This post is a long extract from my essay on The Future of Work written for Future Agenda. The full piece is on Medium.
The current discussion about the future of work seems to be monopolised by the version of the future in which technology destroys jobs. It has gained an air of inevitability, as if it is the only possible future. NESTA’s open minded report suggested that the “robots hypothesis” resonated because it connected “two powerful themes in popular culture: the rapid advance of IT, and the startling growth in inequality.” But there is a problem: it hasn’t happened before.
So it is worth considering reasons why it might just be a phase. The economic historian Carlota Perez has a model of technological development that describes five long waves, or surges, since the Industrial Revolution. Each is around 50–60 years and follows an S-curve pattern; the last quarter of each is marked by saturated markets, diminishing investment opportunities and declining returns. The first part of the 20th century was dominated by the oil and auto surge; the latter part by ICT. The ICT wave is now reaching the turning point at which returns start to fall.
On this model, finance is looking for new opportunities, and although it is too early to say what the next platform will be, and we’re still 10–15 years away from it, it is possible to imagine that the next technological surge might be built around, say, a material such as graphene.
Labour market woes
David Autor concludes that much of “the labor market woes” of the past decade are not down to computerisation, but to the financial crisis and reduced investment (starting with the dot.com collapse) and the impact of globalisation on labour markets. He suggests that many middle-skill jobs will prove more resistant to unbundling than advertised; while computers can do specific tasks, turning collections of tasks into self-contained jobs, and then automating them, requires substantial investment. In the long run, people are both more flexible and cheaper.
One implication is that the question of the future of work may actually be about power in the labour market. This leads to broadly political interpretations of the future of working conditions, ranging from Guy Standing’s formulation of the fragile “precariat”, facing intermittent, insecure work, David Weil’s description of the “fissured workplace”, in which many functions are sub-contracted, and the rise of campaigns for the Living Wage.
The EU’s ruling on Apple’s Irish tax affairs is a sign of two different sets of change: the ending of the ICT boom, and the decline of globalisation
Silicon Valley seems surprised, and not for the first time, by the fact that the European Union has a different view of its business practices than it does. Apple is perplexed (even maddened) by the decision of the EU’s Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, that it should pay the same rate of corporation tax as other companies doing business in Ireland–and that it therefore owed €13 billion, perhaps more, in back taxes. Bloomberg explains the issue well.
Google, similarly, has been perplexed by the three separate anti-trust suits that the EU has filed against it. One relates to its advertising business; a second to its shopping service; the third is about whether Google has been giving preferential treatment to both Search and Chrome in its Android operating system.
So what’s going on here? Two separate things: first, it’s about the coming end of the ICT boom that has dominated innovation and culture since the mid-1970s; second, it’s about the limits of corporate power and influence as economic globalisation declines.
Cambridge University Library has a small but perfectly formed exhibition called Lines of Thought running until September to mark the 600th anniversary of its founding in 1416. (The longevity does make you pause a moment.) It draws on elements of their fine collection of books and papers, and is built around six themes: communication, literature, faith, gravity, anatomy and genetics. (There’s a short video explaining more.)
The first books in the library were deposited as security in exchange for loans, underlining how expensive books were in the 15th century.
Walking around the collection was a reminder of how effective books, and paper, have been as a way of transmitting knowledge. Tyndale had to leave the country to get printed his translation of the Bible into English, then an infinitely radical act. The first attempt, in Koln, was raided by the authorities, but he succeed in publishing it in the Netherlands in 1534, and copies were smuggled to England. Tyndale was executed for heresy in 1536, but copies survived–Anne Boleyn owned one. When King James I/VIth commissioned his official translation 70 years later, much of it was taken from Tyndale’s version.
Michael Harris’ The End of Absence is a smart, funny and timely meditation on the differences wrought by digital on how we live and work today, and a world remembered “by those born before 1985, before the surfacing of the Internet.”
Over 10 chapters and 260 pages, 34-year old Canadian journalist Harris (DOB 1981) reflects intriguingly, wittily and sometimes poignantly on his theme. He casts his gaze over the impact of e-mail and digital text, multi-tasking, smart phones, information-overload, public opinion and ‘truth’ online (using illustrations of the plasticity and mutation of ‘facts’ on Wiki), to online bullying (based around the cause, and reaction to, the death of teenager Amanda Todd). There’s also a fascinating chapter on dating and sex sites on a journey that whilst expansive never feels disjointed.
In the last edition of The Guardian of 2014, the writer David Boyle offered two unfashionable propositions about change.
The first: that “we cling to the real world more tightly as the virtual world presses its claims.” Sales of computer tablets are on the slide, he says; sales of e-books are declining; sales of vinyl records are at an 18-year high. And he references the French historian Jean Gimpel, who died almost 20 years ago, who had anticipated the return of many physical technologies that were supposed to be on their way out, from trams, to cycling, to cotton and natural fibres, to cooking. (Says Boyle: “Those Smash robots, which used to fall about laughing at potato peelers, must be rusting with chagrin.”)
The second: “despite what we are told, technological change is slowing down.” This is a theme of mine here on the next wave, and there is abundant evidence to suggest that the wave of innovation that spanned my great-grandfathers’ lifetimes was far greater, and had far greater impact on everyday lives, than the one I’ve seen, no matter how insistent the Silicon Valley boosterists are on the subject. (See: Hans Rosling, Robert Gordon, David Graeber, for starters.) And also, come to that, that the wave of globalisation in the late 19th century was far more disruptive than its equivalent phase in the late 20th century.
Boyle looks to the transport sector for his example:
I’ve been travelling on Boeing 747s and driving Minis my entire life (I’m 56) … If I was born in 1858 would I still be struggling along in my wagon at New Year 1915? … The notion that technological change is accelerating is based on dubious factoids about the idea that mobile phone penetration into the American market was faster than it was for radio. In reality, the reverse was true.
Happy New Year!
The image at the top of the post is from Death to the Stock Photo.
One of the most tiresome tropes on the futures circuit is the idea that the world is speeding up, often accompanied by a dodgy video with dodgier data. It’s one of those things that almost every generation in history has believed, along with the notions that young people are less respectful than they used to be and that society is going to the dogs. It also helps to sell books and consultancy projects. And broadly speaking, it is just plain wrong. To borrow Sohail Inayatullah’s terminology, it is a “used future”, borrowed from someone else.
Regular readers of the next wave will know that I am a fan of the work of the economic and technology historian Carlota Perez, who developed a model that explains the processes by which new technology platforms first emerge, then become dominant, and then become superseded. There have been five of these “technology surges” since 1771; the present ICT surge is the fifth.
Her model is a historical one. This isn’t a complaint: she is a historian, and she did the analysis of the historical data to propose the pattern she describes in her book. But when I was asked to contribute to an Association of Professional Futurists workshop that used the Three Horizons method to explore candidates for the Sixth surge, I wondered if it was possible to identify future-facing characteristics in her model.
It’s taken some time – a surprisingly long time – but at last we’re seeing a political reaction from Britain’s civil society organisation’s to Edward Snowden’s revelations. Six organisations have launched a campaign that our security laws should be governed by six principles that are closely linked to the principles that underpin our notions of democratic government.
Here’s a second post on digital technology from my contributions to Ogilvy Do.
The revolving door that takes you into my office in London has just been replaced after five months out of action. You needed to push the old doors; the new ones are automatic (and stop the instant you touch them). Sometimes, watching people trying to unlearn their old behaviours and apply new ones, I’ve been wondering if someone in the building is carrying out an experiment to see how quickly people are able to change learned habits in the absence of visual cues.
And this thought was partly prompted by a recent post by Alex Pang on the fad on the invisible interface. As Alex writes:
I think that, when it comes to interacting with the world or with information at a level above randomly waving your arms and legs around, there’s no such thing as an intuitive gesture that could be used by digital devices or wearables to trigger some action.
And he quotes the director and designer Timo Arnall, who has amassed a splendid collection of faddish cuttings on the notion that “the best design is invisible”. (more…)
I’ve been contributing some posts on a digital theme, through The Futures Company, to the Ogilvy.Do blog. Here’s the first of them, on Facebook Home.
There’s an interview in Fast Company with the former CEO of Groupon,Andrew Morton, who was forced out of the company after some disastrous results. About halfway through he tells his interviewer, “the moment a company goes public the conversation shifts from how they’re trying to change the world and the product they’re building to how they’re making money.” Of course: we all want to change the world, but that’s not the reason investors put money into an IPO
But it’s maybe a thought that should be on Mark Zuckerberg’s mind as well these days. Zuckerberg holds onto his belief that Facebook is on a mission to change the world, but the numbers aren’t looking good. It’s hard to avoid the notion that the company’s IPO caught the peak of Facebook sentiment, and the only way is down. The company’s problem is exemplified by its Home phone, previewed this month, and summarised by my Futures Company colleague Chloe Cook as “Essentially, Facebook gets wallpapered over the inside of your phone.” It effectively locks its users in to Facebook, which led the British commentator John Naughton to describe the company as a “pathogen”. (more…)