It was 1975 when consultants at Arthur D Little promised that, within a few short years, technology would deliver the paperless office. We all know how that went.
There was the millennium bug that was supposed to grind all Earth to a halt. And there are the weekly economic forecasts that never turn out to be quite right. And where were the futurologists and economic forecasters ahead of the financial crash?
The latest fantasy comes, once more, from future forecasts of the impact of technology. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are supposed to eliminate almost all jobs as we know them. Only last week I was having coffee with a twenty-something who came out with: “Well, none of us are going to have jobs in the future are we?”
This fantasy future is doing the rounds – and, for some bizarre reason, being taken seriously. Think tanks, academics and policy makers of all sorts are producing ideas of how best to cope with this jobless future (many of those ideas still being published on paper by the way).
There is clearly no harm in exploring options for a future scenario where technology will replace some jobs. But this is something that has been happening for as long as anyone can remember – and well before that. Sails replaced oarsmen, trains replaced wagon drivers, cranes replaced dockhands, tractors and combine harvesters replaced agricultural workers, robots and all other manner of automation partially replaced assembly line workers, computerised systems replaced floor traders. Yet most people still have jobs. They just have different ones.
But over time, our systems developed to glorify efficiency and our management and bureaucratic systems became obsessed with predicting the future and planning for it. All of which tends to reduce resilience, flexibility and adaptability. Our education system also fails to prioritise adaptability over narrow subject knowledge. We came to believe that not only could we predict the future, we could actively mould it.
In management, change came with the emergence of scenario planning – a fundamental shift that took as its starting point the idea that the future was largely unknown and unknowable. One therefore had to think through as many possible futures as one could imagine and hope that the process itself would open one’s mind sufficiently to allow adaptation to whatever type of future emerged. Knowing full well that it would not be any one of the imagined scenarios themselves.
Yet our economic, bureaucratic and educational systems are still stuck in predictive mode. As a result, we are becoming ever less able to adapt quickly and effectively to the unpredictable. Communism failed because the reality did not mesh with the predicted future of such a system. Today, our ever rising wealth inequality is in large part due to the fact that neoliberal economic ideology did not have the predicted effects of trickle-down wealth that would make us all live happily ever after.
Yet many stick doggedly to their failed futurology. According to the ideologically indoctrinated, communism didn’t fail because it’s emergent effects were not as predicted. It only failed because ‘we weren’t communist enough.’ Similarly, today’s ostriches will not accept the emergent effects of neoliberal free market ideology. Rather it’s because markets are not free enough and government keeps meddling and messing it all up.
There is no doubt that technology will continue to alter the way we live. But those who pretend to be able to tell us exactly how it will all pan out are charlatans.
Their biggest sin is not their attempt to sell the snake oil (that occupation, too, is as old as the hills). Rather it is the effect their laughable predictions have, delivered with superb self-confidence, which will continue to undermine our societies’ ability to build resilience and adaptability into our system.
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