I was a lawyer earlier in my career. I worked at a large firm, located on several floors of a high-rise. All of the fax machines were on one floor (this was before email). A team of people would manage all of the incoming and outgoing faxes and then deliver the faxes – by hand – to the lawyers after receipt or transmission. The people who worked in the fax room were affectionately known as the “fax guys” and this was their full-time job. It was a critical job. The fax machines were magic.
The fax guys no longer exist.
Since the beginning of time, innovation, especially technological innovation, has dislocated jobs in the medium run and redistributed jobs to new and different industries in the long run. The shift in agricultural jobs (41% of the U.S. workforce in 1900, but only 2% of the U.S. workforce in 2010)¹ is probably the most often cited example of this phenomena, but there are plenty of other examples including travel agents (14% decline from 2006 to 2011)², mail carriers (7% decline in the past 5 years)³, bank tellers – it’s a long list.
You would have a tough time convincing me that the innovation in each of the above industries, while difficult on some, has been a bad thing. Yet, even with all of this actual and anecdotal evidence, we start a “fresh analysis” every time a new, groundbreaking technology rolls out. And, the analysis always starts with the fear of job loss, accusing the people who invent these technologies and start these companies of solely existing to reduce jobs.
Narrative Science opened shop on April 1, 2010. 28 days after our launch, on April 29, 2010, Business Week ran an article titled “Are Sportswriters Really Necessary,” and the speculation as to whether Quill would put people out of work officially began. To note, a few years later, Business Week ran another story about us titled “Can an Algorithm Replace Stock Analysts?”.
When these articles about Narrative Science first appeared, my instinct was to fight the job loss accusations. I know that companies using Quill are freeing up human resources to move up the value chain so they can start doing the things that machines can’t yet do. Quill unlocks resources and allows for higher order thinking and action by employees who simply do not have the time today. But, I also know that once those resources are unlocked, it will become clear that some people can’t move to the next level. And, as with so many earlier innovations, those people will need to be retrained in order to find new roles, possibly in new organizations, which are a better fit.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been happening forever (see the Wikipedia entry on Luddites). Technology disrupts industries and old jobs vanish as new ones appear. Otherwise, we’d all just be a group of unemployed farmers.
Will people lose their jobs due to technology such as Quill? It’s possible. But the reality is that the technology provides substantial benefits to both organizations and individuals. And in my opinion, those that embrace this technology will hold a competitive advantage in their market sector.
Look at it this way; do we really think we’d be better off if the fax guys were still delivering faxes? Don’t we think that people have better, more productive, things to do with their time?