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Commentary: The predatory Internet

by on November 04, 2013 10:40 AM

I saw the future outside my apartment building in Washington, D.C., last week — and it was a brown van. To be exact, it was a United Parcel Service van and the operator was struggling with a huge load of parcels on a hand truck.

You can’t tell too much from a parcel, but the shape gives the contents away to some extent: a small, rolled carpet; a large, flat-screen television; about a dozen boxes that could contain a variety of goods — goodies for fun and essentials to keep things going. Talk about Frankie Laines’1949 hit “Mule Train.”

Every day the UPS delivery man is at our building, sometimes with more, sometimes with less. Sometimes he brings clothes for my wife, and recently he brought a book for me. What the trusty fellow in the brown van doesn’t unload, his compatriots from FedEx and the United States Postal Service do.

A sea of goods flow into this building each day; goods that have never seen a retail store, never been offered for sale in a mall or high street shop, but goods that people want anyway. Welcome to online shopping and the future disruption it’ll bring.

What’s missing with this shopping is the shop, whether it’s a big box store in the mall or a ma-and-pa operation.

It’s part of one of the great historical revolution brought about by the Internet. All the data show that online shopping grows every day.

Eventually, in the way that the malls undermined the neighborhood shop and the chains killed off those wonderful downtown department stores, a different one for each city (Garfinkel’s in Washington, D.C., Jordan Marsh in Boston and I. Magnin in San Francisco), the Internet may bury the malls.

Make no mistake, the Internet is a hellishly efficient and cruel exterminator of jobs, as well as a ruthless agent of social change.

As so often, the political class is still convinced that job growth can be achieved by economic and regulatory policy shifts. It’s easier to blame presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, depending on your ideological persuasion, even though the evidence of massive change is everywhere, than to face a new reality.

It’s nigh impossible to speak to anyone on the phone at a bank, an insurance company or a utility without going through 20 minutes of computer-assisted torture in the form of voice prompts — “Press star 2 to get your balance.”

Academia has been surprisingly slow to study and quantify the job-threatening nature of the new order. MIT, Oxford and Harvard have spoken up, and now you can expect more pessimism from on high as academics get the sense of their own employment insecurity.

In the ivory towers, those citadels of refined arrogance, there is deep disquiet. The cause: MOOCS, or massive open online courses. These are attracting students by the hundreds of thousands; some for credit, some just for the joy of watching the most articulate professors in action.

They are creating a star system that favors the telegenic over everything else and could, in time, change the nature of higher education so profoundly that many lesser universities will close up shop.

History tells us that new ways of doing things lead to new areas of endeavor; agrarian people became urban manufacturers, manual labor gave way to service-sector work.

The computerization of work is an equal-opportunity un-employer. Is new work possible?

Factories in China and Germany are as subject to computer predation as those in the United States. We may yet see a global economic collapse driven by too much productivity — computer productivity.

This column was written on a computer and distributed by computer. The contents were generated by a human being, but that may change. Watch this space. Stay online.



Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicles" on PBS. His column is written for Hearst Newspapers.
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