We're talking about work and labor in tonight's Catholic Social Thought and the Law seminar. One of the questions I posed to the students about the reading was:
Laborem Exercens suggests that it is through work that we realize our humanity. Laborem Exercens sees technology as an ally when it assists and augments work and improves its quality. Technology can become almost an enemy when the mechanization of work takes away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility. Discuss these two views of technology.
Several of the students had really interesting takes on the problem, but I was especially interested this observation from one of the students:
From a professional work point of view, the benefits of technology are even clearer. Doctors rely on ever-evolving technologies to improve their performance. A doctor is better able to provide accurate diagnoses with the aid of MRIs and biopsies, and certainly their patients are better off with improved technology.
Even lawyers are indisputably better off with technology. Research via Westlaw and Lexis is orders of magnitude faster and more comprehensive than paper research. Typing up briefs and memos on a PC (or even using speech recognition software) is much faster than writing by hand or using a typewriter. Without a doubt, technology increases a lawyer’s productivity. ...
We don’t really see technology taking away jobs in white-collar professions. To my knowledge, doctors were not laid off after the rise of MRI machines, nor was there a trend of lawyers losing their jobs when legal research moved online. Whatever costs imposed by technology in those fields are easily outweighed by the benefits to the workers and their customers – better medical treatment and presumably better legal representation.
I'm going to tackle that claim in the seminar tonight, because I think technology has played a major role in the legal profession's problems in recent years. John McGinnis has a very good analysis of this issue in a recent post:
The most important cause of the decline in demand for legal services is technological shock. Technological change has reduced the demand for lawyers, at least at the price point law schools were delivering it. The technological shock has been of two kinds. First, machine intelligence is beginning to substitute for lawyers, particularly at the low end of the legal profession. Document discovery is moving from human to machines. Legalzoom and similar services are encroaching on the production of simple documents, like many wills and trusts. And once machines get into an area, they dominate over time.
Second, machine intelligence is reducing the agency costs from which lawyers have benefited, General counsel, for instance, can keep better track of exactly what their outside counsel are doing, cutting down on slack. The information age reduces the information asymmetry between lawyers and many of their clients.
This technological shock has been good for the economy by reducing the transaction costs constituted by lawyers. But it raises a grave challenge to law schools. Since the cause of the decline in applications is structural, the applicants are not likely to come back in anything like previous numbers. Because the structural change is technological, it also may intensify as computation becomes ever more powerful. In a subsequent post, I will discuss how law schools can respond to these challenges.
My bottom line is that all of us who work are subject to technological shocks and that Catholic Social Thought provides a relevant framework from which to analyze appropriate societal responses.