By Dean Carroll
News produced by computer algorithms rather than expensive journalists. Automated train networks without a human presence to reassure passengers. Apps that comprehensively manage your life for you. This is not the future. It is the now. And so the commentariat has a new zeitgeist to explore – the ‘second machine age’ bringing about a loss of jobs of seismic proportions through the twin-track of automisation and globalisation. A total realignment of society equivalent to the transition from the agrarian world to an industrialised age or even the move by our distant ancestors away from hunter-gatherer to farmer.
Indeed, a slew of editorials already highlight the disruptive ‘software eating the world’. But is this just hyperbole? Are all of us really destined for the career scrapheap in a scenario where we will be forced to watch on helplessly as the rise of the machines becomes omnipotent?
Well, it is certain that many human activities in the workplace will be outsourced to computers. There can be no doubt about that. However, many new roles will also be created. Ask yourself. Who will design, build, programme and monitor the machines? Who will govern them with regulatory standards and ethics? Who will develop the creative concepts to enable the digital evolution? And who will profit from such high-end digitalisation?
There is only one answer – humans. After all, can anyone seriously argue for the regressionist principle of returning to yesteryear whereby children – rather than machines – are sent down mines or forced to work in those infamous ‘dark satanic mills’?
It is doubtful that 21st century citizens will lose their reason for existing as the most ardent technologists suggest when talking of the singularity. It also seems unlikely that we will merge into cyborgs once artificial intelligence matures – if it ever does. No, surely technology will remain simply what it has always been: a force to facilitate societal change for the better.
Who in their right mind would really advocate putting the genie back in the bottle now? Would you want to live without search engines, your smartphone and the social networks? Can we imagine the Arab Spring exploding into life without WikiLeaks and Twitter? Technophobic critics point to shortened attentions spans, a downgrading of emotional connections and problems relating to the worst excesses of the dark net as blights on the world wide web’s record. And they are right, these developments are seriously damaging. However, the positives relating to a more transparent interconnected world far outweigh the negatives – not least the cognitive mobilisation of the global masses. One day, historians may compare the period to the Age of Enlightenment.
So the digital epoch is here to stay. Some elements of digitalisation – including highly-competent robotics – will certainly be a threat to us all. There can be no denying the obvious implications for those in unskilled and even skilled work. Of course, there will be casualties along the way. But the only answer for the workforce of tomorrow is to jump aboard the wagon and upskill today.
The pioneering human spirit got us to where we are. To leave it behind now would be an insult to our forefathers. We must propel ourselves forward and ignore the neo-luddites. Failure to do so could mean stagnation or much worse. And there won’t be an app to save us then.
Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev