Citizens, not algorithms, must shape progress - RSA

Citizens, not algorithms, must shape progress

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  • Future of Work
  • Employment
  • Technology

The best outcome of the Uber ruling by Transport for London – and the one that seems now to be the most likely - is for the company finally to clean up its act.

Not only would this maintain a service that millions of Londoners have come to rely upon and preserve the livelihood of forty thousand or so Uber drivers, but it could also raise the regulatory bar for the ride-hire app in other jurisdictions. As part of its attempt to address its reputational issues it would also be good for Uber to accept the judgement of the courts and recognise the employment status of its drivers as workers, with rights and entitlements including the national living wage. If the firm asks how it can reconcile paying the national living wage with the right of drivers to work whenever they want, the recent Employment Review, which I chaired, offers a neat solution

Whatever the final outcome of the Uber case, it is a straw in the wind. The world is finally waking up to the incredible wealth and power of the major technology companies and their less than convincing commitment to social responsibility. The EU has led the way with fines on Google, the pursuit of taxes from Apple and, coming next year, stringent new rules on data disclosure (does anyone imagine a post Brexit UK will have the will or capacity to be similarly robust?). But the tech companies face controversy on many fronts including the impact of Facebook on politics, the failure of search engines to deal with extremist content and the use of Twitter as a tool of abuse. Each of the issues is complex and contested, but as John Naughton argued yesterday, there is a sense of a tide turning.   

As we explore this debate - and the RSA is looking at it particularly through the lens of future work – there is an important recent lesson to be learnt.

Trump, Brexit and the worryingly large vote for German nationalists at the weekend are amongst the many signs of a popular disenchantment with aspects of globalisation. Concern existed before the global financial crisis but have deepened since. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Before 2008 the champions of globalisation had a self-confident and strident message with a number of elements:

  • Globalisation (particularly financial globalisation) is unstoppable – don’t even try
  • Globalisation will end up making us aggregately richer, so the losers need to accept their fate and adapt.
  • The price of globalisation will include things we might once have valued – like aspects of national sovereignty or a degree of social equity – but this is inevitable and ultimately to be welcomed.
  • Although globalisation seems complicated and may sometimes seem perverse, ordinary folk don’t need to worry because not only is it guided by the hidden hand of free markets but it is being overseen by clever people who know what they are doing.    

Things have certainly changed. Indeed there is a serious debate about whether globalisation has even been good at the aggregate level We can’t know how attempts to reverse the process will fare; the evidence so far of Trump and Brexit is that it is easier to talk about taking back control than actually doing it. But from the IMF to the OECD, most experts and observers see now that the case for globalisation has to be made in more humane and less hubristic terms.

Yet listen to today’s evangelists for the transformative power of technologies like social media, machine learning and robotics and you may recognise the tune:

  • Technological change is unstoppable
  • There will be many victims of change but they must accept the inevitable because things will be better in the end  
  • The price of technological progress involves giving up things we care about – like privacy, control of our own data, protection of our children, the capacity to raise taxes – but this is a price we have to pay.
  • Technology is very complex but ordinary folk don’t need to worry about it because it has its own logic and its implementation is being overseen by clever Californians who wear jeans and care about the future.

Is it surprising that the popular discourse about technological change is so often couched in terms of threat and disruption?  It becomes all too easy to forget that the ultimate case for change must be that it improves the lives of human beings. 

Rather than treating people’s livelihoods and the things they value as inconvenient obstacles to be swept away by the juggernaut of commercially driven change, we need a very different starting point.

First, we must try to develop a shared vision of the kind of world we want to create with the fourth industrial revolution, a world which in Roberto Unger’s phrase offers ‘a larger life for all’.

Second, technological innovation must be shaped in ways that respect important human qualities and values, like civility and privacy for example.

Third we must commit to helping those whose lives may be dislocated by change, not through charity but by empowering them to shape new jobs and lives. From the Neolithic revolution to the industrial revolution, history teaches us that we tend to be very bad at managing these transitions, often at huge human cost.

Finally, so we have a better chance of getting the transition right, we must develop new institutions and dialogues that enable citizens as a whole, not just a technological elite, to shape progress.

Technological change could transform the world and it needs a political project to match it. The RSA will be doing all we can to furnish that project with principles and concrete ideas. But here is a small way to reset our thinking. Having done my Employment Review I am often asked to join the bulging ranks of those who have confidently predicted how many jobs will disappear as a consequence of machine learning and robotics. I refuse.  Not only are such confident predictions foolhardy, the very practice of prediction, based as it is on technological determinism and a narrow idea of economic efficiency, reinforces assumptions we should reject.

The future could be one of greater inequality, hundreds of millions of people made to feel irrelevant, lives saturated by impenetrable data and toxic communication, people robbed of agency and dignity. Or it could be one in which the human race achieves a step change in our wellbeing, fulfilment and potential for growth. Don’t let anyone tell you it will be algorithms that determine which path we take. It should – it must be – all of us.

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  • I think what we need above all is good leadership. We have in recent years, abdicated our God given right to lead; that is, to be 'fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.' Yes, it's true, we are enormously successful at being 'fruitful and multiplying,' as the global population clearly testifies; but we have been and still are abysmal at subduing the earth for the benefit of all. I suspect the reason for our failure lies in our constant search for consensus.  Consensus has been of late the byword in the realms of politics, education, business, and, yes, even in the realms of philanthropy.

    But why am I troubled about consensus? Consensus, in of itself, is not a bad thing; but it changes its colour when in the name of consensus we abandon all beliefs, principles, values and policies - in a desperate search for something no one believed in, and to which no one objects to - thus avoiding important issues such as climate change or inequality that must be solved. That's when consensus becomes a problem. Consensus has been in the driving seat in much of our public discourse that we are now reduced to nothing more than nervous wrecks; we need not fear change, especially change brought about by advances in technology. We should instead embrace it.

    But in order to do so we need clear leadership. We need leadership to help us turn a little grain of opportunity hid in any hand of an innovator, sprout and again help it to grow vigorously when brought into the full light of modern challenges. This is what happened with the steam-engine at the last industrial revolution, and I am sure we have the wherewithal to do the same today in the advent of AI. But it must be under the watchful eye of good leadership. The Uber ruling by the Transport for London might be a good place to start.  

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