Three new books on the future of work

David Fagan, Wake Up: The Nine Hashtags of Digital Disruption

UQP; $24.95; 224pp

Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley, Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age

Redback; $22.99; 199pp

Richard Denniss, Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World

Black Inc.; $27.99; 275pp

The times they are a-changin’ – fast. So fast, indeed, that it sometimes seems that change has taken on a life of its own. It used to be that humankind felt steadily pushed forward by a past it had had some hand in creating. Now it’s as if the future has reached in to the present and is dragging us along, whether we like it or not. New technologies offer hope of progress, but they also threaten to sharpen divisions and social problems already in the mix. In one sense Malcolm Turnbull is right: there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian, or citizen of any developed country. But the excitement is as likely to be experienced as precariousness and anxiety as it is as wonder and optimism.

In his amiable survey of matters digital, Wake Up, David Fagan muses on this ubiquitous ‘disruption’ and attempts to weigh the pros and cons of new, and still-to-emerge, technologies. He begins with the story of Jesus Aparicio, a Spanish teenager who spent ten years in a coma and awoke to find a world radically changed by smart phones, social media, online retail and all the other goodies (or baddies) we associate with digital technology. The story, it turns out, is ‘fake news’ – a hoax – a fact that for Fagan carries its own moral, namely ‘don’t believe everything you read’. But even treated as a thought experiment, this modern version of Rip Van Winkle serves as a useful point of departure, not least because the changes that took place in that missing decade can all be traced to innovations that occurred before it. It carries an injunction to speculate, and to plan.

Fagan is an engaging guide to the material. As a former editor of the Courier-Mail and an academic teaching ‘change readiness’, he has both experience and expertise to draw upon, and a journalist’s eye for the telling detail. His potted histories of key digital players such as Alibaba and Airbnb are pithy and informative, while his expositions of emerging technologies are invariably enlightening. I particularly enjoyed his chapter on education, in which he describes the disruptive effect of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which many institutions now offer for free. Given that education is reflexively put forward as the solution to the downsides of digital disruption – by both politicians and commentators, and indeed by the sector itself – it’s salutary to read something that demonstrates how it, too, is being shaken up by the fourth industrial revolution. How could it be otherwise, given that the education sector deals principally in information?

Though Fagan’s book appears to be conceived as a survey of emerging trends (he describes it as a ‘curation’ of material, and each of his chapters is given its own Twitter hashtag, on which the reader is invited to drop in for updates on new developments) it does suffer from the lack of a driving thesis. Fagan’s stance is one of cautious optimism; he comes to us as neither Pollyanna nor Cassandra. But while this has advantages, it also leads him to miss some glaring points. His first chapter is on disruption itself, and what happens to companies that fail to embrace it, while his final one is on automation and the effect it is likely to have on jobs. But if the pessimists are right and the effect of automation on jobs turns out to be catastrophic, the question of how companies respond to it is moot. ‘This is scary stuff for any professional or knowledge worker’ writes Fagan, referring to a number of careers deemed to be in danger from artificial intelligence. ‘But it is good news for consumers of their services.’ Well, it is, until you reflect that the worker and the consumer are the same person and that mass unemployment and underemployment will translate quickly into a crisis of under-consumption. It is for this reason, as much as any other, that the black-skivvied things of Silicon Valley are spruiking for a guaranteed income.

Such a provision is one of the options rejected in the sober and sobering book Changing Jobs, though its authors, Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley – a Labor MP and shadow minister and former NBN CEO, respectively – have plenty of other recommendations on how to deal with this potential crisis, and how to ensure a ‘fair go’ for workers (and non-workers) at the pointy end of it. Where Fagan is cautiously optimistic, they are pragmatically pessimistic, adopting a ‘no regrets’ approach to questions of social policy. Put simply, they urge us to prepare for the worst in a way that will do no harm to the prospects of Australians should the worst not transpire.

Like Fagan, Chalmers and Quigley are excellent on the character of the emerging technology, referring not just to the tech itself but to the underlying nature of it – asking what it can and cannot do and what it is likely to be able to do in the future. Broadly speaking they accept the emerging consensus that artificial intelligence is more likely to affect repetitive clerical work than low-skilled manual work – a fact that will have a profound effect on the shape of post-industrial economies. Central to their argument is what they call the emerging ‘polarisation’ of the workforce. According to this model, the future economy will be divided even more than today between manual and menial workers at one end and higher white-collar professionals at the other. This, of course, will increase inequality, which will in turn impede mobility (such as it is) between the classes.

Changing Jobs concludes with a long list of recommendations, which include lifelong educational programs, better income-contingent loans to help displaced workers retrain, and a focus on ‘caring services’ skills. But while many of these recommendations sound sane, I can’t help feeling that the authors’ pragmatic pessimism isn’t pessimistic enough. In Wake Up Fagan compares the number of workers employed by the retail giant Walmart to the number of workers employed by Amazon, and concludes that while the former’s workers have a market worth of around $120,000, the latter’s have a market worth of around $1.1 million! Such a rate of productivity growth is bound to have a massive effect on employment, and my sense is that, for all their touted realism, Chalmers and Quigley are far too sanguine. Their chapter on the jobs of the future devolves quickly into a discussion of which jobs might persist, while their chapter on education can only offer the suggestion that, if technology is set to shape our future, we all need to know a bit more about it in order to make informed democratic decisions. The authors deserve a lot of credit for treating the usual STEM-centric pabulum with caution, but this is unconvincing nonetheless.

Still, the MP and the CEO are asking some fundamental questions. Alas the same cannot be said for Richard Denniss in Curing Affluenza. Denniss is an economist at the Australia Institute and has taken a run at this topic before, in a book co-authored with Clive Hamilton, his predecessor at the AI. That book, Affluenza (2005), identified consumerism as the cause of environmental degradation, unhappiness and other social ills, and recommended that we all amend our habits in order to effect a change. I wasn’t a fan of the concept then, not because I disagreed that consumerism was a blight, but because it seemed to me to treat an economic symptom as a cause, and suggest into the bargain that the symptom (consumerism) could be reengineered into a cure. This struck me as naive, and it still does.

Curing Affluenza, which is written in short sections and contains a number of short guest essays from prominent progressive commentators, serves only to confirm my scepticism. Full of straw-man arguments and breezy, simplistic analogies, it promises to defeat current economic dogma using the principles of economics itself, but ends up simply reproducing it. I’ve got nothing at all against ethical spending, where and when it’s possible. But to pretend that such a strategy could be politically decisive is absurd.

Moreover the book rests on a dubious distinction between ‘markets’ and ‘culture’. Denniss’s point is that the latter drives the former, not the other way around. But this line, which is conceived as a blow against economic rationalism, is no less simplistic than the neoliberal blether pumped out by the IPA. Clearly, no such division exists: our culture is inseparable from the combination of Enlightenment liberalism, markets and technology in which our current economy evolved. Denniss writes that the term ‘capitalism’ is no longer ‘very helpful’. Well it’s a lot more helpful than his idea of ‘culture’.

Capitalism is a system based on private property, profit/growth and waged labour; and the current crisis, or set of crises – inequality, environmental collapse, the potential for widespread unemployment – can be easily mapped on to that definition. It’s been around for a long time, but not forever, and it’s showing some clear signs of strain. Any book that proposes to ‘save the world’ and then neglects, not only to take this particular Wall Street Bull by the horns, but even to acknowledge its presence, is bound to look a little thin.

Save your money, I say. Put it towards that composting bin.

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First published in The Australian.