Modern Times: Will technology enhance our lives, or destroy them?

Technological advancement put us on a train that is easy to board but difficult to leave. The speed of technological change that we are experiencing today is extraordinary, creating new and hitherto unexpected possibilities for humanity. The destination remains ours to choose, and will be informed by the possibilities we choose to embrace and those we choose to reject.

The idea that technology would inform social development has been around since Marx, who argued that changes in productive technology would strongly influence social relations and cultural practices. This view is broadly accepted today. Technology has the potential to improve our lives and to destroy them. We have the power to harness the power of technology to proactively shape a future of our choosing.

With thoughtful public policy, this moment of extraordinary technological advancement will enhance the wellbeing and life quality of the masses. Information is more accessible, the tyranny of distance is easier to overcome, and means of producing goods and services are simpler and cheaper. Humans beings are living longer, have greater access to information, and our work has generally become safer and less physically demanding.

The wonderful opportunities created by technological progress come with great risk. The benefits of increased productive capacity, for example, should be shared across society but this is not currently the case. Technology today destroys more jobs than it creates; resulting in higher unemployment and greater inequality and the pace of change is so rapid that coping mechanismsare being destroyed before new ones can emerge.

Many of the jobs we recognise today are being made redundant through technology and, in the future, robots, 3D printers and virtual reality will become far more common. We will catch driverless taxis. Jobs in supermarkets and other stores will be eliminated as customer service becomes automated. Factories will be manned by machines, rather than workers. This may improve profit margins but place incredible stress on communities as old jobs disappear faster than new ones are created.

distruption-automation-robots-adelaide-reviewAutomation has already precipitated large amounts of job losses in Australia and abroad

The alternative is to insist that improvements in productivity are used to improve the lives of the people, as was the case for much of the twentieth century. Since 1970, however, when Australians were granted four weeks of paid annual leave, increases in productivity ceased to translate into more time spent with families, playing sport or resting. In more enlightened industrial societies, increases in productivity are still rewarded with enhanced lifestyles.

Technological change also influences the nature of social interactions. As machine replaces man at checkouts, in cars, and in our factories, the number of face-to-face interactions is falling. Soon, spectators will use virtual reality to watch matches from their lounge rooms, instead of congregating as one.

For advocates of the free market, this is a positive development. In Free to Choose, Milton Friedman predicted that “the price mechanism performs the task of market coordination without central direction, without requiring people to speak to or like one another”. Technology may have made it easier to consume but renders our fundamental needs as social creatures increasingly difficult to satisfy.

Technological advancement will have deleterious effect on our lives if not coupled with improvements in understanding. Consideration of how technological change will impact our communities as well as individual wellbeing, is necessary. We should invest great intellectual energy to ensure that new-found possibilities are used to improve our lives, rather than destroy them. We will ultimately decide whether technology will be our saviour or our enemy.