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Tech the Giant Job Killer, and Other Stories

It is funny to me that, three decades into the computer revolution, and people still have a fundamental misconception of the effects of applying technology to job functions in society. A prime example happened this past Sunday when our President stated, "We don't have travel agents; we don't have bank tellers."

Video killed the radio star, so apparently ATMs are killing bank tellers. But this is fundamentally not true. Not only do we still have radio stars (Howard Stern, for example) but they dominate other media as well. Not only do we still have bank tellers, but they are no longer just in freestanding banks, but also in malls, supermarkets, and airports. Travel agents are still around... I mean, the President doesn't book flights on Air Force One through Priceline. I respectfully submit that just because the President doesn't have a need for bank tellers anymore, does not mean that they do not exist.

Joking aside, people love to say that technology will eliminate things. When I was in college in the 90's and the dot com boom was starting to heat up, people were saying "computers will eliminate paper". Well that definitely did not come to pass, even with the advent of e-readers and the iPad. Has e-mail eliminated regular mail? Nope, plenty of items still need to be sent through the post, but it did significantly reduce the time it takes to communicate important ideas. What about seamstresses, stock brokers, cattle ranchers, and gas station attendants? The experts remain gainfully employed, though in fewer numbers than prior decades. For example, stock brokers didn't go away entirely, but technology eliminated the barriers to information that kept many terrible stock brokers in business.

We're a human society, which means that humans will always need to be a fundamental part of making that sociery work. Technology does not eliminate job sectors, it simply eliminates low hanging fruit and improves efficiency. As much as the media likes to portray dystopian futures where people never interact with each other and technology runs everything, there are plenty of examples of a much more likely future (Star Trek, for one) where machines make it easier to do the unimportant things, so people can focus on discovering new things. solving bigger problems, or just enjoying life.

So how does this apply to Commercial Real Estate? Well, our industry is going through the same transformation that stock brokers and travel agents had to go through in the the last decade. Informational barriers are being broken down, and now the individuals whose only purpose was to provide information from their secret sources as a means to make their client cough up 3% are having to find other means of employment.

My team and I truly believe that our industry is missing the tools to give great commercial real estate professionals the means to really make their expertise shine. Because technology makes it much easier to collect, share, and evaluate the financials of a property, brokers and agents can focus more of their time and energy on answering the question every investor wants to know: "How am I going to make money on this property?" This is an answer that every investor must have, and one that no computer on its own could provide.

So there is no reason to fear the transformation that new technology brings; embrace the mindset of change! The human application of ill-conceived social policy will always be there to eliminate more jobs than technology itself ever could.

- Jeff