X marks the new rev­o­lu­tion

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@ city­press. co. za

Ididn’t ex­pect any­thing worth­while to emerge from the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum (WEF), which ended in Davos, Switzer­land, last week­end. I was not dis­ap­pointed. The fo­cus was sup­posed to have been on what the WEF called the Fourth In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion.

But this term refers merely to the mat­u­ra­tion of the third such rev­o­lu­tion that be­gan with the de­vel­op­ment of the in­te­grated cir­cuit, the mi­crochip. This fol­lowed the first “rev­o­lu­tion” based on the power of wa­ter and steam, and then the great surge pro­vided by elec­tri­cal power that gave rise to the as­sem­bly line-era known as Fordism.

Each of the first two rev­o­lu­tions re­sulted in fears of mas­sive job losses, but opened up new, dif­fer­ent work prospects.

To­day, for ex­am­ple, in most de­vel­oped economies, ser­vice in­dus­tries ac­count for more labour than man­u­fac­tur­ing does. This his­tor­i­cal fact seemed to blind most main­stream econ­o­mists to the re­al­ity of the con­se­quences of the new­est tech­nol­ogy.

Only now, with the con­se­quences of over­ca­pac­ity and pro­duc­tion ev­i­dent, and with the lu­natic ex­ten­sion of credit hav­ing ap­par­ently run its course, has there been any ac­knowl­edg­ment that the world may be fac­ing the most se­ri­ous eco­nomic and so­cial cri­sis in his­tory.

But rather than tackle this is­sue head-on, sup­port­ers of the cur­rent sys­tem con­cen­trate in­stead on the prom­ises of in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity and ef­fi­ciency, with an oc­ca­sional nod to the pos­si­bil­ity of job losses. And most of the labour move­ment is no bet­ter. Like the em­ployer class, labour ap­pears to be stuck in a mind-set that be­longs to the start of the 20th cen­tury, if not ear­lier.

So when trade unions merely de­mand that jobs be re­tained in the face of the march of au­to­ma­tion, this is, at best, a fu­tile ex­er­cise. They can – and should – be putting for­ward al­ter­na­tive mea­sures to carry out their fun­da­men­tal role: to pro­tect jobs, wages and con­di­tions.

To­day, mil­lions of work­ers, with vary­ing de­grees of skill, are be­ing re­placed by ma­chines that re­quire fewer but gen­er­ally highly skilled work­ers to op­er­ate and main­tain them.

Up­skilling is, there­fore, the call to fill the es­ti­mated 59 000 highly skilled job va­can­cies in South Africa. But at the same time, there are more than 7 mil­lion un­em­ployed peo­ple in the coun­try, so 59 000 fewer would be largely mean­ing­less.

And skills are no guar­an­tee that you won’t lose out to au­to­ma­tion. It is just a mat­ter of time, given the ex­po­nen­tial growth, es­pe­cially of tech­nolo­gies em­ploy­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, that prac­ti­cally all hu­man ac­tiv­ity may be car­ried out by ma­chines.

So what should be done? First, it is es­sen­tial to recog­nise that th­ese de­vel­op­ments have the po­ten­tial to free hu­man­ity from drudgery – and poverty – but only if they are un­der true demo­cratic con­trol and serve the in­ter­ests of hu­man­ity. This would re­quire changes in the political sys­tem.

As a re­sult, it seems vi­tal to dump the five-yearly demo­cratic cha­rade that plays out when cit­i­zens place crosses on a bal­lot and so, in­di­vid­u­ally, hand over col­lec­tive power to a political elite. Us­ing mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy, it should be fea­si­ble to make elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives wholly ac­count­able to, and re­callable by, the elec­tors.

That would be a good start.

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