If there was an allegorical story that might serve as a warning for the dangers of technology, it would be the legend of John Henry. As the folk tale has it, during the railroad-building boom, Henry challenged a steam-powered hammer to outdo his own, man-powered hammering force.
At the time, builders still looked upon mechanization skeptically, and bets were on Henry to win. So he huffed and puffed, and ultimately beat the hammer — but ended up dying as a result, hammer still in hand.
Disruptive technologies like the steam-powered drill have been hacking away at labor ever since. For instance, back in 1900, the USDA estimates that hired farm workers made up 38 percent of the U.S. workforce. Today, thanks to mechanization, they make up less than one percent.
Technology being developed by the University of Southern California called Contour Crafting could force construction jobs to go the same route. Behrokh Khoshnecis, director of the Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at USC and inventor of this technology, laid it all out in a recent Ted x Ojai talk.
By using the technology of 3D printing, and scaling it up to the size of real-life buildings, Contour Crafting's possibilities are astonishing. “We anticipate that an average house, a 2500-square-foot house, can be built in about 20 hours, custom-designed,” Khoshnecis said during the talk. Even the manufacture of intricate essentials like plumbing and electrical networks can be automated.
According to Khoshnecis, this can all help benefit the billion-odd people worldwide who don’t have access to adequate shelter. By expediting the construction process the cost, waste, and corruption associated with these kinds of projects can be taken down significantly.
But what about the jobs?
There were close to 6 million construction jobs in the US as of November 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Out of all of these, 641,860 were construction laborers in 2012.
The construction of a typical middle-income family home can employ up to 63 workers over the course of a four-month period, estimates Alterron Phillips, a construction attorney and consultant with Phillips & James Construction Consulting Firm in Florida. “[Construction is] a big labor force,” he said. “You even have people whose main job it is to clean up. So you’re gonna be talking about putting a lot of people out of work.”
Besides, he continued, “not everyone’s education is at the level of college. We need to keep these trades alive so people can eat and live.” He also said that the ability to build homes in 20 hours will lead to a devaluation of the home as a family investment. “How do you compare one builder to another? The way it is now, it’s because of individual expertise.”
A similar fate of mechanization and mass production can already be seen in Detroit's ups and downs. Yes, the impact of globalization played a large role in the city's urban flight and decay, but now the same manufacturing jobs that might have taken a whole team to complete can be done with a fraction of the manpower.
“I believe in manufacturing,” President Obama said during a visit to a truck plant last year. “It makes our country strong.” But for all the good that manufacturing does for the country as a whole, technological advances mean that the return of the sector does not necessarily mean a healthy jobs market for would-be workers.
Regardless of all the controversy that Contour Crafting might stir up, Khoshnecis says that there is no need for alarm. “The world did not come to an end as a result of utilization of agricultural technologies,” he said in his talk. “There will always be better economies resulted from advancement and utilization of technologies that just make sense.”
Which means that while day labor jobs could potentially see massive layoffs, someone will still need to run the machines, and—most important of all—someone will still need to design the buildings. So in some ways, protecting the future of labor might all come back to the simple fact that we already recognize as true: in the future, your livelihood will depend on your education.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.