.

Similar trends are playing out in other areas. Para-legals and junior lawyers across the country are finding themselves out of work as more and more software is used to go through and parse the contents of reams of legal contracts and paperwork. This type of work used to require human beings hunched over in cubicles for weeks. Developments in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have lead us to a point where software can do as good or even better a job of making sense of legalese, sometimes in preparation for trials and hearings which normally require legions of lawyers to read thousands of pages of contracts and agreements to pick out the relevant pages needed for the trial at hand. Of course, from a higher perspective, the entire legal system is simply an onerous overhead supporting an overly complex economic system. The fact that we even need such complex contracts points to a system straining to maintain cohesion and not fall apart.

With both manufacturing and law, we're not talking about low-wage hourly jobs that require a high school education. These are jobs in which thousands of well-educated and well-paid professionals have been employed for decades, jobs that allowed a worker to support a family, take vacations and participate in the economy in hundreds of other ways. What we find today is rampant unemployment, homelessness and social unrest bubbling under the surface. These jobs aren't coming back. The cheese has moved!

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