Let’s face it: The technologic/economic world we have created is threatening our very survival. Mental and physical pollution together with artificial intelligence, robots and ever increasing numbers of nuclear weapons are on a global rise.
The driving influence behind the extraordinary flow of scientific breakthroughs is a global economy based on money, greed, unequal profits, perpetual growth and uncontrolled technological advances. Creativity, spirituality and cooperation are limited. How can such off-kilter trends lead to anything but disaster?
What is the propeller of this situation? Money. As long as people work principally for money, the economic structure will be focused on competition, controlling costs, profits, corruption and novelty such as Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. No capable economist has come up with realistic resolutions to this threatening situation.
It is important to recognize that money has evolved in gradual stages from natural objects such as cowry shells, then into metal coins to circumvent the inconvenience of barter, from there into paper, followed by cheques and now into electronic signals that debit one account and credit another. That’s where credit cards come in. When priests were in power, temples issued money. When kings ruled, they had the sovereign right to coin money, and when nation states rose to the top in the 19th century, national currencies prevailed. Today we are at the edge of global money. While money is, in effect, no more than a token of symbolic information or social agreement which facilitates exchange, it has lost none of its mystique over the centuries. More than ever we tend to view money as having near magical powers on which both women and men rely to give them the gloss of significance and appeal. Money, more than talent, virtue or ability is generally regarded as a sign of social power and desirability.
This money world, alas, knows no limits. It has become itself a commodity for speculation. Currency and futures trading, as well as Bitcoin and other crytocurrencies, have overwhelmed most financial transactions. However large the profits today, more are demanded tomorrow. As such a complex system based on trust, rules and the law gradually loses its stability, another system of values and derivatives are most likely to replace it.
Work and jobs (employment) present related but different challenges. Work on ordinary tasks is being taken over by Robotic Process Automation (R.P.A.) at an ever faster rate. A common example of such take-overs is to be seen at the self-checkout machines in our grocery stores. Automation in white-collar work places will take over bit by bit: “We think any business process can be automated,” said Jason Kingdon the chief executive of Blue Prism, a robotic process automation company. According to the New York Times, Kingdon tells industry that between half and two-thirds of all the tasks currently being done in companies could be handed over to machines right now. 1
The McKinsey corporation, which had predicted before the pandemic that 37 million American workers would be displaced by automation by the end of this decade, now has raised this prediction to 45 million. Bloomberg recently headlined that “A Goldman Trading Desk That Once Had 500 People Is Down to Three.” This means that Goldman directors now recognize that robots can replace many of its top institutional traders. Robots definitely require less space, attention, expense, and use-up less emotional energy on the trading floor.
For corporate executives, many robotic automations are becoming compatible with their existing systems at a lower cost. They purport automation streamlines will “liberate workers” from dull and repetitive tasks and also “liberate” numbers of union protesters from their jobs. For these administrators, robots save time, expenses (such as water coolers) and even help the environment by cutting down on poisonous air-conditioners.
Education is also being transformed not so much by robots as by laptops, tablets, computers and apps powered by AI. All this information technology has been able to adjust many lessons to the abilities of students more quickly and exactly than might their struggling teachers. The coming robotic revolution in the classroom is already being prepared on the invasive internet with its Zooms, Tweets and smart-phones. Robots will be able to handle quizzes and grade results although mistakes and cheating may become more common. Expectations are that robots will gradually increase in numbers throughout the vast world of education.
What we are seeing is that little is currently being done to provide job training for the millions of workers who were displaced by the pandemic or who already had been forced out of work by automation. In President Biden’s $4 trillion dollars of programs to boost the US economy, no program was specifically earmarked to train the mass of those who were made jobless by technology. Moreover, we are now seeing how many personnel in the armed forces, such as those in the infantry, are being replaced by less fragile automation. Robots are not far away from the battlefield.
WHERE ARE WE HEADED when we face this march of the robots? Work and jobs have been essential to humans ever since we left the caves. We mostly embraced progress and practical advances ever since the “discovery” of the wheel. Now, some 15,000 or so years later, work and life have become interchangeable. Technology has passed on us its astounding advances … but where will this end? This is as bewildering as the notion that “… the margins of profitability in cloud computing are tightening with Google’s tilt at the AWS/Azure quasi-duopoly pushing down prices,” The Economist wrote a month ago.2
Biotechnology is certainly feeding guesswork for our planet. The launch of CRISPR gene editing is now at the level of what transistors once were to electronics. It has already entered into the field of endemic vaccines. It will soon be opening fantastic new biological potentialities such as transforming pigs into organ donors for human transplants or for editing the genes of defective babies.
Denials of such dangers are common on all fronts: For example, the American electorate cannot accept that it has “the most expensive, least effective health care in the world and that the most vulnerable have been paying for that failure with their lives.”3 Nor can this electorate accept that “Tech giants” like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are competing over the privacy of data and the cookies of their customers. Denial is so widespread that there has been little federal or parliamentary legislation restricting the manifest intrusions, such as cookies, into the privacy of the users of their computers, mobiles and smartphones.
I sense that the invasion of digitally based techs is without any comprehensive plan. This is pushing dislocations in our economies, our lives and ultimately our very existence. Such deep challenges, augmented by the unpredictable changes in our environment, are mounting – as is their perpetual denial by the admirers of Donald Trump.
Political denials of the introduction of Universal Basic Incomes may be inevitable but our very existence may become ever less in demand in the years ahead. It is important that workers and their families will know that there will be a flexible safety net, like Basic Incomes, for them. I believe that our world needs to create a new global system much as the victors of WWII did in launching social welfare programs with widespread benefits to guard against poverty and to provide for education as well as national health care for the masses.
The economic expert, Mark Carney, in a recent article in the FT titled “A new dawn for globalization,” tried to tackle the mounting concerns about the longevity of our economies. What Carney superficially offers are four pillars of his new order: “resilience, solidarity, connectivity and sustainability.” Carney admits that “In too many places, globalization and breakthrough technologies mean low wages, insecure employment and widening inequality.” He cautions that: “As a society, we need to choose to be ‘digital by design’ leveraging new technologies to create new jobs and better communities — rather than ‘digital by default’, letting technology drive our choices.”4
Earlier in this century I proposed a detailed program for an alternative to capitalism which featured a cashless, highly technological credit card system. Dollars or Democracy (2004) was praised without receiving the desired attention of academic economists nor that of self-promoting politicians. My desire in this book was to present a more profound social and economic program to change our global economic structure. You may disagree with its basis but our planet desperately needs a broader and more creative approach … not robots.
A quick but deeper look at the word “work” that has had such an extraordinary evolution of meanings through the centuries, is important in showing how our economic and societal basics can change, can be brought up to date.
Manual work, or labor, in the Greek classical era had deep pejorative connotations. To Plato’s school “work” was opposite to thinking and much desired “contemplation.” To Aristotle, the very making and knowledge of material things was just for slaves and the servile.
For Judaism (and later on in Christianity) mankind was condemned to labor and hard work to expiate Adam’s original sin (Genesis). Goods or economic activity were absolutely insufficient for man’s salvation without God’s recognition.
A thousand years later, in the Middle Ages, the mechanical and the manual were brought together in worship by Catholics.
In the Renaissance which followed, the excellence of man was praised for his efficient and effective diligence both as a worker or as an artist. The great Leonardo da Vinci declared that “the works that the eye orders the hand to make are infinite.” This approach demanded a new and original perception of progress and civilization to rise irrespective of whether it was manual or intellectual.
Luther in his Protestant Revolution pushed “work” as a service to God. “For God is present in such matters and his spirit in the work” whether it is servile or the housemaid’s.
Calvinism went further by suggesting that our conduct for the greater glory of God would be rewarded by our success. The production of goods would be multiplied by the hands of the elect whose infinite production was in praise of God.
Francis Bacon was the thinker to whom we owe much of the fresh perspective that science and technology are the means of advancement of humans committed to labors that are persistently renewed yet never sufficient. Work became one of the reasons for living. The “mechanical arts” of the industrial revolution gained meaning and prestige from the positive results of the sciences.
Our new world came through the machines and the mechanical approach to work in the Industrial Revolution. Work became the necessity for all to make their own living. Employment became a demand of meaning for life for the masses.
With Karl Marx the economy became based on the productivity of labor which ultimately determine value and gave all goods most of their value. Utility was on the way to become one of the economy’s supreme values. However, he did consider the need for the greater economic equality for women. This had considerable impact in Russia after the 1917 Revolution.
Only in the 1970s, after a strike by women, did Iceland become the first nation to introduce employment equality of the sexes. Sweden may be the next to recognize pressure by its electorate.
I passionately believe that we must change the global direction of “work” which mostly ignores the unpaid labors of half of the world’s adults: females. Isn’t it overdue in the 21st century that we recognize the unpaid labor that is demanded of women? The variety is mostly focused on the home and the family:
- Raising and educating children
- Housekeeping and the well-being of the family
- Shopping for food
- Nursing the aged and the ill
These categories are work intensive but not respected as paid “jobs.” National states make little compensation to women thus occupied – often full-time.5
In conclusion, I believe we must explore bold and imaginative alternatives which could open up new, more economically egalitarian, cooperative prospects for living, thinking and being. Our economics are treacherous and we must move society away from the competitive world of materialism (which Adam Smith warned of 200+ years ago) and towards a more responsible, spiritual, creative and community-oriented democratic existence. All human social systems are of a transitory nature. None are eternal or absolute, but evolve or adapt over time. The time for such genuine social, economic, and political international transformations has come. It is NOW!
1Kevin Roose, “The robots are coming” The New York Times, March 17, 2021.
2“Collusion and collisions,” The Economist, February 27, 2021, p.58
3Jeneen Interlandi, “Job-based health care, meets high unemployment,” The New York Times, July 7, 2020
4Carney was the governor of the Bank of England, and is now the special envoy of the World Bank on climate action and finance. He cautions that the global investment required over the next three decades in controlling our climates will be around $100 trillion!
5Zoe Williams, “Work till you drop?”, The Guardian, April 22, 2021