Spent 30 mins today looking at linear television, something that apart from live sport happens more and more rarely in our family. However, the reason for this rare event was my super smart former colleague Darja Isaksson being the guest at a show called Edit Dirawi at SVT (Swedish National Television) talking about the “digital revolution”.
Apart from the format of the show, which felt like something aimed towards 10 year olds wrongly aired at 10.15 pm, the questions for discussion were relevant.
One of the discussions was that of the future of work. In a digital society a lot of jobs will get disrupted, automated or replaced by robots. That we already know, the interesting part is which new jobs that will be created instead.
This is something that either can be seen as something perfectly normal that has been going on since forever (although increasing in speed during recent years). It could also be put into the more dystopian version frequently drawn up in media (and by certain politicians) that eventually the robots will have taken over all our jobs, we will all be unemployed and starving under a small elite that will own everything and take all the money.
Personally I’m a convinced believer of the first version. Labor has always been disrupted. A good example is that before the alarm clock was commercialized in the mid 1850:s, a good way to earn your living if you didn’t have any problems getting out of bed was to be a window knocker, walking around town with a stick knocking at peoples windows in the morning to wake them up. Eventually the alarm clock was invented and the window knockers got replaced by “robots”, thus had to find other jobs.
Human competence is getting constantly refined by experience, creativity and innovation. We get better and better at utilizing our brain-power, which helps us come up with new products and services, that in turn can automate other things, so that we can free up capacity to focus on new things, which we do faster, better and more effective than previously (and as a consequence GDP increases exponentially). And thus, the nature of work is in an infinite transformational-loop.
The other, maybe even more transformational force, is the fact that digitalization represents a huge democratization of knowledge, well on-par with the invention of printing, which Darja also pointed out talking about French speaking African students being able to study online at a top-class Swiss university hosting 1 million students. Even though you’ll eventually not be relevant as a supermarket cashier anymore, you do have better opportunities than ever to learn new things. At a top-university. Or at Youtube. And with the ongoing democratization of marketplaces (internet), manufacturing (driven by 3D-printing etc.) you do have better opportunities than ever before to act on your new learnings and sell the outcome on a global market. To me, this is closer to utopia than dystopia. It might however require us to reprogram ourselves from seeing working at the big company a whole career and having the government taking care of us should anything go wrong as the ideal state.
Also, a big risk from a macro-perspective being politicians and governmental organizations not understanding the transformation and therefore being scared of it. With being afraid of change comes trying to stop time and invent regulations in order to protect the current state, and thus creating more harm than good. There is a lot of good examples of this all the time, often involving new digital models such as Airbnb or Uber vs. the current state.
Just last week the Swedish Digitaliseringskommisionen (Digitalization Commission) presented a report outlining several challenges with the sharing economy to fiscal systems, employment, welfare and pensions. This is all true albeit far from unsolvable. However, the report doesn’t outline anything but very marginal ideas, mainly proposing further investigations.
Digitalization and the sharing economy surely will mean significant disruption to work. The changes will be both faster and far bigger than what we’ve expected previously. And, working your whole life in a role at a big company will be the extreme rather than the norm. But, from all this new services, business models and products will emerge exponentially. If we embrace rather than fight it I’m convinced it will bring more prosperity and democracy than ever before.
Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski @ Flickr