Margaret Simons
Coming, ready or not

I remember the first time I used a photocopy machine. The teachers kept it for special occasions, and making a copy took many minutes. There was the flimsy, heat-sensitive paper, and the chemical smell. A small crowd of teenagers gathered around me in the dedicated corner of the school library, because making copies of things without the turn of a Roneo machine handle was still a novelty.

About the same time those teachers ferried us by bus to a special place where a computer – the only one available for school use in the state – took up most of a school building, and we were encouraged to learn to program it by shading in boxes on cardboard cards. A few years later, in the workforce, I learnt to use a fax machine.

In the course of my working life, I have seen this technology introduced, then made all but obsolete by scanners and cloud computing. I remember my first use of email, and my first mobile phone, and the first time I heard about something called Facebook. That was only about 10 years ago.

Over that decade I have seen the newspaper industry, in which I built my career, brought to its knees from a position of cultural power and arrogance. I now work in the university sector, and this week launched my first massive open online course (MOOC) on the Coursera platform, which has signed up almost 9000 students to learn citizen journalism skills. A third of them are from the developing world. This is more than I have taught during my entire career.

Wandering around campus, looking at the cloisters and the lovely lawns and library, I wonder if this, too, will fade.

Carrying on this way, one risks sounding like a veteran banging on about the war. The point I want to make is beyond the personal. I am only a little past the midstream of my working life, and I share this experience of rapid change with most of my generation – including the people who are running the country, and those who aspire to do so.

Safely in the bounds of living memory, the world has altered almost beyond imagining and, if anything, the pace of change is picking up. Which makes me wonder about conservatism – both that of the left and the right. We seem trapped in tired old debates devoid of imagination, let alone awareness of their irrelevance.

Watching the political debates of the past few weeks, I have been tempted to wonder whether our politicians and the journalists who report on them are living in some other, more static universe. Hardly any of the current debates will look the same in five years’ time. Indeed, it is hard to believe that our current political structures will be able to deal with the changes that are happening now and still to come.

My criticism is directed at both the left and the right, to the extent that those words still mean anything in an age where capital is footloose and labour disorganised. Both sides of politics seem to me to be mostly conservative at a time when it should be clear that this is not viable.

I was in China recently, and visited some of the sprawling factories that fill the space between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. This is where solar panels are being manufactured with increasing levels of efficiency and cheapness. Elsewhere in China, a company last year used a 3D printer to spit out 10 houses in 24 hours, using a mixture of industrial waste and specially made quick-drying cement. Now the same company, WinSun, has built a five-storey apartment building and a luxury villa using the same technology.

Meanwhile, Google is road-testing its driverless cars, which are likely to also be at least partly built by 3D printers and robots. What does this mean for jobs and our understanding of what it is to work?

This week I went searching for speeches by Australian politicians that take account of the pace of change, and talk about preparing for it. They were few and far between.

Instead there was talk of economic refugees, without acknowledgement of the fact that in a world of mobile capital, labour too must be mobile. This can mean not only the physical movement of bodies, but also the movement of jobs. Call centres are already based overseas. Manufacturing moves wherever it is cheapest. If our leaders fail to get to grips with the implications of change (and maybe regardless), we might all become economic refugees without ever leaving our homes.

I found one speech by Labor’s Chris Bowen, delivered at the McKell Institute last year, that went part of the way. He talked about the US economist Jared Bernstein, who has pointed out that for the first time since 2000, labour productivity increases have not been accompanied by increases in employment. Bernstein uses the phrase “the jaws of the snake” to describe the pattern made by two lines on a graph – rising productivity and falling jobs. Production and labour are coming uncoupled.

The global financial crisis and its aftermath were mere blips compared with this, said Bowen. A much deeper trend is showing.

“Checking in baggage at an airport, buying groceries using automated checkouts at the supermarket (that is if you don’t buy your groceries online) and the plethora of online retailers all represent growing mechanisation of our economy. The Australian Associated Press is even considering replacing journalists with computers, which use algorithms to turn raw data [into] stories, something that the Associated Press in the US already does.”

Full marks for describing the times – both the opportunities and the challenges – but Bowen said little to nothing specific about what Labor might do about it, other than try to preserve fairness and grow the economy. Well, sure.

Meanwhile, sections of the Labor Party seem as conservative as any of their political rivals, wanting to discuss yesterday’s issues, rather than today and tomorrow. For example, the debate about manufacturing is still largely conducted in terms of protectionism versus let-her-rip market forces. The very terms are dated. They belong to the 20th century, not this one. The real issue for politicians and voters to consider is what constructive role government can and should play.

To take at random an example: the taxi industry is trying to prevent the innovations represented by the ridesharing service Uber, which is using technology to get a jump on its old-fashioned competitor. Yet now the technology is available on every mobile phone, how can ridesharing services be prevented? And in any case, this landscape, too, will soon be transformed. When driverless cars become the norm, there will be no reason for most of us to own one. Having booked and taken our ride, the car can become a driverless Uber, picking up others.

What will be the next industry, currently secure in its cultural position, to be disrupted? It may be banking, with peer-to-peer lending becoming a thing. Or education, thanks to MOOCs and their equivalents and successors.

Meanwhile, in my own profession, some journalists are still sniffy about bloggers and citizen journalists, while their media organisations run live blogs that aggregate their content, thus trying to preserve a key place in the debate.

Renewable energies are making a real impact on the need for coal-fired power stations, and surely nobody can seriously believe that asserting a future for coal will be sufficient to tackle this change creatively.

I am not a technological determinist. Technologies arise from societies, rather than being visited upon us from above.

Human behaviour guides their development. When mobile phones were introduced, the text message was included as a novelty add-on. It was people who determined that texting would become the main use of what was conceived as a tool for voice-to-voice communication. We are not powerless. We create technologies and we mould them.

But they also mould us. When the previous communications revolution occurred following the invention of the printing press in the 1400s, scribes who had built their careers in illuminated manuscripts bemoaned the way in which the printed word was altering people’s minds and cutting their ability to concentrate.

Once people were able to listen to a speaker for hours, and to memorise what was said. Now they didn’t bother, because they could read and write.

The scribes were right, of course. The technology did change our minds, just as technology in our own times is almost certainly changing our plastic brains. But who would go back, even if we could?

Communications technology of the 1400s and 1500s also, over time, changed the way in which nation states could be governed. It allowed the growth of notions such as “the public” and “the public interest” which were impossible before people who were geographically dispersed could efficiently share news and ideas.

It allowed the growth of modern democratic forms, gave rise to the profession of journalism among others, and made possible the growth of the corporate world, in which investors can become part owners of companies that operate globally, run by people they will never meet, selling products and services they never see or experience.

We are living through at least as momentous a change as that enabled by the printing press, and the pace of that change seems to be quickening. We are constantly at risk of underestimating the profundity of change. We shouldn’t be, because my generation can remember a time, only just out of reach, when life was very different.

Judging by the quality of political debate, there is precious little evidence that the sclerotic political structures of the past century are up to the task of arriving at policies and governance for the future.

We can begin to hope for security only when our politicians begin to talk about change, and understand what leadership and government might mean in the future. The future is not a distant land, any more than the past. The future is now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 22, 2015 as "Coming, ready or not".

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