Protecting ourselves from progress: is it possible, or even recommended, to hide from the future?

Protecting ourselves from progress: is it possible, or even recommended, to hide from the future?

These necessary (industrial) revolutions were enough to liberate a large part of humanity from the harsh conditions in which it had always lived. At the end of the 20th century, as technological advances and freedoms began to spread to the rest of the world, this was repeated on a larger scale and faster than ever.

-Johan Norberg “Great advances of humanity”

What will happen to the workers who traditionally executed those repetitive and repetitive jobs that now can execute the machines more efficiently and at lower cost? This is a question that overwhelms scientists, executives, workers and of course, politicians.

We, as human beings, are not afraid of change per se, we fear the possibility of losing something on the process. Each of the industrial revolutions had in opposition a process of resistance to change, a counterweight from those who saw how technology replaced them or modified their traditional way of life. The criticisms of these groups were varied, going beyond the simple destruction of jobs; according to these groups, every time an industrial revolution took place, the same social and moral fabric frayed[1].

In the first industrial revolution in England, the most radical opposition was represented by the “Luddites”, a violent movement born in 1811 in 5 counties in the heart of Great Britain: Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Commanded by General Ludd, gangs of people against the components of the new factory production system destroyed machines and properties worth more than 100,000 pounds at the time. Counting the expenses incurred in deploying the troops in those areas during the 2 years that the conflict lasted, the establishment of courts for it, payment of spies, etc., it meant a total expenditure of around 1.5 million pounds directly or indirectly caused by the Luddites[2].

The Luddites felt the intrusion of the machine as a direct attack on their artisanal way of life. The factories replaced traditional workshops and machines replaced the artisans. The old lifestyle of the craftsman, doing manual work from dawn to dusk, but in family and slowly, was replaced by work in factories and mines, with working days from 12 to 14 hours in unhealthy and dangerous conditions. The Luddites represented those who often call themselves “the victims of progress.”

The same happens today with the advances produced by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We do not talk about gangs of people destroying the new 4.0 factories that are being born in countries like Germany, but there is no less opposition of this technological disruption. There are several examples of this opposition.  The American Society of Anesthesiologists, which opposes Sedasys, an anesthesiologist robot that also monitors the patient’s vital signs, which ended up being withdrawn from the market[3]. There’s a growing number of experts, who warn of the large number of unskilled jobs that will be destroyed in the process and are skeptical about the possibility that these will be replaced by better paid and less demanding jobs – though it has been the case with second and third revolution[4]. Agriculture and manufacturing, especially, which employ the majority of the workforce in economies, are susceptible to being automated, says the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

It is normal to fear an uncertain future, where our lifestyle, already rooted, is forced to change and be open to new possibilities. But is it pertinent to try to stop, through government measures or union resistance, the advance of technologies? Is the future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution truly uncertain?

History shows us that the technological advances produced during the previous industrial revolutions 1. Represented an increase in the quality of life for the people living where these technologies were inserted, especially workers and 2. They created new jobs, less intensive in force and better remunerated.

If we go back to the first industrial revolution, one of the main concerns was the loss of jobs in the sector of both iron and fabrics, as hydraulic devices replaced the artisans. But the industrial revolution brought with it the creation of new jobs, giving birth to what we know as “the working class.” They were works of little expertise, where the worker became a cog in a large chain of production. Although at first wages were low, in less than 30 years they began to rise steadily[5] and with it, worker’s life quality and life expectancy.

However, these jobs had problems. In the first place, working conditions and long working hours affected employee’s health. The mechanical work system of “production chain gear” discouraged labor creativity. Finally, despite the fact that the new tools created and the mass production of the old ones made the work easier, it was still intensive in brute force.

This was the beginning of a (not so) long process of industrial revolutions that were relegating heavy work to machines while we humans concentrated on exercising our strong point: creativity. We have gone from building cars, paving streets and watering plantations by hand, to letting machines do it while we supervise procedures, correct mistakes and estimate future production. Sending a message or travelling to other continents no longer need messengers or galleys boats; we learned to produce advanced communication technologies (from the telegraph to the internet) and self-propelled means of transport (from steamboats and trains to supersonic aircraft).

If we think about it, each and every one of these inventions destroyed a lot of jobs. They were eliminated by a process of “creative destruction” as defined by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, where technological advances affect companies, even those firmly established for decades. But this did not translate into lack of jobs. Quite the opposite.

What did happen was an increase in the life quality of workers, whose new jobs, born of technological advancement, were better paid, less mechanical and more creative. In the free market, business creativity and the capacity for adaptation of individuals is such that little matter the disruptions that new technologies produce, we always find the way to make the most of them to improve the longevity, abundance and quality of our lives As technology advances, the work becomes more human and makes us more human.

According to the OECD, 14% of jobs in developed countries are automated and it is likely that more than 30% will show significant changes thanks to the fourth industrial revolution. Do not interpret this as a possible loss of jobs, but as the replacement of low-paying and no-creative jobs for much better ones. Nowadays, hundreds of new jobs are being born thanks to the needs brought by these new technologies and the increase in the quality of life of citizens.

From software curators and cybersecurity consultants, to community managers and digital strategists, the new jobs do not request the use of our force, nor that we “disconnect” mentally to perform a mechanical task. That’s what the machines are for. They are created to support us in those tasks, while we concentrate on what we are really good at: thinking.

If we try to stop progress, we will lose the opportunities it gives us. It is time for us to stop fearing what is new. Let’s start thinking about all the benefits the change will bring us and look for ways to make the most of it.

[1] Even today, movements of opposition to technological progress are expressed. To know more about them, the following El País article is illustrative: https://www.eldiario.es/hojaderouter/tecnologia/ludismo-neoludismo-tecnologia-progreso_0_363264767.html

[2] The presentation of Patricia de la Fuente López “Los luditas y la tecnología: lecciones del pasado para sociedades del presente” delves into this topic.

[3] To know more, see: https://www.wsj.com/articles/j-j-to-stop-selling-automated-sedation-system-sedasys-1457989723

[4] To learn a little more about the debate on the employment consequences of the fourth industrial revolution, read: https://elpais.com/internacional/2018/05/25/actualidad/1527269385_936348.html

[5] These are the most pessimistic estimates. Some authors claim that the wage increase was much faster.

2019-05-21T03:19:50+04:30

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