Microsoft has a new application called Project Sienna. It is an application for Windows 8 that allows "app imagineers" (dear marketing assholes: when you lay awake at night wondering why people hate you more than cockroaches, "app imagineers" is pretty near the top of the list) to make applications for Windows 8 machines. It is meant to allow people who are not programmers to make applications that can run on Windows 8 machines. It is meant, in other words, to make it easier for business, marketing and designers to create simple business application. It is meant, in even other words, to eliminate a significant portion of programming jobs.
Someone once estimated the eight percent of programmers work on business programming, where business programming is defined as writing applications specific to a given company, whether as an employee of that company or a contractor or vendor. It is writing inventory control programs for a specific business; it is creating websites that allow people to check the status of their loyalty program with a specific company; it is writing programs that allow financial departments to track accounts by tying directly into a company's inventory delivery system. Project Sienna is meant to allow people who are not programmers to create those kinds of programs, at least to a limited degree.
This is not an unexepcted progression, of course. Programming has gotten easier as computers have gotten more powerful and as the art and science of programming itself has progressed. When computers first become useful, programmers had to write code for communication and display from scratch. Programmers used to program in languages that required the programmer keep track of all of the memory used in a program. All of these things and more made programming slower and more difficult and their relegation to the control of the language or the machine has made programming easier, faster and more creative. Project Sienna is just another step in this direction, taking more of the logic of programming out of the hands of the person using the tool, making programming easier.
The increase in the ease of computer programming has, perhaps paradoxically, lead to an increase in the number of programming jobs without making programmers themselves entirely a commodity. As it became easier to provide business value through programming, more and more business could afford such work and more and more businesses saw that without such work they would fall significantly behind their competitors. Things like Project Sienna, however, may change that equation. Programming is still, largely, a skilled occupation. MBA delusions aside, programming takes at least some education and skill, and not everyone can be a programmer. That is not guaranteed to always be the case: Dutch weavers turned saboteurs were skilled workers right until the moment a clever engineer taught their skills to a machine. Project Sienna is an attempt to teach a machine programmers' skills.
This, of course, is not limited to programmers. More and more jobs have been taken from people and given to machines of one kind or another. In many cases, this has been a long-term blessing: while the people who lost their work suffered, the work they were doing was dangerous and/or was replaced by work that required more skills and so paid better. The growth of efficiency meant that the economy grew, opening up more opportunities for most and created a better standard of living for many, perhaps most. Those advantages, however, depend upon an economy that creates enough wages to allow the difficult questions of distribution to be side-stepped. We may no longer be in that economy.
The notion that there will be enough work to go around is no longer one that is universally believed. It is entirely possible that we are approaching a tipping point in human economic history. The "lump of labor fallacy" may not, in fact, be a fallacy. Productivity has become decoupled from economic benefits,and at least part of that is due to the computerization of employment. More and more skilled work is drifting into the realm of the new digital industrialization. There may actually not be enough skilled work left for the number of people who will need that work.
This, of course, does not have to be a problem. It could be a gateway into a world of human leisure and creativity. One of the focal points of the labor movement, especially in the 19th century, was the drive to providing more leisure for workers. Today, we live in a world where the leaders of one political party are focused on increasing the minimum wage and the other thinks that unemployment insurance is keeping people from finding jobs, not the fact that there are three job seekers for every job opening. We are already approaching Gilded Age levels of inequality, if not surpassing them. How likely is it that the response to mass joblessness or underemployment will be a renaissance of leisure?
There are a lot of intelligent people working towards creating a world where more and more work requires fewer and fewer people. In the past, this has led to an engine of creativity and growth. But now, it appears we may be entering an era where we have to choose between mass underemployment and decoupling economics from labor and capital. Project Sienna is actually a terrible implementation of the idea (something I will address in another post), but sooner or later, someone will do it well. And we get one large step closer to a moment of economic reckoning that cannot be ignored.