The greatest challenge of human development has always been the social adjustment to technological innovation. From the establishment of settled agriculture 10,000 to 15,000 years ago to the current possibilities evident in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, the expansion of human well-being has depended on our ability to adjust our social institutions to our productive capabilities.
As these capabilities have accelerated over the past several hundred years – the printing press, the steam engine, electric power, digitized information, bio-pharmaceutical engineering – the pressure on social institutions has increased exponentially. As scientist E.O. Wilson says in his modestly titled book, “The Meaning of Human Existence,” the possible creation of artificial organisms and surgically precise modification of the genome “threaten biodiversity and the human species.” The survival of our species, he argues, is “intelligent self-understanding, based on a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies.”
In economics today there is increasing conflict between two schools of thought. On the one side are the traditional optimists who believe that human ingenuity is infinite and will adjust to the now-emerging technological innovations and create new jobs we can’t even imagine today.
On the other are the secular stagnation pessimists who believe that “this time it’s different,” that the job destruction to come will be so great that we will have to build social institutions to support vast segments of the population that will be unemployable.
These thinkers believe that the great innovations of electricity and transportation that enabled us to survive the agricultural revolution of the 19th century and create the great middle class so many mourn today are essentially over, that there are no equivalent innovations on the horizon.
No amount of science, technology, engineering and math education, they believe, will enable us to maintain anything close to the levels of “full” employment to which we have become accustomed over the past century.
We must, they argue, institute some sort of guaranteed income for all simply to insure that the enormous inequality of income that would otherwise result does not tear advanced industrial civilization to pieces.
Personally, I side with the optimists. I think that human needs and desires will always expand. We simply need to find the ways to pay for them. And that speaks to social organization rather than technology.
More importantly, I think that regardless of one’s speculative guesses about the future of economic development, the implications for today are the same – we need to radically redesign the structure, operation, financing and distribution of learning.
In practical terms, what does this mean?
It means that the learning structure established in response to the industrial revolution – one designed first to occupy children while their parents go to workplaces outside the home, and second to instill in them the personal habits and minimal skills needed for lifetime industrial jobs – has to be scrapped entirely. It needs to be replaced by one designed for all ages, all locations and all positions within the social structure.
The economic pessimists are obsessed with the threat of artificial intelligence. They fear two outcomes:
• First, that self-learning algorithms embodied in robots will replace all but the most highly skilled design and repair production jobs and the most inescapably human-to-human service jobs; and
• Second, that these two categories of traditional “work” will require so small a segment of the population that the rest of us will have nothing to do, and therefore no means to earn an income, and therefore no way to support ourselves.
The implication of this belief is, in effect, a loss of faith in “real,” or “non-artificial,” or “human” intelligence.
In this regard, it resembles nothing as much as the dreary and frightening world envisioned by Anthony Burgess in “A Clockwork Orange,” one divided between a violent, largely young and uneducated population of “droogs,” and a frightened elite dedicated to attempting to find drugs to dull and pacify the apparently inextinguishable urges of those incapable or unwilling to join in the righteous progress of the elite.
This dystopian future, I believe, is exactly what we face today if we do not find ways to encompass not just the elite, but all of us, in the ultimately only truly human process of learning.
NOTE: An astute reader pointed out an important fact I neglected to mention in last week’s column on recent changes in Maine’s labor force. I noted that a growing number of Maine residents are commuting to jobs located outside of Maine. I failed to note that many of these people commute digitally. While not clearly identifiable in “official” data sources, telecommuters are an important element of Maine’s in-state job creation.
Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at: