Progressives must lead the response to technological change
Facing up to the future and embracing change underwrites our beliefs. It has served us well. It is why progressives have led the charge for social equality – relentlessly pushing for the rights of minorities. It is also why progressives advocate global cooperation and multi-state governance.
However, our efforts to forge the future – and our underlying urge never to accept the status quo – have left us vulnerable to the unforeseen consequences of change. We have been admonished on the issue of globalisation – accused of being blind to the disruptive effects of mass immigration and economic outsourcing.
As a result, many progressives are wary of the next big change facing western societies: automation. The debate between Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting about the best response, written up by Conor Pope, demonstrates the centre-left is not homogenous. It is not yet sure whether to embrace automation, or to be wary of a new economy that could exacerbate the economic displacement wrought by globalisation.
This magazine aims to provide a way of interpreting this thorny debate – suggesting that we can reconcile our modernising impulses with a shrewd scepticism towards uncontrolled change. Indeed, our aspiration should be clear: to support technological innovation while mitigating its negative effects.
Automation, artificial intelligence and big data are set to transform our lives, and in many ways for the better. As Hannah Miller highlights, technological innovation can solve problems that were previously insurmountable. Automated technology is being used to deliver vital medical supplies to remote areas of Africa. Once fully rolled out, the delivery service is expected to make 2,000 life-saving deliveries per day.
But, as stated by Progress chair McGovern, many of the companies behind these hi-tech modernisations are ultimately driven by profit. Therefore, it is the job of our movement ‘to make sure that the wealth created through new technology is held as widely as possible’. We need to ensure that automation creates flexibility in the wage market, but does not normalise insecurity. And, to ensure widespread support for tech-driven growth, it is vital that big tech companies pay their fair share of tax.
This approach is distinct. It sets us apart from the Thatcherite right, who are willing to allow big tech companies the freedom to make profit at any cost to the rest of us. It also distinguishes us from the hard left, which has established an approach which is the worst of both worlds. Its ideological obsession with heavy-handed state action would stifle innovation, and its re-emerging hostility towards the European Union would separate Britain from one of the only organisations that can police transnational tech giants. Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s commissioner for competition, fined Google $2.7bn for unfairly favouring some its own services over those of its rivals, demanded that Apple repay $14.5bn in taxes in Ireland, and raised concerns about Facebook’s gathering of data. This does not exactly signal the actions of a free market, capitalist club.
And, in terms of politics, a progressive, balanced approach to innovation appeals to the majority. It is bold enough to win the support of aspirational voters in metropolitan hubs: the sort of individuals who will lead the tech revolution. But, crucially, it also provides assurances to voters in former industrial towns who are worried about job security and economic dislocation. Indeed, our vision for the future has to convince people that we will all benefit from change; that no one will be left behind.
It is clear what happens when the boundaries of technological innovation are pushed too far. Left largely unchecked until recently, Uber has ambushed the black cab industry – effectively undercutting the competition through, in the words of Streeting, ‘a combination of poverty pay, exploitative terms and conditions for drivers, aggressive tax avoidance and a business model which makes a loss around the world.’. The outcome? The earnings of traditional taxi drivers have been dramatically reduced. University of Oxford researchers have found that traditional cab drivers have seen their hourly earnings fall by up to 10 per cent in cities where Uber operates.
Meanwhile, as this magazine was being put together, Facebook’s share price dropped by tens of billions of dollars due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This story revealed that consultants on the Donald Trump campaign had harvested the Facebook data of up to 50 million Americans without their permission. Cambridge Analytica then used this data to target precise constituencies of voters with negative adverts.
The ethical, legal and political challenges presented by automation and the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ are vast. However, this does not mean we should avoid the issue. It is vital that we grapple with the existential changes facing society and find ways to ensure that innovation, equality and transparency are inextricably linked. With this in mind, we should consider proposals from the IPPR, which suggest creating an authority that would regulate the ethical use of robotics and artificial intelligence. This would ensure that society – rather than a few tech bosses – determine the ethical rules governing autonomous technologies.
Last month, we sadly lost an intellectual giant, Stephen Hawking. Since his death, Hawking’s final posts on the message board Reddit have gone viral. He wrote: ‘If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed.
‘Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobbied against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.’
Technological change cannot be stopped, but its effects can be shaped by political decisions. It is therefore our duty as progressives to be advocates for the future; to ensure that our children experience a world that is more prosperous, equal and tolerant than in the past. For, after all, we are the modernisers.
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