Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Deskilling the super services

The new super services
Journalism has broken its barriers, with mass journalism on the net the new reality.  IT numbers are exploding as applications proliferate.  Pilot numbers just keep on going up, even through the collapse of airlines and recession.  Actors are on the march as Hollywood studios fade out behind the assault of animation and global production locations.  Medical technicians - radiographers, laboratory workers – can wind down the health sector by their industrial action.  At the same time, medical assistants not doctors are increasingly attending the sick.  Could these things be related?
It is a paradox of technology that as it advances, so it demystifies, and so it allows more and more people into what were once very exclusive clubs.
Pre-packaged expertise
The world of machinery, machine tools, and automation that deskilled industrial production over the past century, that broke the power of many industrial trades, today has parallels among the services.  The result is that expertise that can be relatively easily replicated and taught in bite-sized chunks replaces the more prolonged intellectual training that has been the mark of high order services and professions.
Medical diagnosis that was once the preserve of high intellect, keen intuition, and years of dedication is now simplified, facilitated, accelerated by instruments operated and read by technicians.  Airline pilots today require the capacity to read and respond to computers more than to understand and manage the vagaries of a flying machine, or to read the weather and keep a watchful eye on the world outside the cockpit. 

Computer programmes are most likely to be based on databases or specialised applications or compiled from open code, several steps closer to everyday language than the arcane source codes and machine language that was once the programmers’ obscure domain. 
The design of grand buildings – and not so grand ones – is no longer a cross–over between artist and engineer.  Computers programmes bypass the creative doodling, figuring and skilled drafting of architects.  Even the mechanics of auto maintenance require a capacity to read instruments rather than to understand all the intricacies of the internal combustion engine.  Lawyers can lean on computers to scan and analyse cases or highlight the subtleties of legislation rather than on librarians and late nights to painstakingly compile ever more complex cases .
Policy analysis and the management of the state itself, once the preserve of refined graduates of refined universities, is now the plaything of legions of social scientists of various persuasions.
We can all have more
So what does all this mean?  Among other things, it means that more people have access to more services.  It means that services once available only to the rich are now available to the masses.  It means that the exclusivity of the most qualified and the most excellent in delivering services is diminished as the capacity of technology and technicians takes over.  It may also mean that our expectations of services – to travel comfortably and arrive safely, to be made well, to live in light and comfort, or to be entertained extravagantly -- have increased.
It may also mean the democratisation of services.  On the one hand, we have a greater expectation that our expectations will be fulfilled.  On the other, practices which were once the preserve of the highly educated and skilled are now subject to industrial action.
But where does it come from?
This all raises the question of where the creative capacity behind the deskilling of the service sector lies.  Is it in the hands of a continuing cadre of bright academics and thinkers, the super nerds?  Does it lie deep within the laboratories of multinational firms?  Or is the necessary insight and innovation most likely to come from the creative fringes of entrepreneurship?  The answer probably covers all these categories and more.  It may be just a small subset of Richard Florida's transformative creative class, the truly creative core of an expanding sector service providers.  
What does it mean?
The issues raised by the demystifying and democratising of higher order services are associated with the nature of development.  Here are some possibilities:
(1)    High order services are moving at an increasing rate through the cycle of innovation, development, and delivery.  They have their own momentum as we seek and are delivered ever increasing applications of services.
(2)    High order services are unhinged from their social and geographical centres.  More people in more places can benefit from the enhanced living standards they offer.  In this respect they promise a degree of social levelling.
(3)    They involve a shift from personal to corporate supply.  The simplification and replicability associated with deskilling formerly highly skilled services means that they are more likely to be supplied by larger organisations, while still offering opportunities for small niche providers to provide specialist applications.
(4)    As the general level of skills in a profession rises through the intrusion of technology, so a small cadre of super skilled rise even further – the super specialist fulfilling new demands: the highly specialised surgeon, the international expert in environmental law, or the reporter with years spent on the front line providing globally syndicated columns on international affairs.
(5)    High order services can be delivered from anywhere to anywhere with relative ease.  They may no longer be a marker of social progress, to be developed and delivered from the largest cities or most developed nations.
All of this seems to be about growing demand as monopoly over supply is diminished.  There will still be instances where the new technicians may withdraw their labour, however, in a fashion unheard of among their professional predecessors.  At that point an increased level of societal dependence on the newly democratised services might become evident.  But it is more likely that the excessive incomes associated with highly specialised services will themselves diminish.
City matters
And what are the implications for our cities?  We can draw analogies from the history of production perhaps.  The diminishing importance of accessibility as new channels of distribution come into being .  The capacity to offer services from remote, low cost locations .  While this suggests the prospect of diminished travel for services, another prospect may be that proliferation of higher order services increases demand for local, regional, national, and international movement.  It may also contribute to the decentralisation of populations to the extent that dependence on metropolitan institutions diminishes.
There may also be a further spread of incomes as the growing body of service experts, the new technicians, increase their share of wealth while those without the skills are left to the low-paid low-level maintenance jobs, and low service suburbs. 
Do we need a solution?
Having made a prognosis the temptation here is to suggest an outcome.  Having diagnosed a problem, perhaps, to suggest a remedy.  Having identified an area of uncertainty, to propose a policy.  But no.  Having been somewhat skimpy on analysis, I had better leave that to the experts.


Unknown said...

Hi Phil interesting think piece.. a few things immediately spring to mind: beware reductionism or essentialism; not convinced when equating technicians with high order skills - which relates to my first point - reducing "medicine" to a technocratic exercise, for example, undervalues the human element and overvalues the technocratic. A diagnosis is far more than analysing the presentation of a group of symptoms (objective data) it involves understanding a persons socio-cultural context; family history work history relationships etc etc so the subjective can be just as - if not more - important than the objective. Even in todays higly connected world with access to information and connections the world over and advanced communicsations technologies most of our interactions are STILL with people that are close to us - geographically! Human interaction still means something.

Phil McDermott said...

Fair comment, thanks Dave. Maybe its the machines that capture the higher order skills, not the operators! Dont't think that I particularly endorse the commodification and depersonalisation of services(although there are upsides which we can capture if we are sensitive to the institutions involved(, but this may be an inevitable consequence of the progress of technology (and globalisation). You are right, though, the challenge is to keep the human face. But we don't have to flock to large cities for this. Personal interaction may be easier in the suburban practice or the cottage hospital than in Hospital Central - but with access to much the same specialist expertise, thanks to technology.