The Roots of Disruption & Where Do We Go From Here

(3Bl Media/Justmeans_ - The world is undergoing massive social and political disruption, as witnessed by this week’s US election, as well as the recent withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. These disruptions, in many ways have their roots in the economic disruptions of the past several decades. These, in turn, have been enabled by technology. Technology has drastically altered the state of balance between capital and labor, much to the benefit of business owners, and the detriment of workers. Given sufficient capital, one can fill a factory with robots that work around the clock and never demand their fair share, replace bank tellers with ATMs, and cashiers with self-checkout lanes. More examples emerge every day. Technology has also facilitated international trade to a degree never seen before. American appliance makers, for example, never worried about imported refrigerators or washing machines threatening their market share because these items were too heavy to be economically shipped across the ocean. But the machines became lighter and cargo ships became bigger and more efficient and suddenly, there was disruption in that market. More jobs disappeared as a result.

This trend, while warmly embraced by the financial establishment, has been widely ignored by the political class. In a large part, it is the many thousands of workers who have been left behind that have driven this recent wave of political and social disruption. Having lost their jobs, or traded them for lower paying ones, they lack the education they need to take advantages of these new technologies, which have, in a sense driven a wedge between the haves and the have-nots today.

Still, the potential of these technologies for good is indisputable. What remains is to find a way to provide equity for those who have been displaced. Whether that will be best achieved by building walls and withdrawing from the international community in hopes of becoming more nationally self-sufficient or through a more socially oriented approach such as a guaranteed living wage, remains to be seen.

Back in the Fifties, there was this idea, perhaps more of a dream, that technology would one day take over most of the tasks and drudgery that is necessary to support our way of life, leaving us with more leisure time and the freedom to pursue more meaningful and creative endeavors. Our lives could be supported by an infrastructure that ensured those basic needs for all of us, leaving us free to focus our energies in the pursuit of happiness that was asserted as our “unalienable right” in our Declaration of Independence.

To some extent that dream has been realized. Many of the necessary but tedious tasks have been automated. Giant machines plant and harvest our crops, replacing thousands of farm workers, and before long, autonomous cars and trucks will convey us anywhere we need to go and deliver our goods, eliminating yet another source of employment in the process. The problem, for many, particularly among those in rebellion, is that the enormous benefits of all this “progress” are not being widely shared, but are instead being funneled into fewer and fewer hands.

This is the point that our current system has brought us to. It’s clear that while some people are happy with this, there are many who are not.

It would seem that technology has allowed us to outgrow the system that has got us here. We need to ask ourselves how that system could be transformed into one that is more equitable without stifling innovation or withholding incentive for those with great ideas.

This socio-economic moment is not happening in a vacuum. We are in the midst of a crisis that threatens our very survival on this planet. The way that we power our vast economies and our rapidly growing transportation system must change radically. That transformation will require many hands and many different skill levels, as will the updating of our crumbling infrastructure.

The newly elected administration has signaled a lack of support for the transformation to a clean, sustainable economy that is so urgently needed. Time will reveal the extent of their actions and the challenges that they may present. It certainly does underscore the need for individuals, groups and organization in all sectors that do understand the urgency, to step up their commitment in making sure that everything that needs to be done is being done, with or without support at the Federal level.