I lay tortured by the pool during the Summer, grappling with one of life’s big questions: Piketty? It wasn’t my pool, it belonged to a holiday villa in Greece. Had it been my own pool I might have viewed the Piketty question in a different way, more like I viewed the hurtful intent of sea urchins. So, pool-less, I braced myself to crack its spine. After all, I had heaved the book all the way from my Old Street den across Europe and there it was. A literally heavy question.
The book’s red cover challenged me in the same way as my intention to swim out to that far buoy every morning. And it elicited the same response: Lying by the pool was just so relaxing. Would Piketty’s understanding of Capital in the 21st Century really improve my lot more than just doing nothing for a few days? Ditto the big swim.
The thing is, I concluded, the undeniable and scientifically verifiable-from-my-lounger fact is that the life of leisure would really be great. So I reached for my phone to fill the time instead. The thing I had every intention of not doing I was now doing. The thing I had committed to read I would …postpone. Anyway, a friend had sent me an email with a link to an article.
“Chinese factory replaces 90% of staff with robots and as a result productivity rises”, said the headline.
The thrust of the article was dismally familiar: “Robots are amazing and we are doomed”, but here was some real world evidence. And yet there’s an alternative view and it surfaces with great clarity when you’ve just beaten back both Piketty and the necessary exertion of swimming to that buoy. And in that place of near wisdom that comes from being barely able to keep your eyes open came the insight: “So what? work is for robots”.
Someday soon that may come to pass. Work, in so far as it is laborious, unpleasant and repetitive may become largely the domain of robots in the physical realm and the domain of disembodied big-data powered algorithms with personalised voices and holographic displays in the cognitive realm.
As human labour falls while productivity soars this might become a very pleasant problem of abundance: Sun loungers all round. But a few wrong turns and the alternative is a deeply riven world of inequality, robot soldiers and malign Artificial Intelligence.
Dramatic changes to society will arise before either future comes to pass (and perhaps Piketty may have something to say about it). But for the moment I am interested in today and the near future and more specifically the role of the denizens of Silicon Roundabout and other startup “sceniuses” in bringing it about. It is, after all, the earnest SWAT teams of startup companies who are bringing this vision of hyper-efficiency forward and they will then have to exist in the world they make.
The startups with long term ambitions will have a vision of life and society in which the vast proportion of work, as we think of it today, is done by machines. New opportunities, it seems, must lie in filling the spaces-in-between that emerge when machines are doing more of the labour. But most of the startups I see today are focused on the immediate solutions — how can we, for example, make it faster for teams to build apps, incrementally raise productivity, grease the process of buying things, marketing things and find insights from data. These are marginal efficiency changes to what has become our new normal.
As every interested person now knows, 95 years ago John Maynard Keynes speculated that the working week would one day be drastically cut, to perhaps 15 hours a week. This view is predicated on technology-enabled abundance being shared among the citizenry. Then, with material needs satisfied other pursuits would be needed to fill time and to do so meaningfully. and with purpose.
Meaning and purpose… Even while bloated and immobile on the lounger it seems feasible that the joy of simply lolling could one day become almost intolerable and something with more meaning would eventually be demanded of life.
This can’t go on forever. Slack and Holacracy may be the productivity app and org hierarchy of the moment but what happens when people are filling oodles of downtime or even being employed doing things other than enhancing their productivity? What will that world look like?
The clues may be in the next generation of startups.
An area that seems replete with promise is facilitating human interaction. Empathy, connection, inspiration, caring and the touchy-feely nature of human interaction is surely the very thing that companies and commerce will want of people. You can’t, for example, look into the eyes of a robot and be metaphorically and emotionally transported. (If you can there’s a metope group for you somewhere). It takes another human to do that. But these, of course, are human attributes that the industrial revolution and the the post-industrial knowledge economy were less interested in because they just needed physical and mental labour. Now comes the switch.
Opportunity lies here.
When the startups shift their focus to life after automation then, in their early prototypes, we’ll get a glimpse into the future. And this will happen sooner than most of us expect.
Posted by Richard Newton
Originally published at www.richard-newton.com.