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.
The website Five Books has a simple proposition: it asks people to nominate five books on a subject and then it interviews them about their choices. Anyway, I was privileged to talk to Bea Wilford of Five Books about futures and futures books recently, and the interview has now appeared on the site.
The books I chose are in the picture:
- Arie de Geus, The Living Company
- Bill Sharpe, Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope
- Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital
- Richard Normann, Reframing Business
- Donella Meadows et al, Limits To Growth: The Thirty Year Update
It’s fairly clear, if you spend any time doing futures work, that there are some recurring patterns that seem to evolve over one or two generations, or more. As part of a personal research project, I have started re-reading these “long wave” theories to try to understand their similarities and differences, and I’ll be blogging about my reading as I go.
An obvious starting point in this journey is Jim Dator’s long survey of the area, “From Tsunamis to Long Waves and Back”, drawn from the archive of the journal Futures, and published over two articles in Futures in 1999. The essay – recombined – can be found here.
Here I’m just going to pull out some extracts that seem to shape the landscape.
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.
Watching the SOPA/PIPA saga unfold from the other side of the Atlantic, it was difficult not to see it as a ‘wave war’, in which companies which grew up in different technology waves compete to set the frame of economic and policy discussion. On the one side, the media companies, creatures of the mass production era that dominated much of the 20th century; on the other, the technology companies that have grown up in the digital wave that followed it. (I wrote about these waves in the Futures Company Futures Perspective report, Technology 2020).
The technology companies seem to be on the right side of the generational wave.
I’ve just finished working on a thought leadership paper, Technology 2020, for The Futures Company with my colleague Andy Stubbings, and we’ve published an extract in the company’s quarterly newsletter, FutureProof (free, but registration required). I’ve republished this as it appears in FutureProof below the fold. In a couple of lines, I draw on Carlota Perez’ view of technology change to argue that we need to understand the ICT revolution as a long wave – following the same pattern as previous dominant technologies – which is nearing the end of its period of dominance. And secondly, that looking at the previous technology waves, it is only now – close to the end of the wave – that we will start to see new business models which will stick.