Increasingly experts are talking about the fourth industrial revolution. While writing about Australia, David Ritter writes in The Guardian that there is great potential but only if we get the language, policy and politics right.
It’s up to organised people to ensure the new economy serves the greater good
One evening, about 10 years ago, I turned down the volume on my compact disc player and used the phone attached to a wall to call my girlfriend. Later, she got a taxi back to our home and we watched a movie hired from the local video store. As the film played, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hovered just above 380 parts per million.
It is a very different experience today, with Uber, music and films all available on the same smart phone as the tweets that tell me that we’ve swept past 400 parts of carbon dioxide per million, and on which I text my wife using a stream of emoji and pictures.
Radical as they are, these changes are more than just shifts in the banal details of daily life. They are symptoms of economic upheaval brought about by new technologies that are occurring simultaneously with unprecedented convulsions in our physical environment.
Things have changed quickly. And for both good and ill, we ain’t seen nothing yet. Nobody knows what we will be doing in a decade’s time. The innocent optimism epitomised by Marty McFly’s hoverboard sits in our popular imaginations alongside the dystopian political economy of the Hunger Games and the global environmental catastrophe envisioned in The Road.
The twin change-drivers of technological advance and the imperative of global warming and other pressures on planetary boundaries are accelerating. The consequences are enormous. To have any chance of keeping the global temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees, emissions must peak by 2020 then make a swift march forward to zero. Even so historic emissions mean that big changes in the conditions of life on Earth are already locked in. On the other hand – to pick just one economic indicator – almost 40% of Australian jobs have a likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years because of the tech revolution.
The future of work will be made up of jobs that don’t yet exist within industries and using technologies that are new, in planetary conditions that no human being has ever experienced. Given that there is no status quo option, we need a fundamental debate over the shape and purpose of the new economy. How do we achieve a new economy squarely in the service of society, not only geared towards ecological limits, but also oriented to fairness and justice?
First, we need a language that evokes a different set of values and priorities to the status quo. Last year when the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, described the people of Australia as “assets” and “human capital”, he gave expression to a whole value system that sees us foremost as economic units and everything we do and experience in life as ripe for commodification. When the terms of debate are limited to the language and concepts of bankers and management consultants, there can be no broader vision and no recourse to deeper values.
Second, we must understand that policy follows power. In contested areas of public life, it is the ideas with the greatest political force behind them that will triumph. In national policy debates, the power of vested interests – fossil fuel miners, big banks and the like – can be overcome only through organised people.
Accordingly, ensuring that the rules of the new economy are defined for the common good is above all a challenge of political cooperation. Anyone who wants a fairer and more sustainable Australia needs to reach out to others to seek common cause in a collaborative vision. A sufficiently powerful coalition will require alliances across classes, engaging progressive movements, existing social institutions and socially embedded business.
Third, we must remind ourselves who is in charge here. It is essential that changes in technology are the subject of democratic debate and control. Tech shapes our practical access to rights and freedoms and shapes our human subjectivity in all kinds of ways.
Yet from augmented reality to artificial intelligence, technological change is too often regarded, fatalistically, as inevitable or even as outside of politics altogether. And we seem curiously untroubled by the monumental concentration of power in global tech corporations. We need to think about tech more actively and more critically, grasping the enormous potential for good, while guarding against the potential for tyranny.
The fourth industrial revolution contains enormous emancipative power – if we can get the politics sorted out. The future is still open. It is up to the power of organised people to ensure that the new economy serves the greater good, not just narrow vested interests.
Primacy has to go to the urgent just transition to a low carbon economy because everything else depends on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
If we want to see a new Australian economy built on fairness, kindness, justice and sustainability then we must use the language and assemble the alliances necessary to provide the political momentum for our vision to be both imagined and realised.