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What can no machine replace?

Professor Erkki Karvonen contemplates change, jobs and values.

In early 2014, the media published a report by the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (ETLA) according to which at least one third of jobs could be replaced by automation. Erkki Karvonen, Professor of Information and Communication Studies, discussed the issue last year when an Oxford University report on future jobs in the USA was published.

According to the report, half of jobs can be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence. In the world of ICT, new jobs are not created in the same way as in the chimney industry. New jobs are, however, created all the time.

“The new jobs could also include library jobs. One major trend has seen machines replace a large amount of manual labour. The increasingly intelligent technology is also able to perform intellectual and mental work, especially if the work consists of routine tasks.

According to Karvonen, the moral of ETLA’s report was that machines cannot replace work that requires creativity and improvisation. The human mind is unrivalled when creative solutions are required.

In libraries, the jobs that will disappear include those that contain a lot of routines. On the other hand, professionals who design content or chief librarians managing versatile library services will probably be in equal demand with hotel managers, who were given as examples of safe jobs in the news on ETLA’s report.  


Materialistic values

According to Karvonen, the neo-liberal social values that spread in the 1980s paved the way to the current situation. At that time, market economy principles started to be applied to the public sector.

Today’s market-oriented values and technological development have led to a situation in which quite a few traditional services and institutions face a legitimacy crisis. “You have to justify your right to exist,” says Karvonen.

In Karvonen’s opinion, libraries’ justification for existence could be democracy. “The value of democracy is hard to deny. The library is a basic service in a democratic society. It is a must in a civilised country. The library brings about a lot of necessary and good things, and it enjoys wide public support.”

Researchers have put forward eight sets of values in terms of which we can contemplate the right of existence. The sets of values related to industry, marketing and projects place high value on efficiency and competitiveness. But there are also sets of values related to nationality, inspiration and environmental friendliness. If libraries’ right to exist is based on these values, there is certainly a lot of work that cannot be replaced by machines.


A world without human contact?

The first form of automation at libraries was the self-service loan machine, and now development is heading towards entirely self-service libraries. Automated loan and return machines have freed librarians from routine work. Self-service has extended opening hours, but how far are we prepared to go?

“It is certainly possible that libraries will be developed in the same direction as postal services. i.e. towards full automation. But what will we lose in the process? “We cannot be stupid enough to make ourselves redundant, can we?” Professor Karvonen says with wonder in his voice.

Why don’t we appreciate service culture and human contacts? Will technological development deprive us of something irreplaceable and destroy customer service?

According to Professor Karvonen, we have been conditioned towards self-service. Savings and efficiency may, however, be more apparent than real. If we take a wider view of the development, we may see that savings in one place may create costs in another. Savings and self-service may eventually have a high price label, Karvonen continues.

“We should also put a price on self-service in terms of the national economy. If an office employee is laid off at a university on the pretext of making savings, the teachers and researchers will have to do his or her work and spend their time on work that they are not educated for. Productivity would suffer if people didn’t work overtime to compensate for the lost working hours. Today’s systems have led to a situation in white-collar jobs wherein profitability and savings are created through unpaid overtime.”

In addition to blue-collar work, services can also be automated and turned into self-service. This process of development has perhaps only just begun. On the other hand, new service jobs are created all the time. “Technology has the potential to destroy customer service and replace it with self-service solutions at  shop check-outs and at airports, for example. Technology probably cannot destroy all customer service, however. There is increasing demand for various kinds of coaches, for instance.”

In Professor Karvonen’s opinion, a library professional could help library users by making literature recommendations much in the same manner as personal trainers or wine specialists help their clients. Some libraries already have reading and music coaches.


Unemployment or experience production?

Sociologists have predicted a transfer from the production of goods to the experience industry, i.e. the production of experiences and adventures.

“Machines work more efficiently and cost-effectively than human beings. This scenario includes a utopian possibility that people, having been freed from work, could take it easy and focus on e.g. creative activities.”

“A bleaker scenario is that most people will face unemployment and exclusion, and those who still have jobs will have too much work and they run the rat race towards burnout,” adds Karvonen.

To reach a balance, we need discussion on values and creative economic thinking. According to Karvonen,  the mainstream economics of today is the economics of supply. Consumer demand and purchasing power are largely sidelined.

“If people  have no work, they cannot afford to buy products and services. The worker’s alter ego is the consumer. Today, prices are low and the consumer is king, but the workers’ situation is getting tighter and their purchasing power continues to weaken. In the end, this will lead to decreased consumption.”