DIGITAL VS HUMAN: How We’ll Live, Love and Think in the Future
by Richard Watson
Paperback: 288 pages
WHY THE FUTURE IS WORKLESS
by Tim Dunlop
NewSouth Publishing, Sydney
Paperback: 240 pages
Reviewed by Colin Teese
Reviewing two books together is not, I believe, unique. In any event it is the approach I am taking with Digital vs Human and Why the Future is Workless.
The books referred to above by Richard Watson and Tim Dunlop respectively are, at once, totally different and yet, to some extent share similarities in purpose and intent. Each aims to provide us with a searching examination of aspects of the technology that is reshaping contemporary life.
Richard Watson, coming from what might be called a “Cosmic Destruction” perspective, describes what he believes are the adverse influences of the digital age and how these are transforming the human condition. One way or another, he insists, these influences adversely impact on the humanness of ordinary people – not merely here in Australia, but all around the world.
It is hard to disagree with him. Yet, for Western societies at least, the adverse affect of much modern technology goes unchallenged. Worse still, in official circles, it is accepted as a universal good. On this view, the slowdown in the pace of technological development is used to explain why our economies have not continued growing at previous levels.
Technology is the engine of growth; has been since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Measured these days, by growth in what we produce (GDP), it is improperly translated into per-capita growth. As such, it purports to demonstrate we are all made better off. Of course, as we are beginning to understand, this could only be so if the benefits of economic gains fell evenly across society.
The fact that the gains don’t fall evenly generates adverse economic side effects which, among other things, include high unemployment, job insecurity, low wages and overwork. All these downsides, we are encouraged to believe, are inseparable from the so-called economic benefits technology changes bring with them, and must therefore be accepted.
Putting aside the question of economic benefits, what about the other gains? Medical, for example. Is it not true that the benefits of technology-driven modern medicine are constantly being used to treat life-threatening illnesses and diseases, which would previously have claimed many lives?
Well, yes, but that is only one part of the medical story. How about the idea that many of the stress-related illnesses now afflicting more and more people and families are actually caused by the influence of technology in areas of the economy, in particular those associated with low and uncertain wage flows and unemployment.
That being so, much medical expenditure and expertise is devoted to dealing with technology-created problems. Should that not be part of the cost-benefit equation that economists measure?
There is more. How about the medical research into morally questionable areas such as the artificial creation of human life? These certainly can be said to be associated with “Cosmic Disruption”. The same can be said of advances in medical research that could result in, at least for some, prolonging human life indefinitely into the future. Is there any point to that, except that it may become possible?
Such issues involve not merely intellectual but moral judgements. Richard Watson quite rightly poses the question few seem to believe is relevant: Should there be a compulsion to do something merely because it can be done?
Sadly, the right to answer that question is reserved solely to those in positions of power. And regardless of what the rest of us might think, their answer is a resounding “yes”.
Richard Watson’s concerns about the clash between the digital and the human explore the full range of concerns. Conscious of the words of the subtitle, “how we live, love and think in the future”, I have attempted to encapsulate what he is telling us by means of a few citations. There is, however, much more to be gleaned from Watson’s more sweeping analysis that readers will find fascinating.
For those, including this writer, who choose not to confer unqualified enthusiasm on technological advances, some of Watson’s conclusions are worth recording:
“Digitalisation remains the greatest myth of the early 21st century. It tricks us into thinking that physical form and human presence don’t matter. But it does. Fortunately, the more time we devote to looking at screens the better we can see this.” (we hope)
“The more complex, more globalised and more virtual the world becomes, the more we crave simplicity, slowness and reality.”
Tim Dunlop’s approach in Workless is more concentrated on one aspect of the problem: the future of work. To concentrate our minds he draws on a comment by Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the United States and first secretary of the U.S. Treasury: “In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.”
Dunlop points out that from the end of World War II until the late 1960s was a time when “the hours we work, the money we earn, the things we can do with that money – the very notion of retirement – the services we expect from government were, by and large, formed.”
Large numbers of workers, skilled and unskilled alike, for the first time enjoyed unparalleled financial security and material comfort. That no longer applies.
Dunlop believes a shift can be traced to the oil crises of the 1970s. These caused business to no longer support the existing social consensus.
In search of new profit sources, manufacturing went offshore to capture cheap, powerless labour. In the process, a new economic model was born under various labels: from “OECD capitalism” to the “Washington Consensus”, before finally morphing into “neo-liberal economics”.
Dunlop claims that over time there has been “a massive realignment of the philosophical and material conditions of Western civilisation, how wealth was created and how the work which was done changed with it”.
Wealth creation moved away from manufacturing towards finance, knowledge and technology industries, all of which required less in the way of paid labour.
Because of these changes, the economic stagnation that followed the crash of 2007–08 was not part of a normal economic cycle, but the consolidation of a new attitude to work and employment. Future work will be piecemeal and detached from career and middle-class security.
The notion of a “work ethic” lost its meaning and relevance. All this while both sides of politics still insist as, Dunlop puts it, “that work should be at the centre of human understanding and economic activity”.
But unless we go back to what we once had, this cannot be.
Dunlop sees this as the essential element of neo-liberalism. And, in the manner of communism, its shortcomings are entirely explained by imperfect implementation.
Again, is it a case of left and right converging at the extremes?
There is, Dunlop asserts, no technical solution to the future problem of work. Neither is there a political solution within the framework of neo-liberalism, which discourages collective action towards community objectives.
Dunlop is no opponent of technology; nor does he reject the idea of a workless society. In fact, he sees it as necessary, if only because the alternatives are unsustainable.
What we must avoid, he believes, is the point Lewis Mumford makes in his two-volume history of technology: that we tend to see the world as a machine and reduce humanity to its conditions.
Hence, we must break neo-liberalism’s hold on our thinking. In that respect, some might say, the signs are not all discouraging.
Dunlop can see three possible paths to the future of work:
1. Business as usual, which assumes the market will sort it all out. This assumes that technology, as it once did, will create new jobs to replace those lost. At best this view accepts that some modifications may be necessary to cope with new realities, such as some form of uniform national income.
2. Back to the future. This rests on the idea of a commitment to full-time employment and full employment. Well-paid reliable work is at the centre in this approach.
The trouble with this idea is that it assumes that the future can deliver good full-time jobs. Dunlop believes that to be impossible, though he says that, if it could be done, it would be his preferred solution.
3. Postwork. This is the approach Dunlop believes will generate the only viable solution to the future of a world where economic growth is decoupling from industries – and therefore from full-time work.
It might also be said, more radically, that the market economy is itself at risk in the new economic growth model. But that is another story.
In looking at “postwork” we need first to think about the purpose of labour. First, in combination with capital it is the means of producing what we need; second, it helps provide workers with a sense of being needed; and third, it becomes the means by which national income is distributed through wages and profits.
The problem is technology is destroying this model. It is reshaping our world in ways where the old justifications for labour (and, for that matter, capital) no longer hold. The new world will require us to accept fully automated economies associated with falling levels of employment.
Getting there will be the difficult part, given the likely political and social constraints.