Doom and gloom scenarios about technology eliminating jobs misses the point. Since when was it mandatory for some humans to be nothing but a ‘resource’
Earlier this year, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt voiced a concern that has been raised by others: that technology is eliminating more jobs than creating them. That more and more middle class workers would lose their jobs [and] it was not clear if workers would have the right skills to be re-hired:
It’s a race between computers and people – and people need to win
It isn’t a race. We are not about to be wiped out by Skynet1, for all the benefits such a scenario may bring to other living organisms inhabiting this planet. The problem isn’t a lack of jobs in the future, it’s how to distribute wealth when humans no longer have to be ‘resources’ in the process of wealth creation.
What a wonderful problem to have.
One of the most significant political memories I have from early childhood is the miners strike in 1984. That included violent clashes between police and those fighting against the impending closure of pits that would lead to mass unemployment and financial hardship within the local area of the pit.
But it’s worth considering what exactly were people striking to save? They were fighting for the right to go underground, inhale toxic fumes and work towards a premature death. Thousands of people accepted and depended on such a trade in return for a stable income to raise a family and a guaranteed pension if they were lucky to get a few years of retirement at the end of it. The strike was about people losing what they had been led to believe was a job for life and its associated benefits. Expectations were no longer being met.
If technology means we no longer have to risk the lives of people in dangerous or unhealthy tasks to satisfy demand for goods and services then bring it on! Just last year 1,100 workers died in India when a factory wall collapsed. Better that metal and plastic be crushed than flesh and bones.
We are creating the opportunity to free people from doing work they don’t really want to do or doing work that endangers their health. But it means rethinking the definition of ‘job’.
The problem is not a shortage of things to do. Thanks to the Internet, we are seeing creativity unleashed on an unprecedented scale.
The problem is not a shortage of wealth. More money is being created than ever before.
The problem is how that wealth gets distributed.
Instead of telling governments they have a problem (which they do), perhaps Google could try leading the way to change. How about finding a mechanism to pay creators a better share of the ad revenue being generated on YouTube from user-generated content? How about Facebook pays people a share of the ad revenue generated when using their ‘likes’ as a form of endorsement advertising. Too simplistic? Maybe but somebody in a position of power needs to be brave enough to try something different.
The following video does a brilliant ‘job’ of explaining why technology automation this time around is different to the automation that launched the agriculture and industrial revolutions. By comparing us to horses. But it still assumes that there is no value to being human on this planet unless you are a cog in a machine. That’s the mindset that needs changing.
When people ask me why I am passionate about IT, I explain that it is because I think technology has been wonderful for people like me. My family history is not elite. There are no signs of royalty, scientific innovators, creative artists of note, business entrepreneurs, landed gentry or military leaders. Less than 100 years separates me from family members who lived in workhouses. In past eras, my ancestors were peasants, labourers and foot soldiers. Controlled by and expendable at the whim of an elite few.
Technology has been hugely democratising. To be able to enjoy being human is a privilege that more of us can contemplate today than ever before. We just need to figure out a new economic system to sustain this future era of enlightenment available to the masses rather than the few. And yes, the road is going to be a bumpy one. Elites still dominate positions of power and they are not keen to change a system that has served them so well in the past. They just want us all in controllable jobs… it’s not going to be that simple
- Google’s Schimdt warning on jobs – BBC News, January 2014
- Bangladesh factory collapse probe uncovers abuses – BBC News, May 2013
1 From the film The Terminator. If you haven’t watched it, go look it up.
- Friday thought: Eliminating unemployment
- Brains are for making and moving (why we should replace public libraries with workshops)
Flickr image: Miners Strike on Rotherham Silverwood Pit kindly shared by Chris