If jobs are replaced by technology, what replaces jobs?

A taxi driver holds a flare in front of a balloon that reads ” Out Uber” during a protest against the online car service Uber in Sao Paulo, Brazil, September 9, 2015. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
A taxi driver holds a flare in front of a balloon that reads ” Out Uber” during a protest against the online car service Uber in Sao Paulo, Brazil, September 9, 2015. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

“People still talk about the geopolitics of oil. But we now have to talk about the geopolitics of technology.”

These words come from Craig Mundie, former head of research at Microsoft, speaking at the Ambrosetti Forum in the palatial surroundings of the Villa d’Este Hotel on Italy’s Lake Garda last weekend. It’s an artful phrase, the geopolitics of technology, and it’s dropped into the “global conversation” at a well-chosen time.

The “geopolitics of oil” means complex and shifting political alliances linked to corporate chess games designed to capture squares of oil and gas exploitation. The geopolitics of technology, by contrast, will be the stuff of every sphere of public and private life.

Also at the Ambrosetti Forum, Vivek Wadhwa of Stanford University spelled out the next challenges: the culling of jobs by robots; the entry of the tech companies into the health business, armed with every kind of detail about their clients’ wellbeing; the growing solar, wave and wind power competition to energy systems; the deadly danger Wi-Fi poses to telecom companies.

There’s more. There’s driverless cars; the Internet of Things producing, in your home … things you want in your home. These homes will become intelligent and managed from afar, even abroad. Education systems will be increasingly detached from institutions like schools and colleges, replaced by innovations like distance learning from a cadre of super-professors. Entertainment will be increasingly instantly available, and personalized, in the home or on the move.

And on the darker web: drug dealing, pedophilia and weapons’ sales protected by ultra-strong encryption; terrorism organized across continents; cyber warfare thieving ideas and plans, and taking down computer systems of whole countries.

This world is coming upon us. The waves of migrants from the Middle East and Africa struggling into Europe are organized, and organize themselves, through the social media. Uber cars are a few pecks on a smart phone away in many cities; Airbnb rooms are replacing hotels (not the Villa d’Este, yet). We read newspapers and books on tablets — and shift our reading from newspapers to websites like Buzzfeed, Vice and Vox, fashioned for phones and tablets, born of the ‘Net.

Much of this empowers us. Learning through online courses means, in theory, that everyone can go back to school. Uber cabs and Airbnb rooms mean that unused resources are brought into play; services are provided to people who struggled to afford them previously and options for making extra money open to those who didn’t have them before. Those entrepreneurs and charities seeking finance can go to crowd-funding sites for their capital; or use peer-to-peer lending or investing platforms to get loans or investment from other individuals, with a peer-to-peer lending company as intermediary.

It empowers, too, in more direct ways. It allows us, at times forces us, to use our own power and initiative where before we had been passive. It draws us into taking more responsibility for our education, our health and our work.

Yet these changes are double-edged. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts in London, writes that “a desire for autonomy, flexibility and fulfillment is … a big part of the shift,” but admits that “some self-employment is involuntary, and much is low quality and low income.”

Try convincing a licensed cab driver of the virtues of Uber (they’ve mounted demonstrations in many cities, and convinced Paris to ban the UberPop service, which uses part-time, unregistered drivers). Try extolling the virtues of Airbnb to a couple who run a bed and breakfast business.

There’s no question that we are in for a Great Disruption (there are three recent books with that title — by the U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama, Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding and UK business journalist Adrian Woolridge). And there’s no question that those most disrupted will be the middle and working classes — who, everywhere, have been having at best a thin time for the past two decades, and are likely to have an increasingly insecure one.

Jobs have been created — but many, in the service sector, are both insecure or what the academic-activist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” — jobs which give neither pleasure to their holders nor benefit to society (he instances public relations, lobbying and telemarketing). “It’s as if,” he writes, “someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”

More, the service jobs are often wearying, and don’t provide a decent living — especially for those who live in expensive cities like New York, London or Paris. “Gone is the era of the lifetime career,” write Nick Hanauer and David Rolf, “let alone the lifelong job and the economic security that came with it, having been replaced by a new economy intent on recasting full-time employees into contractors, vendors, and temporary workers.” They imagine a young worker in her late 20s whom they name Zoe: she works on a hotel’s front desk, a job she does well but which she can only do for 29 hours a week — the maximum time a worker can be employed before qualifying for benefits that cost the employer.

So she gets gardening jobs through the TaskRabbit site; does some shifts on Uber; rents her apartment on Airbnb while moving into her parents’ house; and sometimes does temp work if she has time. She never takes a holiday or goes on a date, works every day — and can’t afford to buy a house, go to college or save. This sounds extreme to me (better to have found a real worker); but not impossible, and indicative of a trend which is quickening.

Work — making sure it’s there, making it meaningful, giving it the dignity of being part-constructed by the worker — will be the largest domestic issue in our economies. Governments have to take it on (who else can mediate between competing forces?). But citizens have to be active in their own betterment, too. We’re past the era in which all boats rise with the tide: the geopolitics of technology will be shaped by reversing the decline of the middle classes, ceasing to acquiesce in vast enrichment for a few, insecurity for the many.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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