I have always loved the library. I remember being a child and experiencing the wonder of shelves upon shelves of books. A quiet place where I could get a card and choose any book I liked, queue up and present it to the librarian and take it home. I’m delighted to now get to experience the same thing all over again with my children. They really look forward to our trips to the library. They regularly enter the colouring competitions as well as choosing books for the week. Their interaction with the librarians is highly educational too, it the first thing they do entirely on their own steam.
So you can imagine how disappointed I was to see coverage of the imminent arrival of staffless libraries in Ireland. Trials have taken place and in this age of restrained budgets it is likely that we will see a rollout at some point. Children won’t be the only ones affected, libraries are quiet places used by many. In this fast-paced technological age we should be fighting to keep a refuge of such value. My children’s children may well never get to experience the joys that we did. Librarians are an integral part of the experience. I think we will live to regret the loss of them if it comes to pass.
It appears to me that this is an early example of an even greater threat to our way of life. Digitalisation is the automation of human labour. Any sci-fi fans will undoubtedly have come across some futuristic show where humans are replaced by machines. They usually follow one of two scenarios. Either humans are slaves to machines or technology has set humans free to live fuller lives by reducing the amount of work needed. People get to devote more time to family, recreation, artistic endeavours as well as anything else they might enjoy. I think it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of us would favour the latter. The challenge will be actually getting there.
The future is closer than we think. We are already seeing multiple examples of digitalisation in Ireland alone. It is death by a thousand cuts rather than one seismic shift. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t captured public attention. We are coming out of a major recession, terrorism is on the rise, fake news is everywhere and the unprecedented level of information at our fingertips has led many to seek out information backing up their own opinion rather than seeking to learn and expand views – the so-called echo chambers that many rail against but most find comfort in. So many now exist happily in echo chambers. It seems that for a problem to get to the top of our agendas, it needs to be imminent and almost too late to change.
We are in age of raw populism leading to a widespread rejection of expertise as well as dysfunctional governments firefighting against bad decisions like Brexit and the impending Le Pen coronation in France. The self-proclaimed land of the free has elected a emblematic demagogue as president. We in Ireland are no exceptions. We have a do-nothing Dáil which lives up to the name.
What we need is a seismic shift in our consciousness. Driverless cars could be the shift that demands action. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the USA alone. Ireland as a whole is no stranger to the truck driving industry. Calculating the secondary employment created in accommodation, rest stops and restaurants would be a challenge. The number of taxis, couriers and other driving jobs would easily dwarf this. Without major changes to our entire economic system it is hard to see these job losses being absorbed. The reduction in demand for products and services as well as the large-scale defaulting on debts by those newly unemployed could see the whole house of cards come crashing down. An upcoming problem of this magnitude deserves immediate scrutiny and planning – yet the Government decides to pander to a European Declaration that I am sure no-one outside of officialdom has read? The Declaration of Amsterdam, which commits EU support for the introduction of driverless vehicles, may have been endorsed by Transport Ministers last April, but have you heard of it?
One of the issues that arises in relation to increased automation would be an organised gradual reduction in the working week in the western world without reducing pay to match the overall reduction in labour needs. This would require much retraining as well as a rebalancing of product/services costs to reflect the higher labour cost borne by those fields that increase employment versus those that reduce due to digitalisation. While this could be a successful way of reaching the kind of future we can have, I highly doubt that as a people we will ever be able to reach this level of organisation and achievement. Conspiracy theories and populists would easily derail the efforts. In short, it is just too complex for today’s political reality.
The more realistic (by comparison) solution I have seen is the idea of Universal Basic Income. Finland is currently trialling a version of this to 2000 people on unemployment benefit. It hopes to discover whether this increases the demand for employment for those covered. On a larger scale, Universal Basic Income would involve all citizens receiving a level of income that would allow them to live. This could then be supplemented by employment as desired. There would be much resistance from those amongst us that stand to gain most from the ever increasing profits that will accrue due to digitalisation. This resistance would be short-termism in my view. There would be little to gain for the vast majority in a future where employment levels are so low that demand is non existent.
Technology is truly a marvel of our age but for it to be of any benefit the proceeds need to be shared. Our entire economic system is built on growth and the multiplier effect on the would ensure more prosperity for all in a shared benefit scenario.
Funding the Universal Basic Income could be achieved by higher corporate taxation rates. This would need to be agreed on a worldwide basis. Any exception would undermine the entire system. Agreement of this nature would be a monumental achievement. Given the seriousness of the problem nothing less will work. Given the seriousness of the problem, we may be all out of work.
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