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2010, christmas, economy, technology

2011: the End of Work.

  And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Or so sang John Lennon, the 30th anniversary of whose death was commemorated this month.  Can it really be that long ago?.  Curiously, the music and image of the former Beatle doesn’t seem dated, even though he is a figure from digital prehistory.  Lennon died before there were mobile phones, personal computers or the internet.  He was a product of the mass media, but that media has changed in ways he could never have comprehended. 

   If you compare the world as it is now, in 2010, even with how we lived only a decade ago, at the Millennium, the differences are striking enough.  Flat screen TVs, mobile computers, sat nav broadband  and WiFi have transformed our work and leisure.  Social networking – Facebook, Twitter and the rest – has changed the way we relate to each other to such an extent that we don’t really know what the word “friend” means any more. We had email ten years ago, but it didn’t dominate our lives . And while blogging was on the horizon, no one thought that the newspaper industry would face a crisis because of it.   Digital technology has accelerated the pace of modern life.  We live in a real time world, where information is no longer something you have to spend time finding, but is ever present in one electronic form or another. 

   Even television news has lost its immediacy.  Take the student protests: ten years ago we would all have been glued to our TV screens to watch the riots in London, but now we can witness events more or less instantly from any number of mobile devices.  It means that TV has become a secondary news medium, a resume rather than a first report.  Just as newspaper front pages became dated when radio and TV news came along fifty years ago, now they too are being superseded by the internet. 
    Now, I’m not complaining.  This is a column about reasons to be cheerful at Christmas, and there’s no doubt that most of the digital innovations improve our lives.  I don’t know what I’d do without my iphone or my imac .  Or iPlayer, Spotify, You Tube etc..  Things like satellite navigation and online shopping were really only a theoretical possibility in 2000, because we didn’t have broadband and mobile networks were too primitive.  The expansion of the digital universe has opened a world of destabilising possibilities. Imagine trying to explain the Wikileaks affair to someone from the last century, or the row over Google Earth’s invasion of privacy.    Despite problems over copyright, Google has managed to digitise fifteen million books so far – that’s getting on for half the shelves in the world’s libraries. 

    However, there is a problem.   Most of these new technologies don’t actually contribute to economic growth and employment – at least not in the way we traditionally understand and measure it.   In the short term at least, the digital revolution of the last decade has created an economy that requires fewer workers, fewer manufacturing processes, and a lot less distribution and retail.   And this is something that we are going to have to think about very seriously as we emerge from this recession, into a different world.    For example, if the internet makes newspaper printing and distribution redundant, that is a whole industry and thousands of jobs down the tubes, only few of them journalists’.   Think of all the people involved in processing wood pulp, ink, printing; the lorries used to take newspapers around the country and the fuel needed to keep them on the road.

     Or take video conferencing.  Right now this is a joke –  clunky, slow, awkward, unreliable the way dial-up internet was in 2000. But by 2020, forecasters predict, we will largely have abandoned work-related travel on cost and environmental grounds.  Every office will have virtual conference rooms, where people will speak to digitally enhanced images of customers, clients and colleagues in real time, even though they are hundreds or thousands of miles away.   This will make office work more efficient, cut down carbon emissions and save on expenses.  Which is all good news. Except of course for the thousands of people who work in airlines, airports,taxis,  car hire firms, hotels, restaurants and lap dancing bars.  In terms of Gross Domestic Product, video conferencing is very bad news indeed, because it eliminates a lot of the kinds of economic activity GDP measures.

     When going on holiday in the year 2000 I might have packed a mobile phone, a camera, a walkman, a radio, a diary, a notebook as well as several maps, language books and possibly games like chess.  Now you have the lot on one device that also includes a television, video recorder, voice recorder, currency converter, games console, compass and global satellite positioning system.  All the world’s newspapers come direct to my iphone that also carries hundreds of ebooks and can search millions of internet pages.   How could I have known in 2000 that I would want to waste hours playing Angry Birds on my phone?  Or watching obituaries of Captain Beefheart?  The leap in technology that we have seen in the last decade has created some jobs, in computing and video arts, but it has destroyed many more by reducing the number of manufacturing goods and processes that are necessary to keep us entertained and informed.  

   And that is what our economy is largely about now – information and entertainment.  The creative industries, broadly speaking, now employ more people than the finance sector, and banking is now largely digitised.  We have ever more sophisticated means of amusing ourselves and finding things out, but we have fewer and fewer means of earning a living because so many jobs are being destroyed by the technology of fun.

  I don’t have any answers to this, except to say that these developments are or should be as positive as the increase in human longevity. We are living longer, so it’s just as well that we are developing new ways of keeping ourselves intellectually active.  The prime object of economic policy in the next decade will be reconciling our economic need for paid employment with the reality that the digital economy doesn’t need us to work any more. Or as Lennon might have put it: Happy Christmas: work is over.   

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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