In the 1996 blockbuster The Rock Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, played by Nicholas Cage, pertinently says the following about the chemical weapon V.X. Poison Gas, “It’s very, very horrible sir. It’s one of those things we wish we could disinvent.” There is something about us as a race that equates can with should. Because we can change something we should change something, invent something, make something despite what the consequences. At least since the first factory was sacked by the first Luddites humanity has faced an uneasy tension between the changes that technology creates and their social consequences. We, as a race, tend to invent something and then ask how to live in light of the change this brings about rather than ask if we want the change in the first place before inventing something. Enter stage right the new Google self-driving car.
But despite this it is the lack of bravery and making predictions that has partly held humanity back from properly considering some of the actions that we maybe wish we had not taken in the past. I am going to be brave and predict two consequences to our future that are worth dwelling on.
Who benefits from this technology? Who is it aimed at? Well it appears to be aimed retired baby boomers and hard working dual income commuter families on decent incomes doing the school run. Who will loose out? Well taxi drivers should be very, very worried especially if estimates of having this sort of car road worthy in 2-3 years is true and anyone driving any logistics vehicles from a white van to lorry should be similarly concerned. If a machine can transport people or goods from A-B in a more efficient manner, at less running cost, tacking less breaks and having no worker rights then why would you still employ a person? This spells big problems for the working class and largely immigrant communities that currently populate these sort of jobs.
My guess is this is likely to create a future split between those firstly who invent technology, secondly those who imagine and decide how to use technology and thirdly those whose jobs have been replaced by technology. It seems that by in large you need a degree for being in the first two categories making those who lack the critical thinking skills developed by high level education mostly in the third category. How long will it be until robots replace waiters, low level chefs, hairdressers, brick layers, ware house operatives, call center workers (think Siri) and many other careers. This creates a big problem for societies like the UK’s that only have around one third of its working age population having a degree. Often people take the position that there needs to be a viable alternative to HE in the form of vocational training. I think that another similarly important question has to become does vocational education produces people with skills that wont be replaced by robots inside the next 5, 10, 20 years? Maybe there needs to be bigger shift towards early intervention programs pre-school (like Sure Start, remember that?) to try and get more people towards HE and more opportunity for people to access free re-training later in life if their skills become redundant alongside a genuine national careers service to support people in an impartial manner. Either than or we could stop inventing stuff that creates this sort of problem.
Consumerism Mediated by Technology
One of the apparent benefits of this new technology is that technology allows greater human relationships and greater human comfort. Since when was having relationships a life style choice accomplished by buying a machine? How come we think we can buy relationships? Now I appreciate there has always been an important role that media and technology play in mediating relationships since the time of cave paintings through smoke signals, letters, telegrams, the postal service, telephones up to video calls, instant messaging and social media. But I think a change is happening where before the rich could afford to communicate with people further away and the poor only with their physical neighbor it is increasingly becoming the case that technology and work have come together to make relationship look like a commodity. I have never spoke to the vast majority of the people on my street but regularly communicate with people the other side of the world using social media. Increasingly this is created by by work commute and my desire to network in my job (even with people who live in different countries and most of whom I have not met physically, I’m very grateful to all of you for your support in case anyone reading this was worried).
My careers related thought is that the order of relationship is increasingly becoming work- earn – relationship where a relationship is what I can purchase after I have earned enough and purchased the technology that enables this relationship whether it is a mobile device, computer or apparently a car. Maybe the apparent fact that more people world wide own a mobile phone than a tooth brush should open us up to the fact that the basic human function of relationship is one that we work towards with our labor not our time spent with people, though I am speculating here rather. At least the Google car aims to re-instate the physical in to relationships which is something I often feel I lack. But I still feel the need to ask how technology and work are coming together to commercialize relationships is really a good thing. As an off the cuff thought maybe if we worked less hard and earned less we would find we had more relationships and so less need for money? Now there’s a prediction. I appreciate I’m ranting a bit here by I think there’s still stuff to be thought through.