You can’t help but sometimes wonder about the future. Thinking about what will happen next, will I graduate with honors, will I ever find love, will I die alone, will my book get published, what will I have for dinner? Isn’t this what all of us do at times? Prognosticating the future is not just the realm of scientists, weather people, soothsayers and diviners. To understand anything or know what actions to take, to know what is ethical or even practical, I need to examine what fits, what feels right, now. But don’t I also need to examine the consequences of my actions? “If I do this, what will the result be?” Each action in the present presumes a future, a particular future. Each step I take, each act and view I express, helps set the conditions for the next moment. So, I need to carefully consider what future I am helping to create.
Barbara Ehrenreich recently reviewed two books, “Rise of the Robots” and “Shadow Work” which look at present trends and try to read the future those trends are creating. Martin Ford, author of “Rise of the Robots” documents how our push to embrace technology and automate everything threatens everyone, threatens 100% unemployment. Although “we the people” are getting better and better gadgets, wealth and power gets increasingly concentrated. The threat of a dystopian future (as portrayed in Hunger Games and other movies and novels), of a plutocracy living in “gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots or drones” looms over us—or so sspeculates Martin Ford. What happens to “we the people” when we have no meaningful work to do? What does this technological push tell us about ourselves? What can we do about it? “Shadow Work” by Craig Lambert documents all the unseen jobs that technology adds to our lives—deleting spam from our email, reviewing “terms and conditions,” creating passwords for websites, etc..
Of course, this concern about technology is not new. Possibly ever since there were people (or possibly even before modern humans appeared in the world), there were those who looked to new tools and weapons to make a brighter future, to make life easier or safer or more enjoyable, as well as those who doubted the efficacy of looking to technology to improve life. For example, people in my school have sometimes been called Luddites for doubting claims made by computer companies, school administrators, and even other teachers that computers would reduce our workload or improve our ability to teach or make teaching easier. According to a recent NPR program on All Things Considered, the original Luddites were cloth workers fighting to preserve their livelihood. They rebelled, during the English Industrial Revolution, against the introduction of machines to displace workers and were labeled unthinking opponents to progress. They said machines would not only displace workers from sometimes good paying jobs; they would concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The Luddites not only argued against but physically acted to destroy those machines and were jailed or executed for their actions. The spokesmen for the wealthy machine owners argued that the Industrial Revolution would make life better for everyone. The industrial revolution did bring huge changes to human culture. But it could easily be argued that it wasn’t until after the depression of the 1930s and after World War II was over, that substantive benefits from this revolution would begin to reach most people in Europe and the US, let alone the rest of the world.
And now we have a new revolution, a new realm of machinery displacing workers and concentrating wealth—information machines. So, were the Luddites actually correct? And will the new “Luddites,” who advise caution on information technology, also be correct about the negative effects of this technology hidden behind all the glitz and conveniences?
I have to admit that I’m divided. I fear Ford is correct, yet don’t think his view of a bleak future will come to pass. I think that as we create new technology, we will also create better ways to live with it—or so I hope. I hope more humans will learn that a good life doesn’t come through projecting emotional fulfillment into a gadget. It comes through better understanding of our own mind and how our actions in the present help shape the future for everyone. I hope this isn’t just hope.
*Photo: Trojan Horse from movie Troy, in Canakkale, Turkey.