One of the things that’s driving me absolutely bonkers this election season is the focus all the candidates have on returning the USA to the economy of the 1950’s and 60’s. All of them, but especially Messers Trump and Sanders, seem to think that if we wall ourselves off from the rest of the world, we can return to those halcyon days.
It’s a pipe dream, and if you’re buying into it, you might be stuffing something other than tobacco in your pipe. I’m going to drop some knowledge on you that you might have heard whispers of, but never been forced to grasp. The “good ol’ days” are gone forever – and they’re never coming back. Labor-intensive work, requiring little to no skills that pays well, is a thing of your memories. Soon, many of the jobs that we kid ourselves about being in demand will have gone the way of the blacksmith, the cobbler and the typesetter.
It’s understandable that most of us do not want to hear this. We grew up being to ld that if we worked hard, kept out of trouble and were good citizens we could live the American dream. Then, one day we woke up to find that our jobs disappeared and they aren’t coming back. Nobody told us why, or what jobs would replace them. Then, we found out the jobs that did replace them required all kinds of skills that most of us lacked. It didn’t matter that we’d proven ourselves as good employees by every other measure: we simply didn’t qualify for these new jobs.
It would be wonderful if we could bring back those labor-intensive jobs that didn’t require much in the way of training or skills. But here’s the thing: anything that’s labor-intensive is now being done elsewhere, for much less than you would accept as a pay rate. No company in their right mind would bring those jobs back here. As an example, let’s take Apple Corporation’s outsourcing the manufacturing of iPhones to FoxConn, a Chinese company. What nobody told you (or apparently, Mr. Trump) is that FoxConn turns out those millions of units using fewer than 100 employees, and they’re mostly engaged in packaging and shipping. 85% of an iPhone’s manufacturing is automated: it’s built by robots. So, yes, I suppose you could force Apple to build a factory in the USA. But do you suppose they wouldn’t also build the doggone thing with robots? Of course they would.
This is the reality that the snake oil salesmen have avoided telling you this election season. What’s worse, they aren’t telling you that the move away from those jobs is accelerating. They aren’t telling you that by 2025, many of the jobs we currently take for granted will be gone, replaced by automation or cheaper competition from overseas. Think of it this way: the only place you find elevator operators today is in old movies. Fairly soon, anyone who drives for a living, works in the fast-food industry, works in a warehouse or does general office work will be looking for a new career. How can I say that with certainty? Because those jobs are already being slowly replaced. Amazon now has robots doing order picking. McDonald’s is rolling out ordering kiosks in their restaurants. Self-driving vehicles are already on the roads, and companies like Uber and UPS are already in partnerships with vehicle makers to implement driverless delivery systems.
In other words, you needn’t be prescient to realize that the jobs of today are disappearing and that the jobs of yesterday are not coming back. But rather than gird Americans for this reality, we get platitudes about “forcing” manufacturing jobs back to US shores. When future jobs are discussed at all, it’s usually with vague rejoinders about “getting the skills for the jobs of tomorrow.” The politicians are afraid to tell you the truth. It’s a truth I suspect most of you have already grasped, even if you haven’t acknowledged it.
This isn’t the first time we’ve undergone a dramatic shift in the workforce. Over a century ago, our great-grandparents were faced with the shift from an agrarian society to a manufacturing one. They didn’t handle it particularly well. Now it’s out turn, as we lurch from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy. But we can do one of two things: we can embrace it and lead the world once again. Or we can fight it and get left behind, becoming a second-rate power.
Well, actually everyone is missing a few things regarding the fight between Apple and the FBI.
First, in case you’re living under a rock, to recap what the fight is over. One of the San Bernardino shooters had an iPhone that was issued to him through his job, a county agency. The FBI would like to look at the data on the phone, as it might contain information valuable to tracing the terrorists movements, finances and communications prior to the attack. This is not an unreasonable thought. It seems as if the FBI crossed all their legal T’s and dotted their Constitutional I’s, even getting a warrant for the search. Unfortunately, the FBI is incapable of getting past the security measures Apple has built into the iPhone’s operating system. So they went back to court and obtained an order that compels Apple to bypass the phone’s security. Apple is refusing, citing privacy concerns.
That’s the 10,000 foot view of the issue. And were it that easy, I don’t think Apple would put up this much a fuss about it. The problem comes about once you drop down and look at the issue up close. And the reason everyone is freaking out, I think, is they don’t understand the technology or how it works. They only know that it works – which, of course, is what makes Apple’s iOS so successful.
That’s the first thing that everyone is missing: nobody actually understands what it is they’re complaining about. For a guy who’s worked in software development and mobile tech, it would be comical if the stakes weren’t so high. Everyone just assumes that Apple can magically give the FBI the phone’s unlock code. It isn’t that easy. The iPhone’s encryption is integral to iOS – the only way to get past the unlock code is to break the encryption within iOS. To comply with the FBI’s request, Apple would have to write a software program that would alter the way iOS functions. In essence, they would have to destroy their own product.
That’s the second thing that everyone is missing: the government’s order would require Apple to blow up their business model. One of the reasons, perhaps the biggest reason, Apple has been so successful is they’ve stuck to a simple proposition for over 20 years. That proposition is that their software and hardware live as an integrated unit. Form and function, together as one. To make that happen, Apple’s products have always worked with proprietary, closed operating systems. The underlying code is not available to the general public. The FBI is asking Apple to do the exact opposite of what they’ve always done. To write code that opens iOS to the public domain; in essence, to allow anyone with minimal code writing ability to alter the way iOS (and thus, the iPhone itself) works. Is that reasonable? Can the government actually require a private firm to fundamentally change the way they do business, create products and market them?
The next thing everyone seems to be missing is that the government has massive signals intelligence infrastructure. It includes the NSA, CIA, DIA, as well as the FBI and 12 other agencies you might not have heard of. A major part of signals intelligence is code-breaking. By demanding Apple break their encryption, the United States Intelligence Community is announcing to the world they are incapable of cracking the code themselves.
The Director of National Intelligence’s counterparts in Beijing, Tehran and Moscow must be laughing themselves silly at the admission.
Now, this might sound ludicrous, but it seems to me that a government that spends $4 trillion every year can come up with $600 to buy an iPhone and have one of their ace code-breakers get past the iOS encryption. If they can’t, then we need to seriously ask why people aren’t being fired.
Finally, the last thing everyone seems to be missing is what having the iOS code broken and in the public domain would mean for privacy and security in the digital age. This isn’t like asking for the key to a locked room. The reality is that most of us have our entire lives on our phones. Everything from sensitive financial data to our Facebook profiles live in the bits and bytes of data stored on them. The government is asking Apple to provide a tool that would allow everyone access to everything stored there. Additionally, if your one of the millions of users who’ve stored things in the cloud, that data would also be available to anyone with a $10 NFC reader and 30 seconds to get close enough to pull it from your phone. The concept of privacy would be moot.
It’s a lot to digest. But what many in the media and government want to portray as relatively simple is anything but.
I’m writing this with a heavy heart. Well, typing might be the better description. I hardly ever actually write anything any longer. And if I really wanted to be exact, I would say that I’m typing this on my smartphone.
30 years ago this would have been unimaginable. I wrote almost everything. Even when I typed something on my old Olivetti, I wrote it first – since making corrections on the fly was time consuming and rarely came out right, anyway. 30 years ago a handheld device that could do everything this smartphone can didn’t exist, not even on Star Trek. 30 years ago, if I needed to make a call away from home I had to find a public phone – and pray I had a dime in my pocket. 30 years ago, video recorders were the size of a car battery (and just as heavy) and portable music consisted of tinny sounding radios. 30 years ago, computers took up an entire room. The idea of having one in every room in my house, along with one I can fit in my pocket, was unimaginable.
Unimaginable, except to one man who had the vision of making personal computing a reality. Over the next three decades his vision would transform the way the world communicates, interacts and thinks. That innovative spark would not only change the world as a whole, but change the future of one geeky, 16 year old from a sleepy little town on the Jersey shore. The way Steve Jobs envisioned the way the world could work fired my imagination and led me into a career in tech.
So, you’ll pardon me if I occassionally break into tears over the next day or so. When Mr. Jobs passed away earlier this evening, the world may have lost the greatest technologist since Thomas Edison. But I lost a hero.