Technology is at the heart of everything we do. But as mechanical, electrical and computational systems have become increasingly complex, the control of every day life is increasingly in the hands of those that build it: the engineers.
In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published his debut novel, Player Piano. It describes a near-future where society is almost totally mechanised, without need for human labourers. In the book, machines build any piece of hardware, work out which engineers should be hired or fired, and even try to beat the sharpest minds at chess. Vonnegut had a startling ability to imagine the future, and the novel’s fictions appear to have become reality. Our own world is now much the same: 3D printers can build a house, Uber’s software can work out which drivers should get the boot, and Google has built an AI that can beat world champions at Go – to name just a few examples.
In Vonnegut’s imagined future, though, all is not well. Widespread automation creates a rift between two sections of society: the wealthy upper class made up of the engineers and managers who keep society running, and the lower class whose skills have been replaced by machines. Divided by a river, the technologists live in luxury, with their drinks, dinners, clubs, comfortable homes, regular pay cheques — and power.
Our world is, perhaps, heading in a similar direction. Certainly, the elite roles in society are increasingly filled not by those that run the biggest stores, wealth funds or even countries. Instead, those with the most significant sway have embraced technology. Tim Cook's travels to China and India are essentially state visits, in which he is treated more like a national leader than the boss of a company that makes telephones. Zuckerberg stands toe-to-toe with politicians, his social network the go-to mouthpiece for anybody with a political agenda (even if some, it seems, are given more volume than others). Behind closed doors, the world’s tech elite now join billionaires and senior politicians to help stop presidential candidates. And, it seems, power and wealth provided by a life of working in technology can also help in the courts, too.
Meanwhile, the rest of society isn’t perhaps quite so fortunate. In Player Piano, the rest of society — whose jobs have been made redundant by technology — live in relative squalor. They scratch out a living in a grey economy on the other side of the river, providing services to rich technocrats or, more likely, hustling whatever small gigs they can within their own community.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because our own gig economy is already a means for many to find work, allowing them to provide mundane services to those that can afford to pay for them. While it’s true that, say, Uber has reduced the barrier of entry to taking a taxi across town (more of us can now afford to do it because it’s so damn reasonable) it does so at the workers’ expense. As ongoing legal battles in California and Massachusetts demonstrate, their work lives are fragile, with none of the rights usually afforded to employees — such as minimum wage or working hours protection — extended their way.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the flexible working situation that some self-employed workers enjoy. Many Uber drivers must work day and night, earning low wages, in order to earn enough to support their families. This is nothing to do with seasoned professionals taking freelance gigs to gain freedom, and everything to do with exploitation of people who need work and have little option but to take a low-skilled job.
We’re yet to see a real backlash — though that’s surely because the problem has not yet reached its zenith. We have seen tremors, though, and not just in the case of lawsuits being levelled at Uber et al. Perhaps most notable is the San Francisco housing crisis, for which many locals lay blame at the feet of the ever-expanding tech industry in the city. Back in 2014, for instance, residents campaigned against Google employees in scenes that got really rather ugly. More recently, Airbnb has come under fire for exacerbating the problem.
Sadly, disparities driven by technology look set to grow. Two University of Oxford academics, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, predict that as many as 47 per cent of jobs are at risk of automation. And while we might understandably assume that humans will create new jobs to undertake, another analysis by Frey suggests that the rate at which new jobs are being created is slowing. His findings suggest that about 8.2 per cent of the US workforce shifted into new types of jobs (that is, roles associated with technological advances) during the 1980s. In the 1990s the figure fell to 4.4 per cent. And in the 2000s it dropped to just 0.5 per cent. Technology isn’t creating new jobs as quickly as it’s transforming existing employment.
If that continues, many middle-skilled job roles — from paralegals and accountants, to baristas and maybe even journalists — look set to be taken over by robots and artificial intelligence. The people working those jobs might be lucky enough to get a position further up the hierarchy, joining the technocrats at their board table. But for the bulk of people, the future is the low-skilled labour that can’t — for now at least —be taken on by automatons. That, or unemployment.
How our future will play out remains to be seen. Employment litigation or some kind of citizen income scheme, where everyone gets a pay cheque regardless of how much work they do, could help the masses to regain a little power in the labour market. But neither would change the fact that technologists increasingly rule the world.
In Player Piano, a small band of disillusioned technologists stage a coup, leading the masses in a fight against the automated systems they helped to create. They don’t succeed.