Work revolution: The haves and have-yachts

by Sally Blundell / 13 July, 2016
How do we want to live in the brave new world of the future?
Illustration/Chris Slane
Illustration/Chris Slane

The future is here. Robotics, advanced life sciences, cyber­security, data analytics, the “code-ification” of money and trust are already changing the way we live our lives. Are we ready? Is this what we want?

In Digital vs Human, English author, lecturer and futurist Richard Watson casts a more evaluative eye on how we might live, and how we might want to live, in an increasingly digitised and automated world. Without such discussions, he suggests, the outlook is grim. Already the internet has become a playground for cyberbullying, trolling and misogyny. Our hyperconnectivity, our reliance on social networks, including the “personal performance platform” that is Facebook, is affecting our social structures, health, happiness, privacy.

He charts the rising tide of narcissism, exhibitionism, hatred and loneliness that results from a life led in full public view in a room of one’s own. As our social and commercial lives are increasingly conducted online – funeral services can now be live-streamed as a “cost-effective” option for mourners too busy to attend in person – our interpersonal skills, our attention spans and our capacity for abstract reasoning and creativity are all being undermined, “when these skills are exactly what we’ll need to compete against the machines tomorrow”. As we glance over headlines, retweet the tweet, file the lecture notes, true knowledge – the capacity for deep reflective thought – is being replaced with what Watson calls “knowledge of the zeitgeist”.

A panicky luddite voice? Watson quotes Socrates’ dire warning that reading, instead of remembering, would erode knowledge. But automation and digitisation will continue “because we are obsessed with an unholy trinity of speed, convenience and efficiency”. The benefits for business, health, education and those in the world’s “frontier economies” are vast, but they will also bring a loss of jobs and a growing gap between the “haves and the have-yachts”.

Richard Watson: the outlook is grim.
Richard Watson: the outlook is grim.

He says some jobs will remain secure: those that require us to “understand, inspire or connect with other human beings”. Watson lists teachers, nurses, doctors, poets, artists, film-makers, craftspeople, fiction writers, psychologists and the clergy.

“Our next generation of school-leavers should be taught things machines cannot do: to ask questions, think creatively, act empathetically” and enter a much-needed conversation on what we as a society require of machines in relation to human well-being.

As he says, digital technologies should be used to enhance human thinking and relationships, not replace them. Automated jobs should be replaced with secure and meaningful work elsewhere, including for the “less talented, the less skilled, and the less fortunate”. Families and businesses should encourage tech-free days and holidays. Schools should re-evaluate the importance of technology in the classroom. Tech giants should be made to respect regulations, allow unions and pay their full and proper taxes.

“We must open up a broad discussion about what’s acceptable and what’s not in the context of automation, and ensure that human dignity and respect are never crushed in the rush for convenience, affordability or narrowly defined aspects of value.”

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