Luddite Fallacy? No way, José!

In economics, the Luddite Fallacy argues that new technology does not lead to a high unemployment rate and the destruction of jobs. Naturally, this is hard to believe – and untrue.

Before proceeding, please note that you are currently reading a post categorized under “Possibly the least informative”.  Here,  I allow myself to express thoughts and ideas, no matter how unpopular, right or wrong. Be nice!

What lies ahead?

I recently read an article called “The Next Technology Revolution Will Drive Abundance And Income Disparity” by Vinod Khosla. As the title suggests, this article covers the automation of work and how it will destroy jobs (and create an income disparity) – an issue that has become more and more popular among armchair futurists like myself, sustainability advisors, other professionals and the general public.

The main point according to the author and many other writers on the topic is, that self-learning machines and software programs will eventually exceed the productivity, efficiency and intelligence of humans. This in turn devalues labor causing not only a majority of people being replaced by machines, but a general income disparity. The ones affected most by this development will be blue collar workers, however, white collar workers aren’t safe either. According to the article, certain people and jobs are safe from technological takeover, while the majority will face difficulties (The article says up to 80% might be troubled, while the top 10-20% of any profession remain in charge).
You might want to argue that previous technological milestones created new jobs and new industries (Film industry anyone!?) and that the Luddite Fallacy actually has some truth to it. And it is safe to say that that this new technology revolution will do so as well, however, it won’t create a sufficient number of jobs to pick up many of the lower 80% of the population. Accordingly we can expect the devaluation of labor to cause a not so harmonious society that will express its despair with unrest.

Why?

The ‘Why’ is just as important to ask as the ‘What’ so let’s take a look why we face such problems.

To older Millennials and its antecedent generations it should be obvious how the pace of change (technological, societal etc.) has increased drastically over the last two decades. It’s no wonder that engineers and scientists from all fields are becoming more specialized because the range has increased so dramatically, and medical professionals are having trouble keeping up with the newest standards and best practice just as much as students struggle to keep up with grammar adjustments. This pace of change and the creation of a high rate of technological innovations also fuelled our consumer behavior to become ever more demanding – we want to have the newest smartphones and the newest software and yet sometimes we don’t even appreciate products or services that are quite innovative. We just keep demanding. We fail to see the implications of this demand, and we fail to see the big picture – and that is the problem.

Seeing the big picture means to think beyond the scope of your personal/professional interests and operations. Simply put, if a company is working on self-driving cars, it should not only work on its effectivity. It should be the company’s responsibility to think about its use and the implications; what it means when you build and launch it on the market. The company should know that self-driving cars reduce accidents and the number of fatalities on the road, which causes tens of thousands (depends on degree of adoption) missed organ donations because of fewer road deaths – a morbid thought but a necessary one.

In the case of automation, when you are working on machines and software programs that will eventually make “human capital” (workers, labor) obsolete, you should know how this will affect society. Future thinking is not optional anymore. It is imminent to catch up with the social and legislative aspects of innovation – otherwise we will be facing some scary setbacks.

The author picks up on a difficult topic but remains optimistic and I understand that his optimism might stem from his believe in a world “in which all material needs are provided for free, by robots and material synthesizers.” But should it be necessary for the lower 80%, or those most affected by automation, to bite the bullet in order for us to create a “consumer utopia”?

My personal dilemma with this revolution

I am not against technological progress, although my BlackBerry Bold 9780 from 2011 might render some people suspicious, but we need to put things into perspective. Should we really strive forward in technology, changing society as we know it, when we don’t even know how to provide it so that everyone benefits from it equally?

Here is a crazy thought – slowing down technological progress would do us good. Sure, my priorities may be different because of my personal interest in humanitarian aid. However, slowing down technology and using our resources to distribute existing technologies to the countries who don’t have them (but want them), would not only help in terms of fighting poverty – it would show us the socio-economic effect of implementation of various technologies in different environments. We could learn from these and come out as wiser men and women.

Of course this is not going to happen.

There will always be those who will gladly pay the price for being first and having the competitive advantage. That is how capitalism works and why it seems misplaced when talking about the future. Like Khosla says in the article “we may need a version of capitalism that is focused on more than just efficient production and also places greater prioritization on the less desirable side effects of capitalism”. Aren’t we all in the same boat?

“Let’s say there’s a bunch of people on a ship and there’s bunch of holes in the ship and we’re quite good at bailing water out of our section and we’ve invented this nice bucket. It’ll be foolish of us not to share that bucket design. Because if the ship goes down, we’re going with it”. – Elon Musk on why he released his patents to the public.

I would like to remind you of your parents and/or grandparents, many of whom may have said that things were better in the past (Also known as the “Positivity effect” or maybe “Rosy Retrospection”). Could it be that these statements have become truer since we became this society that is obsessed with aiming for perfection and along the way cutting out those who either don’t want it or can’t adapt fast enough? A society where those that can adapt leave no space for those that cannot, for them to evolve as they see fit?

It shouldn’t be this way – consumers need to see the big picture too. This is necessary for pushing Corporate Social Responsibility and for sustainability to thrive. It is our most powerful weapon, as we cannot change the incentives of companies in today’s market economy. If we want our technology to advance, we should at least make sure that everyone benefits from this development equally. Acknowledgment of it not being this way, is where it begins.

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