M-Theory: The (steep) human price of progress Melanie Baker December 22, 2016 Columns, Ecosystem, Featured, M-Theory, Small to Mid Size, Startups When societal and business change is conceived, it’s impossible to know or consider all of its possible consequences. Moreover, the possibility and potential presented by change is intoxicating, so future consequences are rarely on our minds. Once change gains steam, it’s impossible to fully course correct or retroactively plan for now-known consequences. There are usually some skeptics and voices of reason. But it’s hard to hear them over how loudly money can talk. I suspect one’s reaction to this piece by Om Malik – he writes that Silicon Valley is missing the empathy gene – depends on how long or how deeply one has been embedded in the tech sphere. Yes, his point of view was shaped by recent developments in U.S. politics, but what media content isn’t going to be for the foreseeable future? Don’t be fooled by a false sense of smugness or security, though, just because we don’t live in the U.S. Sure, Silicon Valley gets held up as an insular wonderland that doesn’t reflect the real world. But progress steps on toes and shoves folks out of the way here, too. The hardest hit tend to be those outside of tech, so we’re even less likely to see them and the effects of our efforts. I think “Changing the world” now has a similarly double-edged meaning to “May you live in interesting times.” However, this is not to say that all change is bad, or that it should always be prevented, slowed, or hamstrung by preemptive regulation. Technology has brought sweeping changes, very visibly to manufacturing industries, especially in the last half-century. Just look at what The Tannery complex in Kitchener was and what it is now. (Or any developments with names like Seagram, Kaufman, etc.) Technology is bringing sweeping change to other sectors as well. The Malik article mentions two, specifically, that will affect millions of people: retail and transportation. Companies like Amazon are already corroding and reshaping the retail sector. Correspondingly, it’s been hard to miss some of the exposés on how their business practices affect their workforce. Their warehouse work is punishing and hardly lucrative. At the same time I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to find people whose career dream goal is an hourly retail gig. So it’s not like the status quo was a perfect solution, either. Sweeping change has some rough consequences. Those that feel it most personally are generally those least well positioned to ride it out. It’s hard to save for a rainy day fund, or even make ends meet, at minimum wage. Sure, our work lives are supposed to evolve, and we’ll all end up with any number of jobs and several changes of career. But realistically how ably you can navigate this evolution depends a lot on how much privilege you start with. As for the transportation industry (keep an eye out locally), the implication of self-driving vehicles is huge – to the tune of making millions of jobs obsolete in North America alone. Those jobs pay well, don’t require extensive education, and a lot of drivers don’t necessarily have a lot of other career skills to fall back on. On an individual level, companies like Uber are only a first disruptive step. Driver-less car services are an obvious next step in that industry’s evolution. So our individual choices – enabling a new marketplace by utilizing its services, for example – will affect entire industries, too. Progress is only going to accelerate, but thanks to the U.S. election we’ve gotten a glimpse of what can happen when large swaths of the population get left behind by progress and then rebel. Anger and disenfranchisement are powerful influences at the ballot box. But let’s face it: one of the key drivers of these innovations is getting rid of the human element. Robots and software don’t get salaries or benefits. They don’t form unions, take sick days, or quit without notice. In the first Industrial Revolution, companies wanted their employees to work at the exclusion of everything else, no matter the misery it inflicted on their lives. This time around companies care about not having workers working. And like any revolution, it’s going to require a fight. For those who work(ed) to be safe, to make a living, and to be treated like human beings. (I’ve previously written about the argument for tech workers to unionize.) One has to wonder, too, if we stop caring about people’s ability to earn a living, what other social fundamentals might we stop caring about? For a primer, perhaps read some Dickens. It’s also no coincidence that workers’ rights movements are tied to other major social movements like women’s suffrage and civil rights. Some governments have begun looking into social programs like basic income. This is not specifically in response to tech industry disruptions, but there is an understanding that technology is increasingly going to replace certain types of jobs which are not going to be replaced with comparable ones. Ontario has had a basic income survey out for a little while (you can participate until Jan. 31st, 2017), and is planning to embark on a pilot project. While I can see basic income happening here in Canada, I am not so sure about our neighbours to the south, where “socialism” is often viewed as a dirty word. It’s a big change, from trying to figure out how to provide good jobs for everyone, to planning for a future where many “jobs” as we think of them go extinct. And what about purpose and meaningful work, which can’t be simply replaced by a government cheque? The idea of work giving you value as an adult human is very deeply ingrained. With every driverless car or drone-delivered package test, every startup rewarded for innovation, we bring change, both globally and to our own community. That change benefits many, but also hurts some. As tech takes over our labour, one wonders, perhaps Asimov’s Laws have become more important for us than the robots they were intended for. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.