“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral” – Melvin Kranzberg (1917-1995)
A generation ago it was possible to work in an occupation requiring little or no formal educational qualifications and earn sufficient income to support a home and family. Today many such jobs, from factory floors to supermarket checkouts to mining, no longer exist or are in decline – obsoleted or automated, or outsourced to less expensive workers in other countries.
In the past a single adult earner was enough to sustain a household in a reasonable lifestyle. Yet today most households require two working adults simply to keep themselves afloat – and some are working in two or more part-time jobs simply to make ends meet.
However, such social and economic disruption is nothing new.
The invention of the spinning jenny by James Hargreaves in 1764 for example enabled one person to spin as much yarn as twenty to a hundred people had been able to produce using the old spinning wheel.
Despite technology having long since become a near-constant pattern of invention and displacement, its impacts remain poorly anticipated, nurtured and managed by governments and businesses alike.
It wasn’t so long ago that “futurologists” were promising us that our latest technologies would herald a modern utopia. A world where we would all be able to work less and enjoy more leisure time, while both we and the world around us became ever more prosperous.
The first part of that vision has already become painfully true – technology has reduced and even eliminated work that formerly provided jobs, income and self-worth for many people. Yet not only has that disruption caused increasing uncertainty, hardship and resentment, but it’s also failed to provide most of us with any increased leisure time or prosperity, or a more cohesive and prosperous society.
As this inevitable diffusion of technology takes place, a growing number of jobs and occupations require far fewer workers than in the past. This trend is enabled not solely by technology, but also the growing middle classes in many other parts of the world such as India who are now able to take on white collar work at lower cost.
The proportion of the working population in the West to whom this dual disruptive trend of technological innovation and offshoring will apply is gradually increasing. For many, far from making the future more attractive and secure, technology and globalisation are twinned with the depressing reality of displacement into increasingly low value and lowly paid service jobs.
These undercurrents are probably reflected in recent “shock” democratic votes demonstrating dissatisfaction with the status quo – whether that be the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, or the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. There are increasing signs of unease and protest in many countries about the slow process of attrition, the decline in the quality and availability of well-paid, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, and the alienating political tendency to refer to increasingly over-priced houses and flats as “assets” rather than what they are – our homes.
While most professionals may previously have thought themselves immune to these changes, similar impacts will soon be felt across a much wider range of jobs – from chief executives to skilled medical surgeons, and from secretaries and lawyers to city traders, civil servants and accountants: a significant range of jobs once assumed to be “safe” – administrative and managerial jobs for example – will be replaced, reduced or augmented by computer and robot automation.
Yet no particular political party, class, ideology or movement has anticipated or responded particularly well to these changes, despite their predictability. In the absence of a credible mainstream vision and leadership, an increasing minority of voters appear attracted to the polarising siren voices of the hard left and right, who strive to offer superficial clarity in contrast to the indecision and directionless drift of the established parties.
Despite the foreseeability and inevitability of these changes, the West has made little meaningful or effective investment in education, design and innovation. Neither has it invested in modernising its national physical and digital infrastructure, to provide a clear and well-managed evolution from the pre-digital skills, workplaces, communities and practices of the past to those required in the future. Too much of the political focus remains reactive and short-term, when the opposite traits are required.
Whilst some governments have made forward-looking investments – most notably the Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese and to some extent the Germans – most appear to poorly understand the rapidly changing world around them and how to best plan for the future. No-one seems prepared to make the difficult choices and associated changes necessary to respond to the world around us. Cheap, easy promises and short-term election bribes to their own tribes fall easily from the lips of a political class increasingly out of their depth.
Some governments and politicians have resorted to recycling and rebranding random old ideas, such as the implementation of a universal basic income or investment in old industry, in the hope that they will – in some as yet undefined way – fix some of the symptoms of these much deeper and more complex underlying changes.
While many in the West feel unhappy and uncertain about their futures, all is not as dark as it is often portrayed. Globally poverty has been reduced dramatically. The number of people in poverty is down by around three quarters from the number in 1990. And the main cause of this fall in poverty has surprisingly not been attributed to aid but to the very same globalisation, and its associated economic growth, which many in the West blame for their own difficulties.
Countries such as the USA, UK and Japan are unintentionally positioning themselves as the sunset economies, with declining productivity and a smaller percentage of global GDP, whilst sunrise economies such as China, India and Indonesia have pursued strategies that have actively contributed to their own improvement and success.
It’s little surprise that many of us feel so powerless and frustrated in the face of our rapidly changing world – helplessly floated along by the tide, rudderless because of the lack of political analysis, understanding, vision and leadership. If we wish to maintain our existing standards of living, and our hard-won values and principles, and to ensure greater social and economic cohesion within and across borders, we need to have a far better informed discussion about the impact of technology in the context of this changing global environment and on our economic and political system.
These are just some of the issues and undercurrents I want to explore. I want to work towards a book that will aim to surface facts, rather than prejudices, and to consider some of the most fundamental questions about the type of future world and future society we want technology to enable.
I could be some time: this is probably an over-ambitious and foolish endeavour. But I am aiming to work here, in the open, as and when I can – warts, mistakes and all.