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Monday, 14 October 2013 08:12

The digital revolution failing the people Featured

By
The digital revolution failing the people Bisciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu

The digital revolution was supposed to be a step forward for mankind but instead it has been a giant leap backwards putting people on breadlines and fomenting dangerous unrest among the unwashed masses. The prognosis looks grim and now even some top of the tree tech market analysts are saying so.

 

In the first world countries where the digital revolution originated, manufacturing has been decimated, jobs have disappeared, the middle class is vanishing, poverty is rising and personal debt has reached plague proportions. What's more, according to analyst firm Gartner, further advances in technology, such as 3D printing, are going to make things even worse.

A very interesting article based on a presentation by Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer at a Gartner Symposium in Orlando points to the major difference between the digital revolution and earlier technology revolutions which actually created jobs and improved living conditions.

Plummer, who has been in the IT industry for about as long as this author, 33 years, no doubt remembers the early days when office workers sent copy to the typing pool, the guys in the mail room  delivered and despatched mail, and the tea lady wheeled a cart down the aisles twice a day.

All of those jobs, as well as many of the associated clerical positions, have disappeared. For a while, the advent of IT replaced many jobs with higher level knowledge worker positions. The typing pool became the word-processing and data entry pool and new positions opened up for computer programmers and computer operators.

Then PCs arrived on workers' desks, the Internet arrived, email became ubiquitous and yet more jobs started disappearing.

When offshore outsourcing and BPO came into vogue, jobs for knowledge workers and skilled IT professionals also started to disappear.

Manufacturing, the cornerstone on which modern western civilisation was built, was derided by first world economists who convinced us that our future lay in becoming a services based economy, while shipping the making of goods offshore to second and third world countries where it was possible to exploit low cost workers. Once productive factories closed their doors and became empty shells.

Then small retail stores began to close because they couldn't compete with online competitors such as Amazon and professional eBay sellers among others. Bookstores - even the large chains - disappeared virtually overnight. Gift shops, local hardware stores, home goods shops and other small specialty retailers - some of which have been family businesses for more than 100 years - have steadily closed their doors.

With less skilled jobs and more competition, wages and salaries stagnated, while the cost of living continued to rise. Nervous governments, however, managed to quieten the increasingly uneasy masses by providing them with cheap credit which in turn fuelled housing booms.

Feeling rich because their heavily mortgaged homes seemed to increase in value almost daily, the unsuspecting masses simply refinanced their houses and apartments whenever they needed money. They didn't need a high paying job or even to work because the equity in their houses was paying the bills.

With all of their newfound borrowed wealth, the mortgaged masses bought lots of nice things such as new cars, overseas holidays, prestige brand sneakers, and above all technology. With all the plastic credit at their disposal, the temporary nouveau riche were happy to buy a new smartphone, computer, games console and flat screen TV almost every year, while in many cases simply discarding the perfectly satisfactorily functioning previous model. Whenever a new model was announced, they even lined up like sheep to buy it.

In early 2008, the world got its first inkling that all was not right with the real estate fuelled credit Ponzi scheme that the battling classes had been sucked into. In what seemed like an instant, they found that the value of their homes was worth substantially less than what they owed and they went from being rich to being bankrupt. This happened in places like the US, Ireland and Spain and is still yet to happen in places like Australia and Canada - but it will.

So forced out of their homes, the middle and working class battlers looked for dwellings to rent. However, there were no jobs. And if they could find a job, it was likely to be a low paying minimum wage job in a fast food outlet or chain department store. Thus, we have a situation where one third of the US population is living on or below the poverty line, while in countries like Spain and Greece unemployment is approaching 30%.

What has all this to do with technology? Everything.

The promise of advanced technology was to make life easier, improve the standard of living of ordinary people everywhere, eliminate poverty and hunger and to achieve these noble aims while giving us more leisure time to spend with our loved ones and on artistic and scientific pursuits.

However, advanced technology has not delivered on any of these promises.

Instead technology has turned us into avaricious consumers of worthless knick knacks, given us more ways to spy on each other, and enabled fabulously wealthy corporations who produce nothing of any lasting value to grow while gobbling up or crushing small businesses that once served their local communities well.

Advanced technology has dispossessed farmers, while dispersing patented unnatural, untested genetically modified seeds that are contaminating original organically grown crops. Advanced technology has given us computer controlled unmanned killing machines that rain death upon unsuspecting innocents in third world countries.

When I was a young man studying computer science at university some acquaintances who advocated alternative lifestyle philosophies - as was popular among the young in those days - were scornful of my pursuits. They would say things such as: "Why are you studying computers? Computers are bad - they steal jobs and they stop us from thinking for ourselves."

Of course, I thought these arguments were ridiculous and simplistic. Computers are neither good nor bad because they are just machines. It is the way in which computers are used or misused that determines whether the outcome is good or bad. Unfortunately, the past 50 years bear witness to a history of misuse.

Those of us who are old enough can cast our minds back to 1970, before computers had taken hold of our lives, and claim with some validity (nostalgia aside) that life was better then. In fact, it could be argued that mankind had reached the pinnacle of its evolution and has devolved since then.

Yes, there were still wars, authoritarian governments and predatory corporations back then. However, there was an educated, strong and healthy movement among the baby boomer generation that rejected those counterproductive values and was particularly vocal in promoting superior values such as peace, love and harmony with our environment.

Protest movements against war and authoritarianism were common and often ultimately successful. The Vietnam war was ended and troops were brought home. Governments in countries like Australia and New Zealand that rejected global imperialism even managed to temporarily gain office - only to be deposed later by subterfuge.

There were no iPods, iPads, iPhones, PCs, Macs back then. There were hardly any mainframes and most businesses had no computer. Science and engineering students used slide rules rather than calculators to solve problems.

Young people spoke to each other instead of sending text messages. We didn't play computer games like GTA, surf the web, or watch reality shows on TV. We read Herman Hesse and were bonded together by our revolutionary music. We attended great rock concerts.

In 1970, there were no ATMs and most of us didn't have credit cards. We were encouraged to save our money rather than go into debt. It was hard to get a loan for a house from your local bank. You had to prove you could afford it by having a good savings history.

Despite the above, I do not consider myself a technology luddite. I still believe that proper applications of the digital revolution could make the world a better place for all. However, as one attendee of the recent Gartner Symposium stressed, there is no point to pursuing a new technology if the majority of the people are not going to benefit from it.

Today, the average person has access to a level of technology that was the stuff of science fiction novels only a few decades ago. Why then are the rich still getting richer, the poor still getting poorer, while the middle class continues to disappear?

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Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.