Following up on the recent discussion of legal automation, I note that Paul Krugman has added a blog post ("Falling Demand for Brains?", 3/5/2011) and an Op-Ed column ("Degrees and Dollars", 3/6/2011), pushing an idea that he first suggested in a 1996 NYT Magazine piece ("White Collars Turn Blue", 9/29/1996), where he wrote as if from the perspective of 2096:
When something becomes abundant, it also becomes cheap. A world awash in information is one in which information has very little market value. In general, when the economy becomes extremely good at doing something, that activity becomes less, rather than more, important. Late-20th-century America was supremely efficient at growing food; that was why it had hardly any farmers. Late-21st-century America is supremely efficient at processing routine information; that is why traditional white-collar workers have virtually disappeared.
Prof. Krugman is by no means the only one to have suggested that computer technology will eventually replace many white-collar jobs — worry (or jubilation) about the automation of intellectual labor has been widespread for at least a half a century. But so far, despite enormous changes in how these jobs are defined and carried out, the expected massive reductions in numbers have not generally occurred. For an early review and discussion, see Erik Brynjolfsson, "The Productivity Paradox of Information Technology", CACM 1993, for which Google Scholar lists 1,581 citations:
Delivered computing-power in the US economy has increased by more than two orders of magnitude since 1970 (figure 1) yet productivity, especially in the service sector, seems to have stagnated (figure 2). Given the enormous promise of IT to usher in "the biggest technological revolution men have known" (Snow, 1966), disillusionment and even frustration with the technology is increasingly evident in statements like "No, computers do not boost productivity, at least not most of the time" (Economist, 1990).
Perhaps machine learning, AI, and computational linguistics will finally bring about the long-predicted migration from white-collar cubicle farms to the urban reservoirs of unemployment. But history suggests that it would be prudent to wait and see. Farming delivers a relatively well-defined and consistent product: a bushel of wheat is a bushel of wheat, however radically the process of creating and delivering it changes. The services that (for example) lawyers deliver are more abstract, and technological innovation (whether in the form of typewriters, copy machines, word processors, document retrieval, or document-understanding systems) is likely to lead to changes in the product as well as changes in the way the product is created and delivered.
In considering these questions, we might look back even further, to Norbert Wiener's 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings:
It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.