Handwringing over technology’s impact on the future of work is at least as old as the first industrial revolution, and throughout the twentieth century a variety of voices pointed to the prospects—both dim and bright—of labor-saving machinery:
- In 1912, C. Bertrand Thompson, a business consultant and proponent of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, highlighted “the vast forces of nature” machines bring to the working man—underscoring the benefits of augmentation as opposed to automation.
- In 1927, George Orwell wrote, “Mechanisation leads to the decay of taste, the decay of taste leads to demand for machine-made articles and hence to more mechanisation, and so a vicious circle is established.”
- John Maynard Keynes, in his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren,” predicted that machines and technology would unlock enough productivity that we would decide to work less, opting for a 15-hour work-week.
- In a 1946 letter to Otto Juliusburger, Albert Einstein wrote, “I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives — a disastrous byproduct of science and technology.”
- Touching on the Triple Revolution Report, Martin Luther King, Jr. warned of “the impact of automation and cybernation” days before his assassination in 1964.
- Later that year, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law a bill creating the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress, he remarked, “Automation is not our enemy…Automation can be the ally of our prosperity…”
- Jeremy Rifkin wrote in his 1996 book The End of Work, “With new information and telecommunication technologies, robotics, and automation fast eliminating jobs in every industry and sector, the likelihood of finding enough work for the hundreds of millions of new job entrants appears slim.”
MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee picked up the thread when they published Race Against The Machine in 2011 and The Second Machine Age in 2014. In 2015’s Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford enumerates why this time the specter of widespread displacement is real.
For well over a hundred years we’ve been searching for an answer to the question: does a jobless future lead to a life of leisure or a dystopia of mass unemployment?
Challenges With Business As Usual
But the debate distracts from issues that deserve our attention in the here and now. We haven’t fully understood the long-term costs of offshoring in a globalized economy. Our business schools continue to preach the gospel of profit maximization despite the externalities. We reward financial speculation while bailing out bad actors. Our middle class has been hollowed out, and the gig economy is a race to the bottom. We accept as a default that a traditional hierarchical management structure is the optimal way to operate all businesses.
In our technology-obsessed culture, we tend to look to the latest innovations for answers. And for good reason: they’ve contributed marvelously to material progress. But science’s linear, analytical thinking is no match for the complexity of the world we live in today.
Technology will not save us from ourselves. We must look to the best western scientific theories as well as ancient wisdom traditions to find solutions going forward.
The recent Integral European Conference, themed “Allies of Evolution,” attracted 610 participants from 48 countries. Topics ran the gamut of education, politics, technology and—of course—the next stage of business. There I ran into Tom Thomison.