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Stop predicting the future (and go back to work)

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 9 March 2018

If there is one lesson from our species’ past, it is that we are not very good at thinking about the future. This is irrespective of our personal inclination toward optimism or pessimism. It has little to with our political leanings. And it is independent of upbringing and education.

The problem with forecasting the future lies in the human habit of linear thinking. It is deeply engrained within us. When we think of tomorrow, we imagine an amplified version of today. We expect a continuation of the trends we know. And rarely, if ever, do we expect to be surprised.

Perhaps this linear way of thinking once helped us in our evolution. It was wise for cavemen to count their supplies of berries and water to calculate how long they would last. It made sense to estimate how many days of hiking it would take to reach a faraway destination.

But in the modern world, such prehistoric certainties are few. Since the industrialisation, change and disruption have become the norm. And yet, we constantly fall in the trap of extrapolation.

The classic example is the Times of London predicting that “in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.” That prediction was made in 1894 – and given London’s growth and congestion with horse-drawn carriages it appeared reasonable. London’s actual problems in 1944 were then somewhat different.

In a similar way, predictions of the end of work have been with us since at least the times of Karl Marx. Observing industrialisation, Marx expected automation to replace the need for human labour and the reduction of labour time. It did not happen.

A few decades later, economist John Maynard Keynes tried the same prediction again. In his 1928 essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren he sketched a world of growing efficiencies which would allow the introduction of a 15-hour work week. It did not happen.

In 1958, the great political scientist Hannah Arendt joined the end-of-work choir. Except she made her forecast sound much gloomier than Marx and Keynes: “What lies ahead of us is the prospect of a society that has run out of work, that is: the only activity it is expert at,” she wrote. Needless to say, it did not happen.

In my own lifetime, I remember how in the 1980s German trade unions suggested work-week reductions on full salary compensation to better “spread” a fixed amount of work over all employees. I recall the panic in centre-left circles which surrounded the introduction of the personal computer for fear of making office workers redundant.

To all those who made such forceful cases, may I also remind them of another of their predictions: the paperless office. Enough said.

Today we find ourselves in just another of these situations in which the end of the world, or at least the end of work, is allegedly nigh. For a change, imminent doom does not result from horse manure, automation or the personal computer. This time, it is artificial intelligence that will make us all redundant within the next few years.

Politicians, consultants and even the odd economist are rehashing the old end-of-work rhetoric. They are certain this time is different and forecast the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in our developed economies.

That is all scary if you believe it. But then again, why would you?

If you fear artificial intelligence, try meaningfully conversing with the chatbots you can download from your phone’s app store. Or ask Siri, Alexa and Cortana what they would do to fix the Auckland housing market. The most likely answer you will get will be the weather report for the Hauraki Gulf.

But even if artificial intelligence was as highly developed as its proponents believe, why would those made redundant idly sit by and do nothing?

If the experiences of switchboard operators, lamplighters and street sweepers are anything to go by, those displaced by technology find other jobs.

Changes in our working world are happening all the time and we do not even notice them. But look through your old photo albums and see what shops we used to have in our cities. The photo shops, department stores and large bank branches have been replaced by mobile phone stores, massage and beauty parlours.

And don’t belittle the latter two categories. They are symptomatic of a development we should expect if technological change continues. For it is precisely those personal services which robots will never be able to fully replace, certainly not in ageing societies.

From a government’s perspective, this must be scary. There are changes happening on a big scale and government is neither responsible for them nor controlling them.

But good policy can help to give people the flexibility and adaptability to succeed in changing circumstances. Providing a solid, knowledge-based education would be high on my list of things government should strive for. Ensuring that our cities can grow and evolve would be a close second.

So to all those linear doomsayers out there, let’s say with Martin Luther: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Or in R.E.M.’s famous words: “It’s end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

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