The Future of Work: Programming the Economy for People

Douglas

doug rushkoffDoug Rushkoff has a new book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, coming out on March 1st. Here’s a taste via Pacific Standard:

Digital and robotic technologies offer us both a bounty of productivity as well as welcome relief from myriad repeatable tasks. Unfortunately, as our economy is currently configured, both of these seeming miracles are also big problems. How do we maintain market prices in a world with surplus productivity? And, even more to the point, how do we employ people when robots are taking all the jobs?

Back in the 1940’s, when computers were completing their very first cycles, the father of “cybernetics,” Norbert Wiener, began to worry about what these thinking technologies might mean for the human employees who would someday have to compete with them. His concern for “the dignity and rights of the worker” in a technologized marketplace were decried as communist sympathizing, and he was shunned from most science and policy circles.

Although it may still sound like heresy today, Wiener realized that if we didn’t change the underlying operating system of our economy – the very nature and structure of employment and compensation – our technologies may not serve our economic prosperity as positively as we might hope.

As we wrestle with the bounty of productivity as well as the displacement of employees by digital technologies, we may consider the greater operating system on which they’re all running. If we do, we may come to see that the values of the industrial economy are not failing under the pressures of digital technology. Rather, digital technology is expressing and amplifying the embedded values of industrialism.

It’s time we have the conversation toward which Wiener was pushing us, and challenge some of the underlying assumptions of human employment. The current anxiety over the future of work may be inspired by the increasing processing power of computers and networks, or even the platform monopolies of Amazon and Uber. But it has its roots in mechanisms much older than these technologies – mechanisms set in motion at the onset of industrialism, in the 13th century…

[continues at Pacific Standard]

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