Should Exist: A Campaigning Organisation for Technologists Who Worry About a Coming Wave of Technology-Driven Unemployment and Insecurity

This is the first in a short series of head-clearing posts about projects I’d like to see happen, and that I would like to be part of.

Nobody actually knows whether the digital revolution is going to increase overall unemployment on a sustained, ongoing basis. Many economists, looking primarily at the historic data, say that we’ve probably nothing to worry about. Many technologists, looking mainly forward, think that a disaster is looming — they feel that this change just isn’t the same as the move from horses to cars. Some economists and business academics, most notably The Second Machine Age authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have firmly planted their flags in the worried camp too.

So am I. I don’t know what’s going to happen either — I don’t have any special access to secrets of the labour market, and even if I did I wouldn’t have the econometric chops to do anything with them. But I do think that even if we don’t know for sure that the tidal wave is definitely coming, there’s still a good argument for saying that we should get our legal and political systems lined up in case it does arrive. Especially since leading indicators don’t look exactly great.

Not only do I not know exactly what’s going to happen, I also don’t know what should be done, policy-wise. My policy wonk heritage makes me a bit more cautious than many people about what appear to be magic policy bullets. I just know that non-coder working people are going to need a lot more help and protection than they’ve got today.

There’s been a lot of great thinking and writing on this of late, and an increasing number of conferences and events have been staged too. That’s all good.

But I want to see the argument moved out of the seminar room, out of the think tanks, out of the special features section of Thinking Person Magazine. I want to see the issue dragged into the world of proper activism, the sort of messy, pragmatic organisation that coins pithy slogans, gathers data, demands changes, drafts policies, builds memberships, raises money, picks fights and wins them. I want to see Bruce Springsteen get persuaded to write songs about the impending robo-job-pocalypse.

I have a specific idea about where such an organisation can first be successful, too. There is an unmet need for a campaigning membership organisation founded for and by concerned digital technologists. You could call it an ‘Association of Concerned Technologists’, I guess, because that would make for a highly fortuitous acronym.

I would start with a group aimed specifically at technologists as members because they are the ones actually destroying the old jobs, one line of code at a time, and one dollar of VC at a time. I’ve met enough people who work in the field worrying about the issue that I believe there’s a critical mass of potential supporters there.

I think that a new campaigning organisation could realistically grow a membership within a year that had a few thousand people, mainly concentrated in the world’s startups, and the world’s established technology giants. The branding could be open, friendly and not paranoid — there’s nothing wrong with embracing the uncertainty inherent in the current situation. A new organisation should be interesting and approachable to junior UX designers and ‘post-economic’ founders alike. But generally it should gather support from the tech sector, simply to keep it focused.

This is just an idea, and like so many stuck on the internet, it’ll probably vanish without trace. But if this does resonate, leave a comment, and maybe together we can find some leaders to make it happen.