I always imagined lighthouse keepers as romantic souls. Beautiful scenery, peace and solitude, uninterrupted time. Even the language sounds inviting – lighthouses are tended or kept, not managed or administered.
Last month, a National Park Service tour guide set me straight. “It wasn’t romantic at all,” he said, his voice echoing inside the Point Reyes Lighthouse, anchored on a remote California cliffside. “It was grueling, lonely work. Men were driven mad.”
Endless days of scrubbing soot from the lens, trimming the wick to keep a steady flame and shoveling tons of coal into a steam boiler. Lighting a beacon at the inhospitable ends of the earth meant deep hardship.
Advancing technology took those jobs, and the world is better for it. Most of today’s lights are computerized, ships have better means of wayfinding and men don’t have to spend backbreaking nights on desolate shores.
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But our nostalgia for lightkeepers lives on, I suspect, because of their clarity of purpose. Ships must be kept from shore, so a light must be kept ablaze. The tasks were repetitive and punishing, but the work was undeniably noble.
We’re in the midst of another wave of technological progress, a new machine age driven by better computing and cheaper technology. The World Economic Forum warns that 5 million jobs could be lost to automation in the next five years, and N.C. State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues projects that 25 percent of North Carolina’s jobs could be on the chopping block.
Less than 70 miles south of Point Reyes, I passed two of Google’s driverless cars, making their way down the main boulevard of Mountain View, heralding a world where trucks, taxis and buses no longer need a human behind the wheel. Millions of truckers and drivers may go the way of the lighthouse keeper.
This should, according to traditional theory, make for a better world. Transportation will become safer, cheaper and more efficient. Commuting will become less miserable, goods and services more affordable. One day, we might look back and romanticize the lonely-but-purposeful work of steering a truck across the open highway.
In the meantime, though, handing over yet more work to machines poses some deeply challenging questions. What do we owe a diligent human knocked off the job by a hyper-efficient machine? What kind of education is needed for this brave new world, and who will pay for it? Can the immense gains from technology be fairly shared, or will they deepen existing inequality?
Many of our state’s leaders in business, government and academia will be gathering in Raleigh this week to ponder such things. The annual Emerging Issues Forum is tackling “Future Work,” asking how we might “create enough good jobs for tomorrow.”
That’s a tall order. But I hope our leaders will spare a moment to think even bigger than jobs.
I often show students a snippet of census data that details changes in American life over time. In 1870, when the Point Reyes Lighthouse first cast a beacon over the Pacific shore, more than half of all Americans – and an even greater share of North Carolinians – were small farmers. One out of every two citizens lived and worked to keep the country fed.
Today, less than one American out every 50 grows food. That makes for an awful lot of people looking for new ways to pass the time.
We like to talk about the modern world spinning faster, about our hyper-connected lives and our frenetic days. The truth is more mundane and more unsettling – time rolls along at the same pace it always has; our days are as long and numerous as they’ve ever been. Our technical and material abundance doesn’t change that fundamental fact – it simply gives us more choices. The goal of being efficient at one thing, after all, is to save time and energy that can be spent on something else.
We are conditioned to think of this as an economic problem – “Creating Jobs in an Era of Technological Disruption,” to borrow a title from one of the Emerging Issues panels. But the riddle goes deeper. In a world where very few of us have to tend lighthouses, till the soil or drive trucks down the highway, what brings us purpose? What calls us and moves us and gets us out of bed in the morning? If technology brings more resources, more opportunities than ever before, what are we doing with them? What projects do we want to undertake as individuals, and as a people?
This goes beyond economics. It’s political. It’s philosophical. It’s a question of the soul.
I don’t know how to answer it. But I pose the idea to students in explaining why education matters, why we’re asking them to stay in classrooms and bury their heads in books a few years longer than we used to.
Forging a vision of “Future Work” is hard enough. A vision of future lives deserves some truly ambitious thought.
Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He works for the University of North Carolina.
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The annual Emerging Issues Forum is Monday and Tuesday in Raleigh. Information: iei.ncsu.edu