Thursday, 17 December 2009

You can't hammer a nail over the internet

"At some point in the short history of our "post-industrial" complacency it now looks as though we got the future of work fundamentally wrong. "You can't hammer a nail over the internet," was how Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton, summarised the error in 2006. As Blinder saw it, too many people in the US (and, he might have added, Britain) had blithely assumed that the critical distinction in the labour market was, and would continue to be, between the highly educated (or highly skilled) and the less educated (or less skilled). According to this assumption, rich countries could never hope to compete against the low wages of poorer countries for the low-skilled work. The solution sounded good: "upskilling", the credo that in Britain was translated into the ambition to get 50% of school-leavers into university. But it ignored a new way of dividing work – in Blinder's words, between the kind "easily deliverable through a wire with little or no diminution in quality" and the kind that was not.
This cut against the grain of the conventional distinction. Many of the so-called "quality" jobs could easily migrate abroad; text editing, software programming, medical x-ray interpreting, all kinds of arithmetic and word-work based on rules (such as checking tax returns) that had an internal logic and could be sent down the wire. On the other hand, many of the jobs deemed more humble or "old-fashioned" had to stay behind. Architects can live anywhere but builders need to be on site. Not all skilled work is verbal, pictorial or numerical and easily unmoored from its berth in physical reality: not every task can be virtualised. That obviously applies in the realm of the "personal" professions – the surgeon cutting into his patient, the lawyer consoling his client – as well as to waiters and office cleaners. But even in a society that has more or less abandoned manufacturing, it also applies to the category known as skilled manual labour. We still need plumbers, carpenters, electricians and motor mechanics. You can't hammer a nail over the internet."
from 'Would you want your son to be a plumber?'
The Guardian, Saturday 5 December 2009

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