Progress Enigma or is it a Paradox? – TED2013

Posted on 27 February 2013 by JasonK

Progress Enigma was the title of a debate shared at TED 2013 a few hours ago. Economists Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson debated the future of work. The paradox of our technology enabled times is that (despite the writing having been on the wall for decades ) we are still surprised, shocked and disappointed when jobs disappear.

This is a global issue and even as workers get more educated and technology enabled there still does not seem to be the jobs to go around.

Sadly this debate does not seem to have come up with any answers. It does highlight the paradox though.

We appear to be in a jobless recovery but at the same time we love the technology that is contributing to these job losses.

An example – at Sydney airport last year while stuck in another long ticketing queue I asked one of the staff why that airport doesn’t have ticket kiosks like Auckland does. I wondered if anyone in the queue or anyone doing the ticketing really liked the existing ticketing process which includes some technology but is held up by the human work processes still in place. The ticketing person said if kiosks came in that would likely be the end of her job and that she had been at the airport for many years and she wasn’t that keen on the idea.

We both know those ticket kiosks will be deployed at some point as as passengers we love anything that speeds up the queue but as workers and parents of future workers it is hard to see a way to manage the transition to new jobs.

Any time we can save time by using technology – chances are that we will do that. The real challenge is to see if we can do something else with that time and all of the people resource that is no longer needed. This is a difficult and sensitive topic and bravo to TED2013 for pitching the question so early in the conference

Gordon asked again about the purpose of all this progress, asking: “What good is a world in which we can listening to a bunch of free music, but no one has any jobs?” The crowd went wild.

Indeed, the two agreed that the main issue we face is that growth isn’t happening for the bottom 99 percent. Brynjolfsson argued that we are innovating at an insane rate, while Gordon’s consistent response was, What’s the point, if people don’t have jobs? Chris posed the question to the audience: Would you rather live for a year without the Internet, but without plumbing, or with plumbing and without Internet? Yet after an undoubtedly exciting debate, at the close the audience’s vote remained 6-1 in favor of accelerated growth.”

Part of the issue with many of the new online services and products that are available is that the price of them is free or at least substantially reduced over the previous prices. This presents problems for conventional economists like Gordon who are looking at GDP for clues on the impact.

As Brynjolfsson has argued before much of the new tech economy does not register with the same level of impact because network pricing and ubiquity brings prices down. The economic impact is still there but we have trouble measuring it in a meaningful way. Bynjolfsson followed the debate with his talk on augmented reality.

I hope that the debate on the future of work is renewed when this video gets published. It would have been great to have had Hazel Henderson on the stage as well.

Hazel Henderson famously wrote about (how GDP misses too much) many years ago and so I was delighted to catch up on a recent clip where she notes we have reached the end of the fossil fuelled early industrial era. She goes on to talk about the idea of shipping “recipes rather than cakes”.

Even in New Zealand global trade is increasingly more about IP, services and software. A recent TV news item on the NZ tech sector noted that the local IT sector is now worth $NZ7.28b of which 5.2b of that is export revenues. For more data on the NZ economy check out the TIN 100 Report The report is published annually and provides a unique and valuable reference on New Zealand’s technology export sector by measuring the performance of the country’s 200 largest export-focused companies in the ITC, Biotech and high tech manufacturing sector.

Hazel notes “we have to re-perceive everything… we have a crisis of perception”…

Hazel Henderson on the design revolution

What we need is as design revolution and to see the technology as an opportunity for change for the better but that doesn’t make an easy discussion to have.

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