‘Technological unemployment’

The World Technology Network forecasts that “Accelerating technological unemployment will likely be one of the most challenging societal issues in the 21st Century”. (http://www.wtn.net/technological-unemployment-summit). Although in the last 10 years or so various scholars have tackled the issue of technological joblessness from technological, political, and psychological perspectives, the language used to refer to this type of unemployment has as yet to be analyzed. What follows is then the first attempt to make sense of this topic from a roughly semantic point of view as illustrated by English usage.

Technological unemployment and its synonyms

The most striking linguistic process is the birth of the meaning of the phrase technological unemployment itself. At a first glance, the meaning of the phrase is relatively simple: “unemployment caused by technologically-driven labor-saving or efficiency-saving processes”. But the adjective “technological” normally does not carry a causal meaning:   other phrases, such as technological change, technological advancements, refer to change in/of technology, or advancements in/of  technology. The adjective in these instances then refers intrinsically to technology itself. In  the phrase technological unemployment, the meaning of “technological” does not refer to “technology” in the same way, i.e., it is not “unemployment in/of technology”. Clearly, it is the meaning of “unemployment” which begs for a causal sense. Some of the phrase’s synonyms are technological joblessness, disruptive technologies, replacement of workers, reduction of job classification, technological efficiency. Whichever side of the debate one is on, it is clear that these phrases carry within themselves positive and negative connotations: it is usually the technologists who believe that yes, “technological unemployment” creates unemployment, but it also drives the search for other types of jobs;  “disruptive technologies” disrupt, but may also create other jobs; “replacement of workers” causes joblessness but also “amplifies people” (Sikka), “complements workers” (according to Irving Wladawsky-Berger quoted in The Wall Street Journal http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2015/11/06/technological-unemployment-and-the-future-of-work/)  . It must be pointed out that it was customary to refer to blue-collar, unskilled or semi-skilled work as bearing the brunt of unemployment caused by technology, as human manual labor is being replaced by machines. But examples of AI encroaching on professional types of work (surgeons, instructors, lawyers, etc.) illustrate that no occupation or profession is “safe” from being replaced by machines . It is also interesting that many publications deal with the “future of unemployment”, which means basically types of jobs that will be less prone to be replaced by machines, i.e. relying on the accepted notions of employment.

Meaning, function, and nature of work

Anyone interested in “technological unemployment” cannot but muse about the meaning, function, and nature of the concept “work”. In what is hoped will become a decisively seminal work entitled The Refusal of Work (London: Zed Books, 2015), David Frayne dissects the nature of our present meaning of the term “work” and analyzes those cases of “workers” who themselves decided to work less.

refusalThis, of course, is yet another take on “unemployment”, and, in many ways, contradicts the logical bases of both the neoliberal capitalist  system and furnishes more fuel to that aspect of postmodern culture which underlines the fact that “the burden is on the user/worker/individual”.

If we identify ourselves by the job we hold, then it is a tragedy to lose this job and become unemployed: we lose our identity, our life-purpose, our Weltanschauung. This work-based perspective of human life is so ingrained in many cultures that it is even enshrined in at least one country’s Constitution (the example of which Frayne could have used to bolster his arguments): Article 1 of the Italian Constitution states that “L’Italia è una Repubblica democratica, fondata sul lavoro” (Italy is a democratic republic founded on work).

Notwithstanding this incorporation of the function of work in one way or another in all societies, it is clear that the notion of  “work”/ “job” /”remunerated occupation” belongs to yet another of the “big narratives” which are being shattered in late modernity/postmodernity. Clearly then even those philosophical views which take into account work as something different from leisure (for ex.,  Bertrand Russell), start being insufficient.
Even if it is obvious that the notion of the meaning of “work” is dramatically being transformed, many urgent questions remain which await clear answers. These answers should assist humans rather than bypassing them. Here are just three which deal with “technological unemployment”:
1.  What types of employment are necessary for humans to thrive?
2.  What role (if any) does education play in creating “the good life?”
3.  Is the concept of “work” a useful cognitive tool?

These questions, unfortunately but excitingly, lead to reconsidering the meaning of the term “humanity” which, crucially, is totally lacking in discussions using  the phrase “technological unemployment”.


Additional material which insist on efficiency (economic and technological side) only rather than looking at the problem also from a human point of view:



















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