By John Gillespie
For generations, jobs have been replaced by technology. The mill, the cotton gin, and the desktop computer have all created new vocations while sweeping out the old with promises of efficiency and financial bounty. These developments do bring business booms, but the ensuing periods of transition can be equally liberating and devastating for the communities affected. It was mechanisation that brought about seismic workforce rearrangements in the recent past; it is robotic automation that will be introducing the next. The stark reality? That more than 30% of all of our current roles could be automated by 2050.
Robots and computerised systems are the new class learning to replace the workers of tomorrow. The threat goes beyond standardised procedures, too, as robots are being imbued with algorithmic imagination. Document processing to mechanical operation to private law to medicine to journalism and even art will come to be pervaded by processing power. In the same fashion as mechanisation, new parts of the workforce shall need to adapt, and adapt quickly. This makes for an uncertain future, but what can the uncertainty of tomorrow teach us today?
A lesson must be learned in 2018. While blue collar workers have been subjected to the phenomenon of workplace streamlining since before they wore blue collars, society is responding in a more tangible and substantial way to the new threat of automation than ever before. This should awaken us in 2018 to the reality that we have been ignorant to how the issue of mechanisation has ostracised and disempowered entire groups of people in the past, and that the new threat is merely an old one in a new guise.
Inevitably, our increased concern shall at least in part be as a result of the increasing scale and rate of automation. And we are aware of our acute vulnerability. The robots we are creating operate through billions of bytes yet it took only one for Eve’s Creator to forsake the human race. Now, those with the social and political power in society find themselves in the firing line alongside the proletariat, and this deserves close consideration.
Britain’s ‘Industrial Revolution’ of the 1800s saw factory workers subjected to unspeakable working conditions and industrial cities rife with fatal yet preventable diseases. Yet this reality is usually considered an acrimonious side note to the period’s economic boom that helped British manufacturing companies dominate 19th-century global trade. Working conditions in the 21st-century are now controlled but economic inequality in the UK is now worsening as wages stagnate and the wealth of the rich balloons. Similarly, entrants to the New World were promised an American Dream, yet the US now suffers from the most pronounced economic and social inequality of any Western nation.
At all times, the working class has been subjugated and the symptoms of this status have been drastic. The Leader of the Free World is (potentially) a tax fraud and (almost certainly) a sex offender. Even a lenient economic projection of Brexit reveals that it will do harm to even the most fervent Brexiteer. Our first question may be: where do we go from here? But another should be: how did we get here, and what can that teach us about how to move forward in 2018 and beyond?
The nationalist agendas of the ‘Make Britain/American Great Again’ patrol are decried by the middle class, yet those agendas found huge support (inter alia) from communities that have historically been disempowered by underfunded education and inadequate housing. These correlations cannot be coincidental.
The contemporary economic inequality of society reveals that the same system that has sustained middle class standards of living in recent times has fundamentally failed the working class. Ostensible promises to right those systemic wrongs by the Leave campaign and The Donald are understandably appealing in these circumstances.
The outcome has been people voting, in many senses, against their own interests. That ought to be a remarkable realisation, and reveals a total disillusionment with the status quo felt by much of society.
‘Restart your computer to finish installing important updates’
Now cometh the next class – the robots that will transform the global occupational landscape. The lesson to be learned from this class is that the same fear that now has all of us within its clutch has firmly gripped many of us for time immemorial.
The biggest challenge we face in 2018 is to learn this lesson already, before widespread automation has yet occurred. Learning this lesson now can help to bring communities together, so that we can prepare for the future together. Only then can we be truly prepared for the radical new reality that is going to unfold.