New technologies do not emerge out of the blue. Increasingly their development begins with science. The work of research scientists reveals phenomena which can be exploited as the basis for new technologies. But turning this knowledge into technologies that can be used by society requires vast amounts of money. In some cases governments provide this money, often to support military developments to enhance national security. The work of DARPA in the USA is a good example here and these developments often spin off into useful developments for society in general. But in most cases the money is provided by venture capitalists who back various developments with very large sums of their own money in the hope/expectation of making even more money. Hence the development of new technologies is strongly tied to the capitalist system. In the past new technologies have generated more jobs than they eliminated. The rise of the motor car completely displaced the need for horse drawn transport and all the occupations associated with this but generated lots more employment in manufacturing, driving, garages, vehicle maintenance and infrastructure. However this may not be the case in the future.
The National Curriculum Design & Technology Working Group Interim Report (DfE&WO 1988) laid the foundations for the nature of the subject in the National Curriculum. Its influence is still very much alive today and this can be seen in the nature of the new single title D&T GCSE. The Report noted that in addition to pupils actively engaging in the processes of D&T there was an additional dimension to consider and this entails “critical reflection upon and appraisal of the social and economic results of design and technological activities beyond the school.” There can be little doubt that the increasing role of automation through robotics and artificial intelligence is having and will continue to have significant social and economic effects and this is the starting point for this blog post.
The latest report from the McKinsey Global Institute (2017) A future that works: Automation, employment and productivity indicates that while less than 5% of all occupations can be automated entirely using demonstrated technologies, about 60% of all occupations have at least 30% of constituent activities that could be automated. A key phrase here is “demonstrated technologies”. Given the rapid increase of machine intelligence demonstrated for example by the recent success of AlphaGo in beating the world Go champion and the use of IBM’s Watson in medical diagnosis combined with the increasing physical capabilities of robots such as those developed by DARPA, one might suppose that the long view adopted by McKinsey of the next 100 years might become compressed to 25 years. In a long view of 100 years we might then find ourselves in a situation in which the majority of ‘work’ has become automated. This has serious consequences for capitalism. At the moment, the captains of industry and commerce make huge sums of money by employing vast numbers of workers to create goods and services which these workers then purchase to a greater or lesser extent by spending their earnings. As industry and commerce become more automated there will be fewer and fewer workers and hence less purchasing power for the goods and services produced by industry and commerce. The drive for technological efficiency through automation will literally do capitalism out of a job. This train of thought has led economists to consider the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) paid to all citizens whether they are in work or not. Far fetched? Well perhaps not that far fetched. Several countries have considered this and Switzerland held a referendum in 2016 (BBC news 5 June 2016). The idea was rejected but 27% did vote in favour. Most recently the results of a trial in Finland (Independent 2017) has indicated mental health benefits for those in receipt of UBI. As more and more jobs are lost to automation it is not difficult to envisage a swing towards supporting a UBI. It is unlikely that this will happen very quickly but we can imagine moving towards a tipping point at which there becomes sufficient unemployed or lowly paid human workers that there are insufficient earned wages to purchase the products and services of automated industry. Bill Gates has argued for a tax on robots with the revenue from such taxation being used to ameliorate the impact on workers. It is perhaps worth asking ourselves what the role for education becomes in a world where pupils are guaranteed an income when they become adults? To quote Neil Postman we might move to a situation where school teaches, “how to make a life as opposed to make a living.”
Peter Frase has considered the situation in which capitalism is no longer viable in its present form in his entertaining book Four Futures: Life after capitalism which is short and accessible. It is an interesting thought experiment. He takes two sets of critical uncertainties and uses them to create four future scenarios.
Four possible post capitalism futures as envisaged by Peter Frase
Frase calls on science fiction to embellish his scenarios, particularly the use of the replicator from Star Trek to provide the ability to replicate whatever we want from constituent atoms. This might be the ultimate destination of 3D printing. The extremes of the Abundance/Scarcity axis refer to the extent to which we have overcome the environmental challenges we currently face. The extremes of the Equality/Hierarchy axis refer to extent to which the majority or minority of society have access to available resources. A limitation of such an approach is that it necessarily limits itself to two sets of critical uncertainties. Frase does note consider other sets of critical uncertainties which might provide different scenarios. But for the purpose of this post I will accept this limitation.
In Scenario 1 (equality & abundance) we have a situation where the planet has been saved from environmental disaster, automation produces all goods and services required for living, a situation Frase calls post scarcity. All are relieved of the need to work and can carry out activities as they are inclined. Their status is not dependent on what they own or who they control. Although this society does not have the central mission of the starship Enterprise and hence the related command hierarchy it does mirror the post scarcity situation enjoyed by members of Starfleet. Frase names this scenario Communism. Clearly this is a utopian view but in a non-derogatory sense.
In Scenario 2 (abundance & hierarchy) there is a clear hierarchy between those who own the data files that allow goods and services to be produced by replicator and AI ‘assistant’ technologies and those who use/consume these goods and services. These users/consumers do not need to do the work that provides the goods and service; this is automated. Hence some redistribution of wealth to this large majority of society will be necessary, perhaps via a UBI, in order for them to access these goods and services. Frase names this scenario Rentism on the grounds that those with power ‘rent’ goods and services to the rest of society with strict conditions as to availability and use. The scarcity experienced by the majority of society is in fact an artificial scarcity created by those who own the data files. Frase asks for how long the majority will accept such a situation. Clearly this is a dystopian view.
In Scenario 3 (equality & scarcity) the world is recovering from the impact of global environmental disaster and the survivors have limited resources to build the society they want. They are committed to a society without any significant hierarchy. The replicator and AI assistant technologies are in operation but provide what might be termed rations in order that all will get a fair share of the limited resources. Without the need to work for these products and services members of society commit themselves to the task of ecological reconstruction, building a world in which there will be less scarcity in the future and in which humans and the other living creatures on the planet co-exist to mutual benefit. Clearly this view tends towards the utopian although life in this scenario is more demanding and less immediately attractive than life in scenario 1.
In Scenario 4 (hierarchy & scarcity) we have a situation in which a small elite live in luxury compared with the vast majority who live in extreme poverty, do any work required and are kept under control by robot police. This matches the situation described in the film Elysium. Taken to extreme this situation could move to the point where a revolution by the workers is put down so severely by the ruling elite that those not in the elite are exterminated. Frase names this scenario Exterminism Clearly this is another dystopian view.
Given the limitations of such scenario building techniques we have to ask shouldn’t we take all Frase’s writing with a very large pinch of salt? Possibly, but thinking about the future and what it might be like, and perhaps more importantly, what we might want it to be like, is surely a worthwhile activity for young people at school. The scenario descriptions presented above are very much an oversimplification of Frase’s more detailed descriptions and considerations. His point in building these scenarios is not that they are intended to be predictive but to be clear that any future we build will depend to a considerable extent on the way technology is deployed, how environmental issues are tackled and how power is distributed as we move towards that future. As a committed socialist and environmentalist he argues that the distribution of power should be as non-hierarchical as possible and humanity should live in harmony with the natural world with deployment of technology to both those ends. But of course this cannot and will not happen unless people are given the opportunity to debate the sort of society they want and the intellectual tools to argue for and then build that society in their future. So a critical question is, “How much of this sort of thing should we teach in school?” David Brown of pop band You and what army considers this question in his You Tube channel ‘boyinaband’ and if you haven’t seen his rap video ‘Don’t go to school’ it’s well worth a watch. Consider this extract:
I know igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks
Yet I don’t know squat about trading stocks
Or how money works at all – where does it come from?
Who controls it? How does the thing that motivates the world function?
Not taught how to budget and disburse my earnings
I was too busy rehearsing cursive.
Didn’t learn how much it costs to raise a kid or what an affidavit is
But I spent days on what the quadratic equation is
This dissatisfaction with the school curriculum indicates perhaps that some lesson time spent considering possible futures and how to reach them might be well received. And this of course leads to the question “How much should we teach in D&T?” It’s not as if we don’t have a lot to do in developing designer – maker capability to be used in response to the contextual challenge of the new single title GCSE. Yet understanding something of the impact of technology on society is now part of this new GCSE specification. But I suspect that any written paper examination questions will not require the sort of critique outlined above. So if not formally taught then perhaps as part of an after school technology – society debating club? You mean you don’t have a technology – society debating club! Why not?
Returning to the Interim Report here is a quote which indicates that this aspect of design & technology was considered to be of particular importance.
Our terms of reference refer to pupils being able to ‘appreciate the importance of design and technology in society, historically and present day, particularly as it affects the economy’. Understanding of technological change and of the ways in which it is restructuring the workplace and influencing life styles is a crucial aspect of an education in design and technology. The consequences of technological change are profound and pervasive. Furthermore, technological revolutions are irreversible; no technological change can be uninvented after it has taken place. We need to understand design and technology, therefore, not only to solve practical problems, to invent, optimise and realise solutions, but also so that we can acquire a sense of its enormous transformatory power. … By the end of the period of compulsory education pupils should have some understanding of the value options and decisions that have empowered the technological process in the past and which are doing so today. [DfE & WO (1988) pages ⅚]
This seems to me to be a highly persuasive argument to spend at least some time in D&T lessons considering possible futures in the light of technological developments. There is no doubt that this is challenging but so interesting and so relevant to young people and their future lives; not in a narrow vocational sense but in a wider political sense.
As always comments welcome.
For a different take on a world without work you’ll find this piece by Yuval Noah Harari both challenging and intriguing
BBC News 5 June 2016 available at this url: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36454060
Department for Education and Science and Welsh Office (DfE&WO) (1988). National Curriculum Design and Technology Working Group Interim Report. London: HMSO
Frase, P. (2016) Four Futures Life after capitalism London: Verso
Independent 8 May 2017 available at this url: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/finland-universal-basic-income-trial-pilot-scheme-unemployed-stress-levels-reduced-a7724081.html
McKinsey Global Institute (2017) A future that works: Automation, employment and productivity McKinsey & Company