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5 December 2016

The certainty in uncertainty

Written by: Justin Westcott, General Manager at Edelman

Government Affairs, Technology

After a fascinating two days in Lisbon recently at the Web Summit, and some time to ponder on all I heard, I remain certain in the uncertainty that prevails in our global world. Debates and discussions were wide-ranging, but much talk was focused – how could it not be – around the social unrest we are seeing reflected in recent votes in the US and UK. There was also talk of the ongoing hollowing out of the middle classes, largely driven by technology.

The main consensus on this was that it’s going to get worse, much worse, before it gets better.

The tone of the event was perhaps best set at the onset, with the first panel – three old white men in suits representing the World Trade Organisation, Goldman Sachs and the United Nations telling us that globalisation was failing. They told us that protectionism and nationalism was inevitable and that none of the political leaders were acting, in their mind, with enough urgency to counter the wave of job-losses about to sweep the Western world due to automation. A sobering start.

For one oft referenced example, there are 3.5 million truck drivers in the US. Add to this the multiple of employed people providing services (motels, petrol stations, diners and the like) – all at “certain” risk of job loss. Yes, we’ve seen great job loss during previous industrial revolutions and rapid reemployment – so what’s different now? The sheer speed of deployment and lack of skills. New technologies will deploy rapidly, and those displaced from traditional middle-class work will not easily be redeployed – as the jobs new technologies create will be for highly-skilled/STEM skilled individuals. What will these unseated people do?

The clear call was made for stronger leadership. More honesty from our political leaders to the electorate – time for hard truths. But equally increased entrepreneurial thinking to solve the challenges that innovation is surely going to place on society. Innovations that create jobs, or provide more equal prosperity. The network effects of both connectivity and data afforded to a few Silicon Valley-based corporations are sucking wealth from the many to the few. This is not the utopian vision technologists have when they start out.

The most used term during the event, well certainly from the sessions I attended, was Universal Basic Income (UBI) with firm agreement from all that UBI is inevitable at some point down the road. One would argue we’ve still not reached peak employment if you look at current levels, so perhaps not just yet. This is not a simple change to society, this is a huge philosophical jump that is going to take much debate and soul searching around the fundamentals of society.

This was exactly what Albert Wenger from Union Square Ventures thought in his talk “The Age of Knowledge”. We’ve become trapped in job-loops providing labour in return for access to “stuff”, short-termist thinking that is taking us further away from the freedom of thought. We need to think about how automation, and robots, can actually take away the “work” from the job loop and free us all up to seek out higher pursuits. To be defined not by our work, but by our interests and thoughts. A very real picture was painted of a world without work, not in our lifetime but perhaps within the next generation (unless, like me you’ll live forever of course – read Transcend).

This is a time, right now for real leadership yet this is something our world seems to lack right now. Democracy, we should be reminded, is a fragile thing. Harvard University research found that young people globally are losing faith in democracy. Meanwhile, the Edelman Trust Barometer indicated this year that people don’t trust government officials (35%).  In the vacuum currently provided by our politics, we must look to our businesses, our institutions and even more importantly our communities for answers.

I’m an optimist, and a firm believer in the abundance that technology provides. Technology will provide the answers to the problems it has created. Of that I’m certain. Let’s just do it actively, and together. The polarisation in society, and the discrimination that comes with nationalisation, worries me, and others. But let’s find those answers soon. Let’s open true dialogue about a better and more equitable society, enabled by technology and the changes it provides.

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