Why I became a technophobe

Eliot PERNET
Nov 10, 2018 · 8 min read

This post was written for the course History of Technology Revolution at Sciences Po Paris. The course is part of the policy stream Digital & New Technology of the Master in Public Policy and is instructed by Laurène Tran, Besiana Balla and Nicolas Colin.

Before going any further, I have to specify one detail: in fact, I’m not a real technophobe. It was a mere catchword to make you click. In the same way that proponents of degrowth do not promote a total abandonment of comfort, I’m not pleading for an utter abandonment of technology, to which I grant an incredible number of credits. Technology opens up the scope of possibilities, prolongs our lives and improves our health.

So now that I made you think I was nuanced, let’s go back to the heart of what I said.

Why did I become a technophobe? I actually have the impression that most reasons for my disenchantment are simply common sense.

The big thing is that I have developed a particularly aggressive allergy to the concept of creative destruction. No doubt you remember this famous “law” expressed by Schumpeter (1942) according to which each series of innovation leads to the destruction of certain activities and the creation of others in greater numbers, which at the aggregate level gives rise to growth. The theory of creative destruction is the unstoppable — and often sole — argument of tech advocates who take refuge behind what they believe to be historical common sense.

I have never denied that the theory of creative destruction has been historically true. I would even say I’m glad with this: although eco-friendly, I must admit that cars have proven their effectiveness compared to carriages. But a theory does not acquire the status of “law” by the simple fact that it has been verified historically! We can only highlight creative destruction a posteriori, once we have the necessary perspective on both destroyed and created jobs. Of course, jobs are created every day. The important thing is to know if they outnumber destroyed one. Relying on the creative destruction theory in real time is the opposite of prudence. We just don’t know.

Let’s bet: will the creative destruction theory repeat itself in the coming decades? I believe it won’t.

But still, let’s bet. As long as I’m concerned, I would say that the theory of creative destruction will no longer be valid in the coming decades for two very simple reasons.

First, the destruction will be huge. Contrary to previous centuries, where innovations occurred sequentially in one sector and then in the other, those of today and tomorrow are simultaneously attacking a very large number of sectors. Automation can no longer be associated with the large articulated arms that replace workers in automobile factories: this automation has already taken place for a long time! Today, the threat comes from artificial intelligence and algorithms, which simultaneously threaten both blue collar and white-collar workers in trade, banking, medicine, agriculture, research, and even viticulture. Do you realize? Viticulture, goddamn.

I would be the first to plead for automation if I could catch sight of a brighter future in the job market

Second, the creations will be insufficient. And that’s the problem. I would be the first to plead for automation if I could catch sight of a brighter future in the job market, with exciting new jobs and in sufficient numbers. But it is far from being the case. First, in some cases technology creates bullshit jobs which reinforce worker alienation rather than release them. But above all, we’re still looking for the “massive job creations”! The new activities that we create are, globally, modern and technological (“except for my neighbor, a super cool former manager who opened a dairy”: of course, this exists too and it’s tempting, but we won’t need billions of dairies). They are so much automated-streamlined-platformed that they are ultimately very poor in labor. Of course, we will always need people to create, manufacture, maintain software and we do see some new jobs such as “data scientists” (whoa) emerging, but I do not believe that those are going to occupy the majority of the population…

The truth, in my opinion (do not deduce from the previous five words a tendency to be peremptory), is that when we keep on repeating that ‘85% of the professions of tomorrow do not exist yet’, well, that does not want to say that God will come down tomorrow with a basket full of new crafts. Rather it means we are heading for trouble as we have no idea about what we’ll do in near future. Consider this number: General Motors has once reached more than 800,000 employees, while Facebook is run by around 25,000 people only. Of course, digital creates value on paper. But jobs don’t follow in sufficient numbers.

Keep humans at the heart of empathic jobs requieres very concrete and costly choices

“We will always need man for certain tasks, especially those that require empathy”: this is the bright conclusion of the optimists who are interested in the question. Not wrong, provided that you make the deliberate choice to use human where you could use a robot that does not ask for salary. The typical example are hospitals. Hospitals are privileged areas for automation, which indeed relieve overworked teams. But, given that our population is aging, why not just agree to spend more of our GDP on our hospitals? Saying “the human will remain at the heart of empathic jobs” is wishful thinking. It actually requires very concrete and costly choices.

For unemployment to increase, it is not necessary that jobs disappear stricly speaking. It is enough that the need for human employment to do them decreases

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that automation will replace 100% of jobs, far from it. My concern is that artificial intelligence makes us so much more productive that we will need fewer people to perform the same tasks as before. How many lawyers today are enough to do the work of 10 lawyers of yesterday? How many farmers for a field? How many sales people for a bank? For unemployment to increase, it is not necessary that jobs disappear strictly speaking. It is enough that the need for human employment to do them decreases. As such, if the total need for human employment to run an economy decreases by 9, 30 or 45%,it would still mean 9, 30 or 45% of unemployment, which is already a frankly frightening prospect. A traditional solution could be to produce ever more, so as to keep on occupying the largest number. Obviously, it seems as senseless as environmentally irresponsible.

And please, do not mention universal income — it’s another allergy of mine. Sadly enough though, because I love this idea of a primary sharing of wealth. The thing is: I would accept universal income only if there was potentially enough work for everyone anyway! But unfortunately, I think basic income is rather the last means found by our capitalist system to ensure its survival. The pattern is simple: to avoid revolt and keep on running the big machine, you have to give everyone the means for a basic consumption. Universal income is a liberal idea that fundamentally neglects the preference of individuals for work.

Personally, I would love my job not to be overwhelming and to leave room for artistic and associative activities. But this does not mean that I would like to give it up. Saying goodbye to work would make us lose valuable skills and socialization times.

What percentage of new unemployed with universal income would get up every morning to help their neighbour, work on a master painting or practice a musical instrument?

Let’s put aside our politically correctness for a second and consider this question: what percentage of new unemployed with universal income would get up every morning to help their neighbour, work on a master painting or practice a musical instrument? My belief is that universal income can indeed benefit people already rich or highly educated who will use their time to develop their human faculties. And the others? Well, the main ingredients of what could be their life are bound to be junk food, screens, artificial pleasures and little culture. To convince yourself, I suggest a one-minute exercise: click on the “Trends” tab of Youtube and browse the 100 most popular videos of the moment. So, convinced?

The universal income is dictatorial: in order to benefit from it, we have to reconvert ourselves in associative or humanitarian professions and to become ultra cultivated. The most ironical part is that individuals who could actually benefit from universal income (ie. rich and educated ones) are precisely those who will probably still have the opportunity to work. As for the others, they’d better not complain if they don’t want to be cut off.

To conclude

For the first time in the history of humanity, the average IQ of the population has dropped in 2017. The fault is our environment, endocrine disruptors, but also a massive cognitive loosening. Why make the effort to learn a language when Google translates everything instantly? Why learn maths when machines calculate everything for us? Why read an intimidating book when you can watch highly-entertaining videos of kittens?

Tomorrow, as pointed out by the Sapiens Institute, a part of the population might become unable to make the daily efforts that our humanity asked until today. They might drop and opt for a life made of artificial pleasures thanks to artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Living deads, in fact. How to blame them?

Let’s summarize: on the one hand, machines are more and more intelligent. On the other, we humans become less intelligent. What should we do then? Press pause, take time to think, use common sense and return to the fundamentals of our humanity? Realize that it is absurd to abide without flinching by the law dictated by a handful of high-tech companies that represent nothing within a 7 billion people humanity? Advocate for a global governance of artificial intelligence to replace the insane competition in the field between China and the United States? At least try to do so?

“How naive. Obviously it is more efficient to open your skull and house a chip in your brain to boost your capabilities and keep pace with the machines.”

Thank you, Elon. You are a visionary.

And I’m a technophobe.

***

If interested, you can read the corollary of this article in which I suggest concrete solutions: https://medium.com/@elditseytoz/two-concrete-ideas-to-preserve-human-employment-7fae073e26b8

Eliot PERNET

Written by

Idées tanniques sur la digitalisation du monde.

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