Technology Is A Double Edged Sword Essay

Over at the New Statesman, Steven Poole is Mad as Hell. Like Howard Beale in the film Network, he's Not Going to Take It Any More. What's bugging him is what he calls "cybertheorists" (aka "cyberhustlers") – the guys – and they are mostly guys – who are constantly "dreaming of a perfectible electronic future and handing down oracular commandments about how the world must be remade. As did many religious rebels before them, they come to bring not peace, but a sword. Change is inevitable; we must abandon the old ways. The cybertheorists, however, are a peculiarly corporatist species of the Leninist class: they agitate for constant revolution but the main beneficiaries will be the giant technology companies before whose virtual image they prostrate themselves".

There's lots more in that indignant vein. Who are these intellectual hustlers, these "Pol Pots of the touchscreen and Twitter"? Poole fingers the usual suspects – Jeff Jarvis, David Weinberger, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson (only a "minor cybertheorist", poor chap) and a brace of Chris Andersons (one the ex-editor of Wired and the other the guy behind TED talks). To which one expostulates: what – no Kevin Kelly!!! And where are Stewart Brand, John Perry Barlow and Nicholas Negroponte, to name just three other cheerleaders for the digital future? If Poole is so annoyed, then he might at least have prepared a more comprehensive charge sheet.

Cynical web-marketing types might view Poole's rant as what is known in the trade as "linkbait" on the grounds that articles that namecheck prominent digerati tend to attract lots of Google juice. But let us be charitable and attribute no such sordid motive to him. What his piece usefully highlights is a serious asymmetry in our public discourse about the internet and, indeed, about technology in general.

One way of thinking about this is suggested by the work of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist who was fascinated by the process of economic development. Pondering the role of entrepreneurship and innovation in this process, Schumpeter argued that capitalism renews itself in periodic waves of traumatic upheaval. He was not the first to have this idea, but he was the first to come up with a memorable term for the process: Schumpeter called them waves of "creative destruction".

We're living through one such wave at the moment, but our public discourse about it is lopsided. That's because the narrative tends to be dominated by enthusiasts and evangelists, by people who, like the "cybertheorists" Poole detests, tend to focus on the creative side of the Schumpeterian wave. At the same time, people who are sceptical or fearful about the new technology tend to be labelled – and sometimes derided – as luddites or technophobes.

The trouble is that Schumpeter meant what he said: innovation is a double-edged sword. Digital technology is indeed creative, in the sense that it enables us to do new things that were hitherto impossible, or to do old things better. In the case of the internet, for example just think of the web, Wikipedia and Skype, all instances of technology that have transformed our lives, mostly for the better.

But technology is also destructive in the sense that it destroys or undermines things that are valuable: bookshops and print newspapers, for example and – who knows? – maybe even institutions such as the BBC. Digital technology has already resulted in a dramatic erosion of personal privacy. And it's enabling things that are potentially or actually sinister – government surveillance on a massive scale and at an unimaginably detailed level, for example; and the growth of a few mega-corporations such as Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook that might eventually mediate most of our communicative acts.

Given that technology is both creative and destructive, wouldn't it be better to have a public discourse about it that accepted this uncomfortable truth? Obviously yes. So why doesn't it happen? One answer, suggested many years ago by the great cultural critic Neil Postman is that we live in what he called a "technopoly", that is to say a society in which technology is effectively deified.

"Because of its lengthy, intimate and inevitable relationship with culture," Postman wrote, "technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. It is the kind of friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most people are inclined to give because its gifts are truly bountiful. But, of course, there is a dark side to this friend… it creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy."

Spot on. Cybertheorists – and luddites – please copy.

ARE YOU A driver, invoicer, accountant, factory worker? Then you’re in a similar situation to the workers from English factories during the Industrial Revolution. If you don’t enter the world of work 2.0 technological progress may well destroy your job.

A specific feature of the current global crisis is high youth unemployment. What’s more, this problem affects mainly and nearly exclusively developed countries. Thus maybe the reasons for high youth unemployment can be found in the weaknesses of the global economy? The best educated generation in history is now experiencing that we’re living through a dramatic revolution.

We’re seeing the creation of the digital world. Ten years ago, there was no such thing as Facebook. Ten years before that, we didn’t have Amazon or the Web. New technologies have opened up new opportunities. They bring with them an ever more complex reality.

In the new digital reality companies of a new type, such as Google, thrive. This firm has been testing driverless cars for the last few years. A special machines directs Toyotas Prius and Lexus RX450h equipped with sophisticated observation systems. These cars have driven over 300 thousand miles of roads in California and Nevada, not once causing an accident or even a fender bender. This is a shocking result unattainable for many drivers. A computer, rather than a driver who has to be paid, drives safer than humans, reducing the costs of the car fleet at the company; that’s a very tempting vision.

Technological progress is causing certain jobs to disappear

It is also part of a broader trend seen since the times of the Industrial Revolution and recently returning to the fore. Machines are taking work away from humans, or to put it more subtly – technological progress is causing certain jobs to disappear, even those which were very common quite recently. An invoicer or an assembly line worker are becoming history – as once happened to the profession of blacksmith – we don’t use horses for transportation any more.

The automation of repetitive and often tedious tasks in services doesn’t only apply to office and factory workers. Also services are being automated. The same goes for posts serviced by machines, especially so due to Machine to machine (M2M) technology.

We are suffering from a disease, which you will be hearing a lot about in the coming years – technological unemployment. Unemployment caused by the fact, that the speed of falling demand for human labour as a result of technological progress will be quicker, than the speed with which we will find new uses for this labour – this was said in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes. the same conclusions were drawn by Peter Drucker and Nobel prize winner in economics Wassily Leontief, who stated in 1983, that people will share the horse’s fate after the Industrial Revolution.

Work will ultimately return. But it won’t be the same kind of work as before. No one is going to pay you a salary just for showing up at work. Employers will have new expectations for their workers, thus creating a more flexible, more freelance, more collaborative and far less secure world of work. It will be run by people with new values, driven by the coming of Work 2.0.

A whole new way of working and living

Work 2.0 is a whole new way of working and living. The new type of work is carried out by people sitting on chairs and looking into their monitors all day. Their minds are flexible and focused on multitasking. They work part-time. Sometimes 15 hours in a row, sometimes on a Sunday, often remotely. The worker bears the costs of the equipment he uses, of the insurance taken out on the effects of his work, of continuous education, of the effects of his illness. How, why, when and where of work has never been so open to individual interpretation as now. It’s a new social contract between employers and employees.

While in the old system you pretty much chose one career to follow and this choice affected your entire life, changes on the labour market have made this way of planning your future redundant. Work 2.0 is emerging as new technologies are making more and more jobs possible for automation – why would a company pay you for something their own computers can do for free and much quicker? And if your job still isn’t up for automation, your employer has the technology to outsource it to a cheaper worker at its fingertips.

Technology is a double-edged sword, as it has the ability to both liberate and enslave. Technology is changing the nature of work, enriching us, and as companies redefine how and where different tasks are carried out, they require new skills and new employer-employee relationships. However, jobs for others than workers 2.0, the global hyper-skilled, are disappearing—this transformation is leaving many people without a job for good.

Sergiusz Prokurat is the author of ‘Work 2.0: nowhere to hide’ (2013), a lecturer at the University of Euroregional Economy and ISG Paris and Director of the CSPA think tank.

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