Last Thursday Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes called for the break-up of the company.
Coincidentally, it was the day I completed MIT’s Shaping the Future of Work course.
There is a lot of discussion around the future of work in our media. Much of it takes the form of cursory analysis and click friendly headlines about the percentage of jobs we expect to lose to AI and automation in the coming decades.
Estimates vary depending on the methodology they use, but what they do have in common is a tendency to frame the future of work through the lens of technological determinism. It’s as though the tech tsunami of machine learning, AI and robotics is something that’s happening to us, rather than something we get to make decisions about.
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You can’t stop progress as the old saying goes. Maybe not. But together we can decide what we want it to look like.
It strikes me that there are parallels with where we’ve ended up with social media and Facebook in particular. As Chris Hughes wrote,
“For too long, lawmakers have marvelled at Facebook’s explosive growth and overlooked their responsibility to ensure that Americans are protected and markets are competitive.”
Rather than making broader decisions about what version of social media is good for society, we’ve let Facebook’s dominance grow unchecked.
As practised contrarian Bob Hoffman observed in his trademark tone last week:
“Adults who (ahem) pointed out the dangers were dismissed as luddite dinosaurs. The reckless, infantile culture was established fifteen years ago, and we are just now coming to terms with the havoc it has wrought.”
Do we really want to let the same thing happen at work?
The central premise of the MIT course is that the ‘social contract’ that exists between workers, employers and broader society has not kept pace with the evolution of work and demands reinvention.
We are sitting on a tinder box of trends and technology is about to light the flame.
The gap between wages and productivity has widened. Inequalities have deepened and we’ve seen a hollowing out of the middle (in America the middle class declined from 50% in 1919 to 40% in 2011).
There’s been a major shift towards shareholder profits and short term returns at the expense of what’s good for workers and society. Globalisation has had a profound impact on domestic workers and industries. Investment is flocking to capital over labour. Union membership has declined, which without the emergence of a singular alternative, means the voice of workers is often MIA. And the traditional educational model is looking tired.
As the FT highlights, this ‘death of the middle’ has major consequences for society as a whole.
Things look set to become more challenging as technology continues its long march to victory. And as Tony Wagner, Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute puts it:
“We seem pre-occupied with what machines can do, not what they should do.”
MIT’s Professor Kochan argues that we need a new social contract, one based on mutual respect and better attuned to the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s economies and workforces.
This demands a broader discussion beyond the inevitable loss of jobs to automation.
As David Autor observes in his ‘Will automation take away all our jobs?’ TED Talk:
“Automation creates wealth by enabling us to do more work in less time. There’s no law to say we’ll use that wealth well, and that’s something to worry about.”
So what jobs do we want humans to have? How do we design for humans as a priority in the workplace? How do we ensure the benefits of new technology flow more evenly across the world of work and society? How do we empower workers in the design and deployment of technology?
In other words, what do we want the future of work to look like? If we don’t decide, technology will define the answer for us.