It’s time for a debate about the impact of digital change on jobs and society

Given that the advent of digital technology poses real questions about how power is distributed – whether via politics or the economy – it is perhaps surprising that the Left isn’t promoting a more mainstream debate about the impact of digital change on jobs and society.

Take a moment to scan the fascinating future-gazing by UK Commission for Employment and Skills on the Future of Workpublished this week and think about the impacts of digital change on jobs.  (To make their point, the creative and digitally-aware people at UKCES have devised a tongue-in-cheek 10-step ‘Your Future Job’ quiz to make you engage a bit more with an important academic study).  Be afraid, but then reflect on how this relates to current debates about work, welfare and immigration – where do our present insecurities really come from and do new digital technologies present themselves as the destroyers of jobs or the creators of new ones?

In one sense these debates are nothing new.  In the 1930s Keynes addressed the question of ‘technological unemployment’ – i.e. jobs are lost due to the discovering of new ways of economising labour before we can find new uses for workers made redundant.  This was a real threat in the Great Depression, but clouded later by demands of war and the post-war construction until computers appeared in the 1960s.

But in practice economists talk of a ‘Luddite Fallacy.’ This postulates that over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries technology regularly created more jobs than it destroyed.  Crudely put: technological progress reduces the cost of production, which in turn lowers price which often leads to increases in demand, thereby employing more people.

So far, so understood – disruption certainly, but growth in the economy and living standards nevertheless, buttressed by a politics which generally supported thus dynamic.

But something strange has happened in recent years, a point mused on in Paul Krugman’s pieces on Robots and Robber Barons.

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In The Second Machine Age, Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee tackle a question perplexing late-modern capitalism: growth since the end of the 1990s has decoupled the historic relationship employment and productivity described above. Productivity has continued its upwards trend while jobs and wages have sagged, threatening not just working class jobs but middle class ones as well.  In some cases the use of robots in manufacturing is in the process of reversing the shift to cheap labour on offer in developing countries, creating a new employment paradigm where we value most those things computers can’t yet do.

So should we take our guide from the evidence of the last 200 years or the 15 years since then? Also, what is the relationship between the phenomenon of globalisation (which political debate is very aware of) and digital technological change (less so)?  Could it be that the disruption of the 2000s which we ascribed to the results of post-Cold War globalisation were actually more due to a specific form of technological change?  If so, what are the political consequences to the organisation of the state, economy and welfare and how do we share in the ‘bounty’ enjoyed by those able to capture advantage early on?

For other futurists in this area, like Jaron Lanier, change of this nature ultimately poses questions of inequality and economic dignity.  While digital technology enables a cohort of mobile ‘free workers’, agile enough to move from project to project, this will not be open to all – to the low-skilled, to some older workers, to parents, to those who require greater security. Addressing one specific question – the power of data – is to propose that the data we freely give to new digital social media behemoths like Google and Facebook – or anyone else – should be a traded commodity.

But that’s a far-off speculation.  Our Second Machine Age, according to its authors, should seek to promote growth in these different times.  The means by which we can do this initially will be familiar to those on the Left – investment in schools, infrastructure, teachers and our scientific base.  Beyond that they argue we need to think more fundamentally about social organisation – this means revisiting concepts such as the Basic Income, how we tax more intelligently (especially against land and economic rents) and how we invest in the peer-to-peer economy.  In short, responses to digital change don’t just have to be about naked competition, but collaboration and co-operation.

Behind the future-gazing is a most serious point – our economy is undergoing a fundamental change more disruptive than the Banking Crash, with far-wider consequences for society, work and politics.

While globalisation represented the victory of the neo-liberal consensus to which the Left had to adapt to, a new focus on how digital technology is changing society potentially opens up an understanding of people’s life-chances and insecurities in ways the Left has encountered before and can provide solutions once again.

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