The future of work: Tech Yeah! vs Tech Meh!

There are, broadly, two views about future technological advances doing the rounds at the moment. I’ve nicknamed them Tech Yeah! and Tech Meh!

Tech Yeah! is the more mainstream of the two. You hear it from the futurologists at management conferences and in the technology sections of the major newspapers. My Twitter stream is full of it. Tech Yeah! says we are on the brink of leap in technology as far-reaching as the industrial revolution only much faster. It will transform the way we live and work. In the process, it will make us more productive and lead to an era of abundance.

Tech Meh! is the view that the future won’t be anywhere near as futuristic as we think and that technological progress is slowing down.

The big inventions have all happened, says Robert Gordon, and the recent technological developments just won’t deliver the same increases in productivity and living standards.

The computer and Internet revolution (IR #3) began around 1960 and reached its climax in the era of the late 1990s, but its main impact on productivity has withered away in the past eight years. Many of the inventions that replaced tedious and repetitive clerical labor by computers happened a long time ago, in the 1970s and 1980s. Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labor productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.

In a recent WSJ piece, Gordon remarked:

The rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history.

He’s not alone. Tyler Cowen famously argued that the US is stuck on an innovation plateau after having eaten all the low hanging fruit. PayPal founder Peter Thiel is also in the Tech Meh! camp.

Peter Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and held it up. “I don’t consider this to be a technological breakthrough,” he said. “Compare this with the Apollo space program.”

A couple of years ago, Alan Patrick argued that there was more innovation in 1909, 1929 and 1969 than in 2009.

A similar theme runs through David Boyle’s New Year thought-piece in the Guardian. He too thinks that the pace of technological change is slowing down.

Two peculiar counter-intuitive facts about the digital world this year. First, sales of computer tablets have been on the slide. Second, even less predictably, sales of ebooks – at least in the summer – were down by a quarter on two years before, while sales of print books have been rising.

[D]espite what we are told, technological change is actually slowing down. I’ve been travelling on Boeing 747s and driving Minis my entire life (I’m 56). And although the technology inside them is very different, just compare that with a century ago – with the extraordinary development over the same 56-year period of cars, aeroplanes, submarines, telephones and all the rest.

If I was born in 1858, would I still be struggling along in my wagon at New Year 1915? These days, we live at the same addresses as we did a century ago. Travelling in London, at least, we take the same bus routes, use the same stations.

He has a point. I remember, when I was about 8 or 9, drawing two pictures of futuristic aeroplanes. By the time I was grown up, I told my teacher, the first one would whisk me across the world at 3 times the speed of sound. But this would be rendered obsolete by the second one, which would do 4 times the speed of sound. An over-active childish imagination? Not really. After all, we’d gone from a wooden glider driven by a 12 horsepower engine to a moon landing and supersonic passenger flights in 70 years. Expecting to fly at ever faster speeds over the next 20 years or so looked like a reasonable assumption. We were going to have a colony on the Moon by 2003, so 4 times the speed of sound across the Atlantic would be run-of-the-mill.

It never happened, of course. Concorde was as good as supersonic flight got before we scrapped it and we gave up on manned space flight years ago.

As I was flying abroad recently, it occurred to me that I had made an Airfix model of the Boeing plane I was on when I was a kid in the 70s. The first one I ever did was a Harrier jump jet, recently dumped by our government but still doing sterling work elsewhere. Had aircraft technology moved at a similar pace during my dad’s lifetime, the RAF would still have been flying Lancasters and Spitfires in the 1980s, albeit with more sophisticated technology in the cockpit. The Spitfire was state-of-the-art in 1939 but almost obsolete by 1945. Today’s airforces and airlines are still using 40 year old technology.

David Boyle links to a couple of pieces by Mark Pack who points out that the speed of take-up of iPods was no more impressive than the take-up of radios in the 1920s and 30s and argues that the world is not speeding up but slowing down. He links to a fascinating book by Bob Seidensticker called Future Hype (website here). It was written in 2006 but its argument that a lot of new technology simply enables us to do the same stuff faster and sitting at home or in a cafe holds true.

Ha-Joon Chang says the washing machine changed the world more than the internet, pointing out that, so far, there is little evidence that the internet revolution has done much to improve productivity.

It may be that all this is about to change. We may indeed be on the cusp of a technological revolution. But that revolution will have to deliver massive leap in productivity to counteract a global slowdown in economic growth and a relative decline in the world’s working age population. A report by McKinsey in 2012 warned that, unless the rate of productivity growth speeds up, those born after 2000 will see a much slower rate of improvement in their living standards than the post-war generations enjoyed. Those in Southern Europe might even end up poorer than their parents. To deliver the sort of growth we once assumed was normal, these technological advances are going to have to be really good.

As Diane Coyle said, the tech optimists and tech pessimists can’t both be right and the Tech Yeah! future is the preferable one. At least with the robots we get the leap in productivity:

The UK economy needs more robots. That’s the message of the low labour productivity problem. Real wages can’t rise over the long term unless investment in capital and productivity improve.

This is a more optimistic vision than that of a slowdown and stagnation, even if it does mean that the robots will eat a lot of people’s jobs, but it still leaves the problem of distributing the benefits of this productivity.

In its Future of Work report last year, UKCES came up with a number of scenarios which included both the possibility of a long period of stagnation and of a technology driven productivity leap. One thing all the scenarios had in common, though, was that, for those without good skills, powerful connections or inherited wealth, the future looks extremely bleak.

The Economist concluded, at the end of a long piece on technology and work last year:

[S]ociety may find itself sorely tested if, as seems possible, growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages.

It might not even be so great for the skilled. The Uberification of professional work could create a new class of precarious freelancers, working in what the Economist described earlier this month as a limited Utopia. Limited, that is, to those who own the technology. Or, as John Naughton put it, “a concierge economy [with] legions of network co-ordinated serfs.”

In terms of that great abstract thing we call the economy, the robot future is, without doubt, better than long-term stagnation. For those excluded from its benefits, though, it might not feel that much different.

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21 Responses to The future of work: Tech Yeah! vs Tech Meh!

  1. Bernie Samson says:

    “Peter Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and held it up. “I don’t consider this to be a technological breakthrough,” he said. “Compare this with the Apollo space program.”

    …and all music has been shite since the Beatles broke up. I’ve heard that one before.

    As ever, the reality probably lies somewhere between the two. Some areas of technology have developed hugely in the last couple of decades, medical technology (with the possible exception of small molecule pharma) being a case in point. There simply hasn’t been the strategic need to invest in something like the Apollo program.

    It is probably fair that outside of consumer electronics and medicine, there have been fewer paradigm shifting technologies that would be noticed by the man on the street (and perhaps also by economists). Much new technology has instead offered more efficient versions of what we already have – note the increase in performance of the internal combustion engine over the last ten years.

    Isn’t it also the case that big companies are sitting on large cash reserves that in previous generations might have been invested in R&D? If and when some of that starts to get spent, perhaps we’ll see something more dramatic.

    • Bernie Samson says:

      I should augment this with a nod to Ha-Joon Chang’s washing machine example. He presumably considers its economic impact to have come from freeing up half(ish) the population from hours of washing clothes to become more measurably productive doing other things. It arguably isn’t the washing machine per se that offers the productivity.

      Unless someone devises a way to make days longer and give humans a bit more stamina, then these gains aren’t there to be made again. This is necessarily the case because, crudely, productivity is a function of money over time. The most likely “invention” to have an effect on this will surely be the raising of the average age of retirement.

  2. Nick says:

    That is why we need Basic Income.

    As for technology, you do see significant improvement in many areas.
    And in cars you can already see replacement of mechanical controls from electronics.

    But perhaps the most improvement (low-catching fruit) will be VR.

    • guthrie says:

      A basic income would just be a dole, in effect charity money given to those who do not have a job, and always at risk from the caprices of the powerful or mob mentality whipped up by the media. A meaningful change would be to give them some control, i.e. ownership of the means of production.

      • John says:

        Actually, both points are correct. Under the existing capitalist sytem, to make demand effective it has to be backed by money. Giving everyone a minimum income as of right would ensure that all the basic necessities are provided to everyone, with the option being there for people who want more to work and get paid extra income for their extra needs and/or wants and/or desires.
        Under a socialist non-cash system, everyone’s needs would be met through a rationing system which could be adjusted to reflect material growth and possible psychological growth too.

  3. I suggest those who are doubtful about the reality of the slow down in innovation read Rick’s creativity crisis posts and the links from there (including to my posts on the subject).

    • Bernie Samson says:

      I read the posts as you suggest. I’m open to being convinced, but those posts didn’t really help. Rick arguably comes closest by looking to link innovation to productivity but the figures would appear to me to have too much other noise in to be truly compelling.

      Anecdotal stuff about how we are still using aeroplanes and TVs doesn’t add much to the debate. These are mature and well liked technologies, for sure, but in another 80 years we might well be able to have the same discussion about stuff “invented” between 1990 and 2010 that none of us have even heard of yet.

      It’s an interesting perspective but, for me, an unproven one.

  4. John says:

    Another interesting – and provocative – article from Rick !
    It occured to me a couple of days ago that with the advent of apps like Uber, it becomes possible to order on-line driverless vehicles which we could use just for a limited period of time to achieve a number of objectives and then instruct or order the driverless vehicle back to its base.
    This would mean much lower car production and ownership, far fewer car parking problems and probably lower levels of fuel consumption and atmospheric pollution.
    The one drawback to such a scheme is that there would no longer be any need for paid drivers.
    Taxis – and taxi drivers – would become largely antiquated and unnecessary.
    Many supermarkets, with self-check-out technology, now require fewer staff working there.
    Ultimately, we are facing a society in which human labour will be less and less needed.
    However, human needs will remain and will probably grow over time.
    How to square this circle?
    There is only one way: get rid of the cash economy and replace it with a planned cash-less economy, in which centralised planning systems ensure the provision of all aspects of human needs within local, regional and global economies.
    If that sounds like socialism, Marx always said that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction within itself. Capitalism is engineering-out all need for human beings and the concerns over AI and robotised technology are bringing the day closer when human beings have to start making important decisions regarding their own and the planet’s future.

  5. Bina says:

    Tech Meh – my first profession has been terminally undermined by use of tech even though we were told that as we were being trained at the forefront of these tech changes and would be guaranteed a bright future, (hollow LOL). My second profession has been terminally undermined by the use of Taylorist principles applied to white collar work. My third attempt is laughingly self defining as a profession (I have a different view) but is little more than monkey work, (‘black box’ computer systems answer my clients’ problems better than me, apparently.)

  6. David says:

    Surely yet another reason why we DONT need Basic Income .

    • Nick says:

      If the society cannot provide enough jobs for all people (which is not in a position to do even now), then it should compensate the ones that cannot find jobs.
      Thus a basic income.

      Not sure what your reasoning is.

  7. Dave Timoney says:

    Robert Gordon’s analysis is based on a hardware-centric view of technology and economic change. He doesn’t really get the paradigm shift of software, focusing instead on the triviality of iPods. Commentators of a certain vintage (and reactionaries like Peter Thiel) are nostalgic for an older future, for ever lamenting the non-appearance of jet-packs.

    The jet plane trope is a misunderstanding of economic imperatives. Since the 60s, the revolution in transport has been the extension of flying to the majority of the population in the developed world and a significant minority elsewhere. It’s about quantity (and safety) not quality. Speed has reverted to an elite indulgence (Musk, Branson et al).

    A lot of the “modern technology is rubbish” comment arises from the slowdown in productivity growth since 2000, which means a slowdown in capital-labour substitution in the West following the bulk of bluecollar offshoring in the 80s and 90s. Democracy requires a minimum of whitecollars jobs for the core electoral bloc, hence the growth of supernumerary roles (HR et al) and the extensive use of IT for workplace time-wasting (email, social media etc).

    Stagnation can be see as a tension between a desire not to upset the apple cart and prompt a crisis in democracy, and the expectation that the automation of whitecollar roles cannot be put off indefinitely (insert your favourite Gramsci quote here). The growing profile of basic income is symptomatic of this, as is the conservative valorisation of authenticity and a hand-crafted world (David Boyle’s schtick).

    We are not on the cusp of a technological revolution – we’re in the middle of one. Our problem is that we’re still expecting to see the modern equivalent of an “iron horse” come chuffing into view.

  8. Nick Holmes says:

    I’m not sure we should be obsessed with robots and the future; how about the present? Amazon et al have already created a class of precarious “self-employed” in place of the working class and the “Uberification” of professional work is already rapidly creating a class of precarious freelancers replacing the middle classes. All this wonderful tech is not leading to meaningful occupations for the 99%. Pass me the soma pills.

    • Bina says:

      Quite. I also can’t understand what all the fuss is about when it is claimed we don’t have enough people (young people) to replace and support the economy. We won’t need any people. Tech is making us all disposable or infantilising us (cf growth in gaming and other tech mediated social activity, digitized gambling etc). Meaningful work? Where?

  9. ChrisA says:

    All this arguing about whether or not I-phones represent more innovation, than say a new steam engine design is pretty pointless anecdotal-no-true-scotsman stuff. To compare airplane speed improvements with computer chip speed improvements is the ultimate in apples and oranges comparisons. To ask which is better is not a meaningful question. The only methodology is to try to do this in the aggregate, are people’s lives improving, on average, at the same rate or not? The best measure that we have been able to come up with so far is perhaps PPP adjusted GDP growth per head. Globally this shows no sign of slowing down, in fact in recent times it is running at some of the highest levels ever.

    Ok, maybe GDP per head data does not fully capture “happiness” or “fulfillment”, and misses inequality but it probably captures material well being growth not too badly for the average person.

    To revert a little to anecdata – in my part of the world (a relatively poor developing country) probably 80% of the population has no access to indoor sanitation, or kitchens or any of those 20C innovations. But when they get some money the first thing they get is a smart phone (21C innovation). Revealed preference suggests that smart phones are more disruptive than past innovations.

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  11. Bob says:

    Rick, what is your view on a job guarantee at the living wage. It would be open to everyone and the idea is it would abolish unemployment forever. It would also have counter cynical effects, unlike basic income schemes. Despite automation I feel it is lack of demand that is the problem.

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