Keen and Zittrain’s competing realities can co-exist, but is technology really the issue?

At the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain debate over whether the rise of technology is creating or replacing good jobs. Are there more quality opportunities for the average worker to find employment, or are workers being replaced by technology, leaving them with no option but to take on more menial work for lower pay while a few companies collect the profit? Zittrain argued the more optimistic point, while Keen could not find a silver lining.

I found the debate fascinating because, though Keen and Zittrain seemed to see two contrasting realities, it seems to me that both realities exist simultaneously. Through the use of emerging technology, some people are able to find new ways to earn money that better fit their lifestyles. At the same time, other people are losing their jobs to an automated process. In some areas, people have FREE access to resources that they would have previously paid money for, but the people who provided those services for a fee have lost their customers… but those services are also generating new and different jobs… but are the new jobs enough to replace those that were lost?

Before writing this post I decided that I needed to see some numbers. I looked at America’s most recent employment numbers, charts showing the rising and falling of industries, and reports on which industries are hiring college grads. Service-providing industries are rapidly growing (example, health care) while labor industries are shrinking (example, mining). As of this very moment in history, according to the couple reliable sources that I dug up in a short amount of time, job prospects are becoming more numerous, though in different industries than before.

Taking a step back, I realize that I am not an economist, and that this is a very complicated field of study. The reports I found don’t speak to quality of the jobs being created in comparison to the quality of the jobs being lost. Another factor that isn’t shown in the data I found is the amount of training needed for the new jobs. Are the jobs being added accessible to the unemployed?

Working at a technical college I hear a lot about the skills gap, where the unemployed population lacks the skill level to fill open positions. I also just learned of the term “grey collar worker” used to describe a highly educated individual who can only find lower skilled employment, like my younger sister who has a four-year degree in international relations, yet she has only found employment doing clerical office work. These two realities exist at once! There aren’t enough skilled workers to fill the open positions AND there aren’t enough open positions for the skilled workers! How can this be?!

Debators keep bringing up the labor market in the 1950s as an example of a time when the middle class flourished, people could find good moderately skilled careers that would allow them to provide for their families and send their kids to college. However, now that all of their kids have gone to college to get highly skilled training, some industries are hurting for skilled labor while others are saturated. Is this really solely a technology issue?

Bringing this back around to the debate between Keen and Zittrain, Keen argues that technology is taking the lower skilled jobs, leaving a large population unable to find quality work and Zittrain argues that there are emerging areas and systems of employment that might provide balance to this economic shift. My quick research does seem to show that employment is on the rise, though the industries who are hiring are shifting, backing up Zittrain’s point of view. After taking in all of this information, I am left with the following conclusions:

  • There is a problem in employment, but though technology definitely plays a role, it is only part of a much larger issue.
  • Our culture, as Keen points out, is shifting from an industrial economy to a digital economy at an unprecedented rate. This results in some industries being left in the dust while there are few constraints on the new guys (Google is brought up over and over), allowing them free reign to dominate the field, yielding profits to a lucky few.
  • Economic theory and public policy are straining to keep up with the changes in the market. Zittrain and Keen bring up Uber’s legal issues as an example. Are the drivers employees or contractors? What percentage of the profit can Uber collect? Does Uber have to provide benefits to it’s workers?
  • Meanwhile, there are either too many or too few skilled workers, depending on the industry.

The rapidly shifting job market in this new digital economy is leaving a lot of people playing catch up. Some are lucky enough to ride the wave, while others are struggling to stay afloat. Is technology the problem, or is the issue more deeply rooted in our society’s cultural expectations and policies that are still trying to catch up with rapid change? Keen’s arguments were all on point, but other than decrying the state of things, I didn’t see him offering any possible paths forward. The optimist, Zittrain, at least mentioned that we must face these issues head on, examine policy, change our expectations and move forward.

I look forward to hearing where my classmates stand on this issue. I know this is a huge issue where politics and values come into play, and I want to hear from other opinions. I am often surprised to find so much resistance from my classmates when I take a pro-technology stance. The way I see it, the momentum pushing our society towards a more digital age is a fact. We have the choice to meet it head on, embrace it and work out the kinks… or to dig in our heels and get passed over. Just the fact that the individuals taking this class are mostly professionals who are investing our time and money into graduate-level professional development means that we are all being affected by this economic shift, and we are moving forward! Tell me your thoughts!


United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Industry employment and output projections to 2022, December 2013

Michigan State University, Collegiate Employment Research Institute, Recruiting Trends Report Briefs 2015-16

United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Employment Situation – September 2015, released October 2, 2015

Posted on November 1, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi Allie,

    Keen and Zittrain make excellent points for both sides of the coin, and yes, in some ways both arguments are happening simultaneously. Research shows that most jobs being created, at least in Florida, are low wage, service jobs. And service jobs don’t invigorate the economy. Employees in these professions the majority of which are hospitality and tourism, need little skill and less education. As such, they aren’t paid well, often don’t get health insurance or retirement benefits, and usually work a second job.

    Sure, there are high service jobs like nursing, computer programmer etc. but they require education: one that’s now costing so much that people are tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they graduate. And if they can’t get a job in their field (like your sister), they take those lower service jobs. These jobs don’t pay enough for anyone to buy a house (a major indicator of economic stimulation), don’t offer much advancement, and because they’re filled by “over-qualified” applicants, lesser educated and skilled people don’t work.

    One of the ways to fix this is to MAKE something, and that’s where the great growth of technology is benefit. Technology is useful and almost vital in our society and I think a heavier emphasis on learning more beyond Computers 101 is needed in our middle and high schools. I’m a big believer that everyone needs to learn to do something with their hands and their heads, so when their hands give out they can still work. If our schools would emphasize learning how to produce technology parts, systems, whatever, as well as theories and application, our next generation labor force might be more relevant to the needs of businesses.

    Here are two sides to the point: A Forbes article saying Apple is a services industry that will grow our economy:


    And a New York Times video illuminating the “iPhone economy” of outsourcing:

    (They have to be copied and pasted).

    • Hi! Thank you for your insightful post! It looks like I have to “approve” but clicking “approve” doesn’t seem to help.Perhaps commenting on it will? I’ll do what I can 🙂

  2. I, for one, am on your side when it comes to jobs in technology. I believe that there are many jobs and opportunities to own your own business when the internet took off. With the use of smart phones, you can keep your business going anywhere, even if you are 100 miles away from it. 🙂

    In the beginning, I did not have much experience or training in computers, internet, or building a business. But by using technology, reading how-to guides and connecting with others online, I built a good online business. Bringing in social media helped my business grow even more. I would not know where I would be today without technology and my online business. I believe that many others feel the same way, as they are able to promote their talents and make money online. Some people are so successful that they are able to quit their normal 9-5 jobs and just focus on their online businesses.

    Thus, I absolutely love technology. It can take a poor low-class person who has determination to succeed, and turn them into middle- or high-class folks. With regular jobs, this can take years, but online, this can take a matter of months to a year. 🙂

    I will admit that finding jobs online and working online will need some training to build the skills necessary to work technology jobs. But training is the easy part, as libraries offer technology classes for free. For those who do not have a computer and internet, they can use the library’s computers and internet and work from the library, from the time that they open until the time that they close. Otherwise, if a person has a computer but no internet, some libraries offer a free Wi-Fi hotspot available for checkout. Having this hotspot means that you have free internet no matter where you go. Thus, there really is no reason to be unemployed. People just need to be told where to look and what options are available to them. Maybe schools, hospitals, churches, food-shelves, and community centers can provide hand-outs about these opportunities. Sometimes I think that the hardest part about not finding a job is not knowing where to look or where to go for training.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.