Destruction is not a roadmap
Does your business make the best buggy whip? Should you stop complaining, pack in your outmoded job and just ‘learn to code’? For two decades, the rhetoric around dramatic technological change had been unrelenting and, frankly, triumphalist, but, looking around the world today, it seems that cracks are beginning to show.
Complaints about the social effect of the deployment of any new technology are often met with accusations of Luddism. Indeed, that is precisely what it is: the Luddites were not a mindless mob of mystics, but a group of early labour organisers who correctly recognised the threat new technology posed to their livelihoods. Of course, the Luddites lost their battle and textile manufacturing was duly mechanised, but turning the tale into a just-so story of technological determinism and survival of the fittest social Darwinism has allowed ideology to pass as simple fact.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in tech, where disruptive forces are unleashed with not a thought given to the wider costs borne by the rest of us. In the name of efficiency jobs are shed and entire businesses and even sectors declared outdated. Schumpterian ‘creative destruction’ is all very well, and there is certainly an argument for getting zombie businesses and rent-seekers off corporate welfare, but Silicon Valley’s cult of disruption is increasingly being viewed as a threat to the livelihoods of ordinary people.
The furore over Uber’s uber-lobbying is only the latest example, but it is a particularly illustrative one. Published in newspapers around the world, the bottom line is that Uber was happy to drive a coach and horses through taxi regulation while simultaneously seeking political support to do so.
Had the report come out just a few months earlier it might have caused a political earthquake. French president Emmanuel Macron is among those accused of dancing to the taxi app’s tune when he was finance minister in 2015. Macron’s penchant for radical liberalisation is no secret – he won his first victory in 2017 saying, among other things, that he wanted to turn France into a ‘start-up nation’ – but 2022 is not 2017 and, in light of rising inflation, concerns about economic precarity and insecure fake self-employment are no longer fringe issues.
Back home in Ireland, inflation is no less of an issue and despite positive macroeconomic news in the form of a corporation tax surplus, the country remains mired in a housing crisis that threatens to not only force another generation to flee, but could, ultimately, kill the foreign direct investment golden goose. It is also disrupting the political consensus that has long governed the country.
Despite our cultivated self-image as a nation of rebels the Irish are not a particularly restive nation. The protests that followed the 2008 financial crisis and attempt to bring in water taxes were dramatic, but they would have constituted business as usual in many European countries. Meanwhile, the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael duopoly has taken turns to govern the country since the foundation of the state. That is why the rise of Sinn Féin is so noteworthy, coming as it does at a time when fear about insecurity is reaching fever pitch. But if the centre of gravity does shift at the next election it will be because the mainstream dropped the ball. As the saying goes: oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them.
Across the West, the same resentment is rising, and as much as it is directed at governments, the tech sector, specifically Internet-based businesses engaged in so-called ‘platform capitalism’ are in the frame. Asset-light and engaged in flaying traditional business models, it is no surprise that many are concerned that they create a two class society: those who benefit from the services or the high wages paid by the platforms, and those whose worlds are turned upside down.
A few years ago, locals in San Francisco took to bricking buses full of Google workers. Attacks on innocent commuters are obviously unsupportable, not to mention counter productive, but the fact that it happened does illustrate a growing depth of feeling about tech companies running rampant.
Whether it is pushing up prices, pushing down wages, pervasive surveillance, or facilitating the coarsening of discourse in the name of profit, the sector’s reputation has been taking a battering in recent years. In truth, technology has been responsible for many positive changes in society, changes that should rightfully be celebrated, but increasingly the focus is not really on technology and what it can do for us. Instead, platforms triumphantly profit by slashing costs. Sometimes these costs are a result of naked profiteering by businesses grown fat and ripe for a challenge, but they can also be the result of decent livings being made. Behind many costs there is a person.
Come at people with too much disruption and they might come back with some disruption of their own. Perhaps instead of worshipping at the shrine of destruction we should instead focus on production. Just a thought.