Technology can deny work to a population or it can liberate them. Outcome depends on how we organise technology use
When I wrote the essay ‘Will we work in twenty-first century capitalism?’, I wanted to emphasise that we are entering a period of changing technological potential. That does not necessarily mean we are already in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) or we have a clear idea of how all of this will turn out.
We are not very good at predicting the future and some academics, such as Ian Moll, think 4IR is mainly hype and we are not observing any clear transformations that rise to the level of revolution, despite the potential of new technology.
The idea of 4IR is rooted in a confluence of technologies and increasingly decentralised contract systems. It is not about the individual technologies but the potential of their combination. How we adopt technology and how society will incorporate it remains uncertain.
There is a basic issue of whether potential will be realised. Though a great deal of investment has been made in developing technologies, they remain fragmented.
Countries also need to be aware of the problem of technology replacing human labour. Mobile robotics that can operate in any space, artificial intelligence management systems, and adaptive machine learning capacities mean that in one generation, almost all tasks that are basic to current forms of work could be done by 4IR technologies.
Every country ultimately gets to decide how it structures its integration of technology into employment. Also, the shift towards technology is one of social design and not merely economics. There is no economy without politics or people. Technology can deny work to a population or it can liberate them. The outcome depends on how we organise technology’s use and what we expect people to do.
We should carefully consider what we are arguing about when we make claims of utopia or complete doom in the future. While there are a lot of compelling benefits to technology, we need to keep a sense of perspective.
This becomes obvious in the recent conversation about the climate emergency. Many ecological economists and scientists have been arguing for decades that the global economy cannot expand limitlessly because we live on a finite planet.
However, our economies are built around a growth imperative, and one component of that has been the argument that any problem we make or confront can always be solved through new technology. This is termed “technofix.”
However, all of the evidence suggests we cannot merely invent our way out of the problems we create on a macro planetary level; we need to rethink the design of our systems and how we live within what the planet allows. This is not an anti-technology stance, it is an acknowledgment that we may make society, but we do not control the world that societies depend on.
Jamie Morgan is professor of economics, analytics and international business at the Leeds Beckett University, UK
This was first published in the 1-15 September, 2022 print edition of Down To Earth
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