The ‘Knowhow’ gap

A long article (courtesy twitter handle of Martin Ford) from the MIT Technology Review on the technological changes that have shaped Greenville, a  town in South Carolina. The article, for the most part, strikes an optimistic note, as though it is a win-win for businesses, for workers and for the community. If only it were that simple. Tucked inside are these uneasy observations:

Some workers will be displaced. Some people will have to be retrained, even in the best of cases,” says Marco Annunziata, chief economist for General Electric, which has both a large gas-turbine factory and a new advanced-manufacturing research center in Greenville. The changes are inevitable, says Annunziata, because “the [business] incentives are just overwhelming” to take better advantage of digital technologies. Asked how communities like Greenville will manage this evolution, he says, “I am worried and optimistic at the same time.” [Link]

Are the changes really inevitable? In other words, do businesses have a choice or not? Viewed from a purely commercial perspective, perhaps, they think they do not. But, are all decisions and choices only commercial? Do trade-offs exist that cannot be measured in commercial terms in the short-term but impinge on the very viability of the economic model in the long-term? If workers feel more insecure, will it not affect the social compact that is much needed for commercial enterprises to thrive?

There are many quotable lines and passages from this long article, possibly excerpted from his book, ‘The wealth of humans’ by Ryan Avent. But, the abiding message is that it is hard to craft solutions. Many so-called experts and thinkers are struggling to come up with answers for this problem. The truth is that humans cannot cope with the complexity they create.

It is far too easy for humans to make technological progress than it is to make society a better place. The latter is more complex and humans are ill-equipped to deal with complexity. At another level, one can say that the issue is not complex but a simple question of being fair and decent. But, if only things were that simple for most of us. We tend to complicate things and call that progress – material and intellectual.

So, the gap between this technical vs. social knowhow is paradoxically not narrowed but widened by further technological progress which, humans have concluded, is inevitable. Why? I do not get it.

I think humans have a choice to make the kind of technological progress that they want to have. Some technical changes have more benefits than costs and some have it the other way around. It is up to humans to direct their attention and resources to the former while starving the latter off them.

The reluctance or failure to do so reflects a tempting ‘winner take all’ attitude – a belief that they will be better off somehow by these changes while the costs are borne by the others.

Ryan Avent may be truthful and honest but he may be speaking for a very small minority, if it exists:

Writers and thinkers, like me, try to imagine post-work utopias, in which, for example, sensibly structured social safety nets could free people of the constraints of the typical job. These people could then offer their services by the hour or the job on newfangled market-making apps, among other things, or they could even abandon labour markets altogether, as new forms of social institution encouraged them to volunteer their time to the community or otherwise engage in pro-social behaviour – while also living alongside people from vastly different backgrounds and perhaps nationalities, if some of us get our way. [Link]

Elites may be willing to live alongside people from vastly different backgrounds and perhaps nationalities but perhaps not from vastly different economic backgrounds. Second, it is not about social safety nets alone. It is about a sense of purpose, identity and belonging to a cohesive group.

Elites and the so-called writers and thinkers who think of themselves as having been freed from narrow identities and hence being in a position and willing to volunteer their time to the community or otherwise engage in pro-social behaviour might either be too naive or may be simply dishonest, cloaking their self-interest in lofty sentiments. If one does not belong to any group, may be, one just belongs to oneself and not to the world. Very few transcend identities to the higher plane. Such realised souls, by the sheer hard and stupendous nature of the passage, are rare in history.

Except for the concept of ‘Universal Basic Income’, there are no answers that Ryan Avent offers in this article. Even ‘Universal Basic Income’ is not that realistic either. We do not know how feasible it is. From where the State will find the resources to offer UBI to the affected workers, unless it chooses to take it out of those who benefit and may be, out of even those that create these technologies that cause so much social and economic anguish and uncertainty?

Even if that happens -a big IF considering that capitalists have shown no willingness to grasp the nuances of the argument – as Ryan Avent admits elsewhere in the article that it is not just about compensation for the loss of work. It is about loss of self-respect and identity that comes from work.

…. people of all backgrounds also seem to value narratives of personal ambition and responsibility. People wish to have control over their economic lives and to be seen as contributing both to society and to the wellbeing of their families. People desire agency. They do not wish to be forced into unpleasant work by the need to feed their families, but neither do they want to be written off – or assigned meaningless work as the price of a generous welfare cheque. It isn’t clear that the digital economy can provide the working conditions needed to extend the possibility of bourgeois comfort and status to a broader class of people. That will not stop them desiring it. [Link]

It is clear that we do not have answers. Then, it makes sense to stop pursuing things that give rise to the questions.

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