Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Omni’s Jobs of the Future from 1985

Jerry Stratton, April 2, 2015

A few weeks ago I found two Omni magazines from 1985 for a buck each in one our local Half-Price Book stores. The September 1985 issue has an article by Richard Wolkomir called Careers of the Future.

Computer programmers and lumberjacks are on the way out. The new wave includes laser technicians and salmon ranchers.

Now, he may have been right about the new wave, but computer programmers weren’t on the way out. Not that I can really blame his experts for the mistake: I made the same one when I decided not to pursue a degree in computer programming even though I enjoyed it, because I expected computer programming to become a rote, boring job in a few years.

5. Computer Programmers. Ironically, one career to succumb to the computer revolution is apt to be that of the computer programmer. “Artificial-intelligence computers will program themselves,” says Alfred Mathiasen, a careers expert at Clemson University. Sociologist Roberrt Ayres, of Carnegie-Mellon University, agrees: “Although employment for computer programmers hasn’t peaked,” he says, “we may be overstating the need for these people; there’s a wide scope for automating the writing of programs.”

What my younger self didn’t understand, and the experts here also didn’t seem to understand, was that advances in computer technology were going to feed back into themselves to produce near-infinite opportunities for programmers to make great new things. And that the resulting demand for computer programmers was going to be so high that even a young man with no experience and a degree in psychology would be able to build a career in programming.

The Internet changed everything, and the Internet was just one of the ways that computer technology created its own amplifying feedback loop to create more opportunities for computer technology to create more opportunities.

This lack of understanding of the immense power of computerization showed in one of the two “new wave” career paths:

7. Digitechnicians. With digital technology busily transforming everything from banking to microwave ovens, the need for people to maintain all the equipment can only go up. For instance, government projections call for computer service technician jobs to increase 97 percent by 1995. According to the Electronics Industries Association, we’ll require armies of domestic digitechnicians just to maintain all the circuitry in our digital TVs, stereos, and videocassette records. And Cetron envisions the need for some 1.5 million roboticists in a decade.

I have no idea if the roboticist prediction panned out. But if we have armies of digitechnicians today it is not because of our computerized microwave ovens, television sets, stereos, and DVD players.1 Advances in chip design and computerization of the manufacturing process has made these incredible devices so inexpensive that it isn’t worth the time and money to bring them in for repairs and pay for the labor of fixing them. If they go bad, we just go out and buy a new one.

The last time I had a device like that repaired was when I paid about $100 to have a hi-fi stereo VCR repaired in about 1989. Even then I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing, and there’s no way I’d do that nowadays—DVD players of far greater ability cost $20 to $50. I have a decent quality cassette deck plugged into my stereo system; when I plugged it back in a year ago after our move to Texas I tested it and discovered it won’t play; it will fast forward and rewind, but it doesn’t move when I hit play. I’m guessing it just requires a new belt, and I’ll probably take the time at some point to see if I can fix it myself. But there is no way I’m going to pay someone to fix it. It isn’t worth the cost.2

The only things like that we have repaired today are our personal computers, and even then many people will simply replace a failing computer rather than fix it.3

Sadly, while their other predictions of new careers was mostly reasonable (more laser technicians, more database managers, the extension of farming into the sea, and so forth), one that did not pan out was:

5. Space Technologists. …There are plans afoot for a permanent space station, bases on the moon, and orbiting factories. One drug company, Johnson & Johnson, has announced plans to orbit a vaccine-manufacturing robot satellite. According to Arthur D. Little space engineer Peter Glaser, all the recent out-of-this world activity will generate a need for a new specialty, space doctor, not only to care for astronauts but also to work in orbiting hospitals, treating burn victims, heart patients, and others who can benefit from a zero-gravity environment. Robert Bruce, of Claremont Graduate School, foresees such new jobs as spacelab technician and space researcher. Educational administration professor John Hoyle, who is Texas A&M University’s resident futurist, believes that as humanity’s occupation of the void begins in earnest, jobs will open up for space construction workers. The University of Vermont’s Lawrence Simmons says that another extraterrestrial pro will be the space production technician, skilled in managing orbiting factories. Also needed, of course, will be zero-gravity engineers to design space equipment ranging from solar collectors and spacetugs to the Orbiting Hilton.

How could they expect this to happen so quickly? The sentence I elided at the start was:

Space travel is becoming so routine that even senators and teachers will soon be shuttling into orbit.

The senator was probably Jake Garn, who flew as a payload specialist on the Discovery in April of 1985. The next senator, as far as I can tell, would be John Glenn, but he wouldn’t fly until 19984 also on the Discovery.

The teacher was likely Christa McAuliffe, who flew on the Challenger when it exploded a few months after this article in January of 1986.5 The premise was wrong: neither the space shuttle itself nor the government bureaucrats who managed it were ready for regular civilian flights. They just hadn’t realized it.

  1. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on VCRs here.

  2. And given my procrastination, it may be that I’ve decided it isn’t worth the time either.

  3. Ironically, my computer is in the shop as I write this (I’m writing on my iPad) for a video card replacement. The total cost is $250; replacement cost is about $2,350. The computer is five years old, and of course the replacement would not be. It would be faster, with a newer, potentially faster and more reliable hard drive and more memory.

  4. As a senator, of course—as an astronaut, before his career as a senator, he landed on the moon.

  5. I’m tempted to not even include this next tidbit: in an article on “Artronauts”—that is, artists in space—two issues later, NASA art director Bob Schulman says “I’m quite disappointed that a teacher is the next category in the Flight Participant program. NASA’s next step should be to send an artist with an easel up there.”

  1. <- Progressive App Store
  2. Death of TV ->