Further to two recent posts on technology and employment, how robots and computers, and eventually artificial intelligence, will replace an ever increasing range of skilled and unskilled jobs, is this thought provoking article by Bryan Appleyard in New Statesman. In one post I suggested if the technology is harnessed correctly the futuristic utopian ideal of less work and a Guaranteed Minimum Income could be achieved. It could free humans from excessive drudgery and virtual corporate slavery. If it is done incorrectly the utopian vision becomes an Orwellian dystopia, even a Transcendence or Matrix nightmare. As Appleyard notes;
In 2000, Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a huge figure in computing history, broke ranks with an article for Wired entitled “Why the future doesn’t need us”. He saw that many of the dreams of Silicon Valley would either lead to, or deliberately include, termination of the human species. They still do – believers in the Singularity look forward to it as a moment when we will transcend our biological condition.
“Given the incredible power of these new technologies,” Joy wrote, “shouldn’t we be asking how we can best coexist with them? And if our own extinction is a likely, or even possible, outcome of our technological development, shouldn’t we proceed with great caution?”
Under the current neoliberal incarnation of capitalism the march towards this technology and the massive displacement of human employment is inevitable. As Martin Ford points out in his book The Lights in the Tunnel – Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, most economists ignore this. They assume technological progress will increase wealth for all.
But to achieve a benign outcome the introduction and displacement will have to go hand in hand with a new economic system based on far lower consumption. There is no point in increasing productivity if fewer and fewer are able to afford the end products. Do we want a future where a small minority have huge wealth and hyper consumption from the fruits of automation but where the vast majority are either unemployed or massively under employed and living in poverty, overseen by a militarised robot security force? If we are not careful that is exactly where we will end up. The technology is here now. All it is waiting for is mass commercialisation and widespread adoption.
Or will our economic system and social order break down and collapse from ecological destruction well before that point is reached as per Jared Diamond’s hypothesis? After all, most automation and mechanisation has been about exponentially greater exploitation of natural resources for mass consumerism. Or can people and their governments self limit technology before it becomes too environmentally and socially destructive? In an age where political parties can’t see past the next election, the outlook is dim for any cohesive plan for the technological onslaught of the next 20 years.