Lesley Riddoch: Future can be automatically better

Its not utopian to grasp the benefits of automation, with citizens rather than corporations reaping the benefits. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Its not utopian to grasp the benefits of automation, with citizens rather than corporations reaping the benefits. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

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A ‘citizen’s income’ may replace the wage packet – and make life better, writes Lesley Riddoch

What are the main obstacles facing the left in Britain? No longer Jeremy Corbyn according to the latest ICM poll which suggests Labour and the Tories are level-pegging. Indeed, since voters were sampled before the acrimonious departure of Iain Duncan Smith and post-Budget hostility towards George Osborne from almost every part of civic society, we can only assume anti-Conservative sentiment is set to grow.

But according to four authors speaking at Glasgow’s Aye Write book festival, the real task facing the left is to transform the prevailing political climate by embracing automation and technology, rejecting nostalgia and arguing for a citizen’s income instead of trying to protect pointless low-paid jobs.

The challenging and heady Aye Write sessions I chaired involved the author of Inequality and the 1 per cent, Danny Dorling, who pointed out Britain was the second most equitable society in Europe during the 1970’s and Owen Hatherley whose book, The Ministry of Nostalgia, suggests citizens are in the grip of a nostalgia-inducing scam which prevents them from grasping the truth about the chronic inequality and unsustainability of modern Britain. The next day Nick Srnicek – co-author of Post-capitalism and a World Without Work –argued the left must embrace automation, accept that jobs and wage packets will soon be a thing of the past for most people and demand instead a citizens’ income (something championed by the late feminist and economist Professor Ailsa Mackay).

Form erChannel Four economics editor Paul Mason declared himself to be another technology embracing utopian and argued that the equalising nature of the internet might soon tip the current troubled model of capitalism over the brink. Mason (described recently as “a worthy successor to Marx”) concedes capitalism has proved pretty robust, emerging from every boom and bust cycle “transformed and strengthened”. Now though he argues, things are different.

“Information technology has the power to reshape utterly our familiar notions of work, production and value,” he said, citing Wikipedia as one example of a post-capitalist venture – with 8.5 billion page views, it’s the sixth most popular site in the world. By one estimate Wikipedia’s revenue could be $2.8 billion a year if it was run as a commercial venture. But it isn’t. The collaboratively written online encyclopedia has 26 million pages written by four million people with just 208 employees -- and no profit. A survey found that 71 per cent of those who edit do it “because they like the idea of working for nothing” and 63 per cent because they “believe information should be free”. Think what could happen if the public sector could harness that level of creativity and good will – is it possible?

Not in a society where access to the internet is as patchy and income-dependent as Britain. In Iceland though, where 100 per cent of the population are literate, 99 per cent are online and 90 per cent use Facebook, an online crowd-sourced constitution has been produced and a national DNA profile established to guide the health service about the specialisms needed to cope with Icelandic health problems, thus saving money. Surely, this is the face of the future?

But unequal Britain cannot reproduce Iceland’s success any more than a profit-making venture can replicate Wikipedia’s. Indeed, Mason suggests it may be the prototype of the new emerging “gift” economy where participants exchange goodwill and even, wait for it, happiness.

Now I appreciate this sounds hopelessly utopian in a country where low pay, insecurity, benefit sanctions and inflated property prices are more common than the free exchange of goodwill.

But that can change. Srnicek argues that automation and information technology can be triggers for a post-capitalist society but only if we make the jump towards an income based on citizenship rather than wages.

His analysis is fairly unflinching – machines are unquestionably accomplishing tasks that only humans could perform decades ago. Soon, he contends we will enter the “second machine age” where non-routine tasks are automated for the first time. This means “everyone from stock analysts to building workers, chefs and journalists are as at risk of being replaced by machines as those moving goods round a warehouse”.

His argument is simple. The left can either accept this reality, get ahead of the curve and claim this technological revolution for the many rather than the few, or continue clinging to the illusion that in the long term there can be anything like the full employment previous generations have known.

The latest productivity figures suggest he’s right.The UK’s low wage economy means neither the state not private investors have any good reason to invest in automation because five people with a couple of rags are still cheaper cleaning a car than an expensive car wash machine.

Thus the left and right of British politics combine to reject a future where life does not have to revolve around paid work.

Of course, the left has its reasons. The internet has created its own barons – Amazon, Apple Facebook etc – as all-powerful, all-knowing, tax-avoiding and miserly as the mining, textile or shipbuilding and steel barons of yesteryear. But why should private companies alone have access to the micro data that helps them predict what we like to read, eat and buy – why not local councils, smart cities or the state? Of course there’s a legitimate fear of a public sector Big Brother and collective dismay at the numerous multi-million IT projects that have gone wrong. There are online scams – but there have also been centuries of offline theft and scams.

What really stops the left trying to create a different possible future – one where the financial benefits of automation are equally shared – not hogged by the super-rich? What stops progressive Scots arguing that in the medium to long term, low quality, boring repetitive jobs should be replaced by machinery and artificial intelligence allowing life to adjust to a world without paid employment?

The enemy of this future is suspicion, short termism, and “a fear of technology which is really a misplaced fear of old-style capitalism.” Srnicek et al are ruffling feathers – they may also be right.

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