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Star Trek & Buggy Whips: The Truth About Vanished Jobs

It doesn't take toiling thousands to make goods anymore.

By Fennoman  |  February 5, 2008

When people talk about progress and change, they often bring up the example of buggy whip manufacturers.  Around the turn of the century, there were manufacturers who made buggy whips.  They specialized in buggy whips and that's all they did.  A buggy whip was designed to make a crack, getting your horse (or horses) to go faster.  It was the 19th century version of a gas pedal.

As motorized vehicles became more popular and eventually supplanted horse-drawn modes, buggy whip manufacturers disappeared.  It was a natural progress in manufacturing and economics from one product through its obsolescence to other products.

We talk about how the buggy whip manufacturing lobby didn't exist, because if they had, and circumstances were similar to today's, this special interest group would lobby for special protections.  They need jobs, they know how to make buggy whips and buggy whips have been an important part of the economy.  We can't lose this manufacturing base!

Of course, the whole discussion seems absurd.  We don't need buggy whip manufacturers because we don't drive horse drawn buggies.

Unfortunately, the protectionists among us are using the same arguments trying to prop up American manufacturing and the perception that our jobs are being exported around the world.  If you don't believe this, just substitute "buggy whip" for whatever job it is that's being exported.  It becomes clear that the arguments are similarly wrongheaded.

In Gene Roddenbury's Star Trek future, a device called a "replicator" has been invented.  This device allows anything to be created from energy.  You want a steak, press the steak button and a machine creates a steak from energy.  In theory, nobody has to manufacture anything.

The loss of buggy whips pales in comparison to the loss of most manufacturing jobs.  What does everyone do?  Well, in the Star Trek universe, people are able to spend time on more lofty pursuits.

This same thing is happening in our world today.  All countries with traditional manufacturing strengths are losing jobs.  Even the Chinese, who we think are taking our jobs, lost 24% of their industrial jobs from 1995 to 2002.

What's happened?  If we're losing jobs and the Chinese are losing jobs, where are they going?  At home and overseas jobs are being destroyed and recreated.  This has always happened, and will continue to happen.

Obviously, it isn't that we've invented replicators, yet.  But we have automated processes and this is what's driving most of the job loss around the world.

We need fewer people to make more stuff.  Even the Chinese need fewer people to make more stuff.  The truth is that there will be an ever decreasing number of jobs as time goes on.  The manufacturing world is becoming more automated.

The robots are taking the jobs.  And, just like the buggy whip manufacturers of the last century, workers of the next century are going to need to find something different to do.

It won't matter if you're American or Chinese, it's not likely that you'll be manufacturing stuff.  The jobs will disappear.  They will go away.  It's either that, or we stop progress and go back to the horse and buggy and reteach the lost art of making buggy whips.

Ending on a positive note, there are things we can do.  Create.  Create new ideas, new products and new services.  New things for the robots to make.  New things for people to do.

But this will take a significant shift in our ideas about education.  Are we educating people to do a job, or to think (a subject for another post at another time).

In Star Trek, it appears humanity had escaped the drudgery of providing for existence to spend it searching the stars.  That sounds better than whining about the robots taking all of our jobs.