Technology is being invented and advanced every day, in countless ways. I believe that the rate of technological change is greater today than at any time in the history of mankind, and in fact it is not only changing at a high velocity, it is still accelerating. The future will likely bring more and faster change than we see today.
How can we categorize types of changes, as they affect our lives? There are changes that make our lives easier. There are changes that offer us more opportunities to grow and expand our horizons, our understanding. There are changes that are just fun. There are changes that improve our health and extend our lives. There are also changes that make our lives more frenetic and anxiety-filled. There are changes that can obsolete our skills. There are changes that can affect our livelihood.
Some examples, so we’re all on the same page. Cellphones that make communication by voice, texting and email make our lives easier. Search engines and low cost travel allow us to grow and expand horizons. Online gaming and streaming movies are just fun. New medicines and surgical procedure improvements extend our lives. Some of the same things that can make our lives easier can also make them more frenetic if we let them, e.g., texting and email can force professionals to be on call 24/7. An example of a change that can obsolete our skills is the use of artificial intelligence to provide financial counselling. Our livelihood can be changed by a new robotic device that can perform manufacturing tasks cheaper and more reliably than a human.
The beneficial changes we can choose to accept and use, or ignore. We know the next generation will adopt them, even if we don’t. But what about the changes with negative consequences? There is always a temptation to wish they would go away, to protest, to legislate them out of existence. The lessons of history teach that change can be artificially delayed, but not stopped. In England, during the Industrial Revolution, a group of people called Luddites tried to destroy machines that were taking away the handicrafts of spinning and weaving. They succeeded in destroying individual machines, but lost the war. The French were more recently afraid of job losses to many causes, including automation; they legislated a 35 hour maximum work week, and we see where that got them.
So, is there any solution to mitigating changes that are harmful to some people, or do we give up? Dealing with those changes that make our lives more frenetic has to be done through policy changes, both by individuals and employers. But government, in partnership with employers, labor unions, and individuals can have a positive role to play in dealing with changes that result in unemployment due to obsolescence of skills and abilities. Improvement in K-12 education, fostering a culture of lifelong learning, and most of all, training and retraining programs are the only answers. Future postings on this blog will deal with those issues.