Are We Luddites?

First, let’s not assume that what was true in the past is true in the future, that just is not a given one can bank on. History has shown us that indeed, technology leads to an increase in productivity and wealth. Why of course it does, otherwise technologies wouldn’t have been implemented. What history has shown as well is that it is those who own or master the new technologies accrue most of the wealth, while those that don’t lose their jobs.

Second, let’s not gloss over the huge social dislocations and disruptions that have occurred in the past as a result of rapid technological change. The plough, the steam engine, indeed even the printing press have caused tides of unemployment; often young people who flocked to the cities. New jobs were eventually created but never by magic or default. Various revolutions and wars were powered by these dislocations as well. Western colonialism and imperialism would not have happened without masses of disenfranchised youngsters willing to risk so much boarding rickety vessels to far unknowns.

Third, let’s not assume that increased productivity and wealth leads to increased demand. Most economists tell me that what’s wrong with our highly productive economies is a lack of demand. The super productive Germans are saving, not spending. Where is the increased demand for goods? Rather, technologies have a  deflationary effect, making everything less expensive. And with deflation lurking there’s a real risk that purchases will be postponed only further. Also technology enabled China to become part of the highly integrated world economy and outcompete western labourers. Almost structural unemployment in various countries where industries have been wiped out is a result. Fourth, let’s not claim there are those who are lamenting the demise of particular jobs. I’d like to see someone in this debate who actually is lamenting that in particular. What we so-called ‘Luddites’ worry about is the actual social consequences of job losses already in place. There is no new demand, there are no new jobs. Jobs in fields we can barely imagine need to be imagined first. Soon driver-less trucks will ferry goods, driver-less taxies, trains and buses will transport people. Gone hundreds of thousands of jobs, hello hundreds of thousands of unemployed ill equipped to imagine new fields for their skills. Several hospitals are rolling out robotic carts that transport medicines and food, replacing people. They’re working on prototypes that can lift and transport patients. Augmented tools are helping surgeons do a far better job faster, allowing one to do the work of two. Robots are being developed to do minor surgery almost automatically. Sedasys, a robot developed by Johnson & Johnson, is replacing anaesthesiologists. Would you care to explain to all these medical professionals and those being educated over more than 10 year time frames that there are jobs in fields we can barely imagine? This debate should not be about who is or isn’t a Luddite, this should be about getting things in proper perspective and making sure that people who are going to or already have lost their jobs aren’t going to lose all of their security and add to the growing ranks of discontents.