On the heels of CNN laying off 50+ employees because technological advances and social media content has made some editing and photojournalism jobs redundant, Stephen Colbert used part of November 28’s Colbert Report to explore what researchers are calling shadow work, which is a blanket term for all work that was once provided in customer service, but recently has led to the practice of unpaid amateurs providing work once assigned to professionals.
A constant fear of technology is that it will replace jobs. This is true in many instances; one can go back to the folklore of John Henry, the steel driving man who worked faster than machinery, but died in the process. In some cases, rote labor is lost to machines, and in other cases, information need no longer be bundled by certain trades, as the Internet allows individuals the ability to search with ease. There is no need for VCR repairmen in a world of DVDs, Blu-Ray and streaming video. Likewise, travel agents have been largely replaced by Priceline, Expedia and other information-gathering resources. 100 years ago, the hay baler lost a great deal of business thanks to Henry Ford’s automobile.
Professionals are not immune, as the CNN situation shows. LegalZoom allows individuals to perform some basic legal operations, WebMD lets users deduce their ailment after submitting symptoms, and Khan Academy could do the teaching without worrying about the actual teacher. But professionals are not professionals because of their ability to perform rote tasks or their ability to hoard information; they are professionals because they possess a mixture of tactile ability, information retrieval, problem solving, reasoning and deduction. Doctors know diseases, can perform exams and surgeries, but also have to weigh a variety of issues in relation to the patient before they diagnose and treat. Lawyers know case history and can draft affidavits and decipher contracts, but also have to weigh a variety of issues in relation to the client before they litigate, prosecute or defend. Teachers know content, can draft a test and put up a bulletin board, but also have to weigh a variety of issues in relation to the student before they implement a learning strategy and create follow-up assignments (as long as given the time).
There should be a place for Everyman in the different structures of the world; the world is not made up of philosopher-kings and hoi polloi. But we cannot replace professionals with amateurs unless we are willing to see a significant downtrend in quality of work and information. Social media can create an entryway, and that entryway should not be a place of hot air where ideas are shared but no one listens. However, it cannot replace the professional’s research or breadth of knowledge.