The Technology Pendulum: From hope to fear – and back?

The Technology Pendulum: From hope to fear – and back?

This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and reflects on discussions at OECD Forum 2019.

From a technology perspective, the last 20 years have been an amazing journey. Two decades ago, the commercial Internet was in its infancy. Digital leaders such as Amazon were just being born, inspired by the potential of the Internet to revolutionise commerce. Government and public sector leaders considered the Internet as an important tool to aid development and reduce socio-economic disparities. Civic leaders looked at the emerging technology to usher in a more transparent and equal world. There was hope all around in terms of the many positive changes the Internet would bring to life and the world around us.

Myles Tan on Unsplash

It would be not correct to say that we have been disappointed. We have seen far more technological progress than what we could have expected, especially in terms of raw computing power and connectivity. Access to technology has increased with mobile phones becoming cheaper and ever more powerful. Cloud services have brought sophisticated but affordable computing resources to the doorsteps of many small- and medium-sized businesses. Private sector digital leaders have ushered in an age of consumerisation in which people have become accustomed to accessing information and making transactions, all with a simple click of a button. An explosion in apps have helped digitise increasing chunks of our daily lives, from reading the news to buying groceries and managing travel. Many governments such as Korea and Singapore have used technology as part of their national strategies to make themselves more competitive and aid national development. The list is long and there are many other ways in which the hopes of the early years of this century have been realised. We should be happy with this progress.

Smart Skills: Putting the digital transition to work

Smart Skills: Putting the digital transition to work

Yet, we could not have predicted all the different ways in which technology would change our world and impact our lives. In recent years, there is a growing sense of anxiety, and perhaps even pessimism that leaves people wondering if technology is helping create a better world or not. Let us briefly consider three important questions that are being raised.

Noah Silliman on Unsplash

How is technology impacting global inequality?

In 2019, about two thirds of the global population own a mobile phone and a little more than 55% of the global population is connected to the Internet. While these figures are significant – especially when compared to 5 or 10 years ago – the rate of growth in penetration has slowed, and with current technologies and connectivity trends it may take us another 50 years or more to get the whole world online. As we usher in a digital economy, is this technology divide in effect accentuating global inequality? The digital divide is not just across high-income and low-income countries, but across richer (typically cities) and poorer (usually rural) parts within the same nation. Gaps also exist across the quality of technology being accessed, such as in the bandwidth of broadband connectivity. There are fears that the rich, with more skills and greater access to resources, may be able to leverage better technology to create larger economic value and at a faster rate than the poor who have access to some technology (but not the best), limited skills and fewer resource opportunites. This will in turn increase the wealth gap and make the world a more unequal place. While the recent trends in inequality are mixed – increasing in some (typically advanced industrial nations) and decreasing in others – the question of whether technology will increase inequality over time remains an important question in the minds of many. 

Photo by Host Sorter on Unsplash

Is technology leading to better lives?

We have seen an undeniable increase in the ease with which we can search for a restaurant, make a hotel reservation, buy a book online and run a video call across multiple parties. All of these conveniences have helped to make our lives so much better (or at least those of us who have access to the Internet). At the same time, there is growing concern about whether technology is ultimately leading us to better lives. There are questions being raised about the nature of jobs being created in the so called “gig economy”. Most employees in this system work part-time, without contracts, without health benefits and often at or close to minimum wage. It is estimated that around 40% of the United States’ working population is part of the gig economy. Many of these workers have a hard time saving to buy a home or paying for their children’s education. Thus it is not surprising to see gig-workers protesting with strikes, as they often have to work long hours or take multiple jobs to make ends meet. The nature of work itself is also changing in the gig economy. With ubiquitous technology, employers are able to monitor minute details of their employees’ behaviors and reward or penalise them accordingly. Working for small rewards and bearing the constant monitoring of the gig economy does not necessarily lead to better lives.

Are we controlling or being controlled by technology?

Recent controversies have brought into focus how much data is being harvested by digital companies and how all this data can be so easily mined and used for the wrong purposes. Authors such as Shoshana Zuboff have criticised the rise of a new kind of “surveillance capitalism” in which our personal data is being harvested, mined and in some cases sold by digital companies all without our explicit knowledge or permission. We are far from the utopian scenario of individuals controlling the privacy and use of their own data. We are in most cases helpless participants who are resigned to the loss of personal privacy in our digital lives. Further, the progress of Artificial Intelligence (AI) over the last decade has instilled a deeper existential fear in the minds of many. AI has reached or surpassed the levels of performance of human experts in some fields and it is approaching human-level performance in many others. There are studies that show that significant proportions of jobs in many sectors are at risk of being taken over by intelligent machines. Will my job be secure in the future? This is a fear in the minds of many.

I feel that at the end of the first two decades of this century, the technology pendulum has decidedly swung from hope to fear. At a time when we are witnessing exponential increases in the power of technology with all its positive opportunities, the fears of the negative impacts of technology on our lives and on our world is top of mind for many. This has to change. We have to help swing the technology pendulum back to hope. The technology revolution is far from over. Many would argue that it is still in its infancy today. The convergence of rapid technological progress in three important dimensions – digital, biological and physical – has started but is yet to unfold. We are looking at several decades where the impact of the technological revolution will play out. This is the reason why Stanford University has committed to studying the impact of new technologies such as AI on our lives and the world around us for the next 100 years. All of this technological progress will bring risks and but also offer enormous positive benefits to all of us. We have to live the next decades with a strong sense of hope and optimism.

The OECD can play an important role in helping swing the technology pendulum back to hope. It is only apt that the recently concluded 20th anniversary of the OECD Forum focused on the theme of EMotion: how digital technologies are creating change yet evoking emotions through a deep impact on our lives. There were several important threads of discussion around how technological progress should be leveraged for the good of all. I participated in a few sessions on the future of skills and work. The sessions brought together experts and young college students to address some of the complex questions mentioned above. The emphasis in the discussions was on how technologies can be used to help empower workers and enrich jobs. This can only happen through a concerted multi-stakeholder effort to redesign jobs, encourage creativity and entrepreneurship, enact educational reform and invest in lifelong learning.

OECD Forum 2019 Session: Skills for a Future that Works

OECD Forum 2019 Session: Skills for a Future that Works

The OECD is also playing a key role in helping provide guidance to governments as they seek to navigate the impact of new technologies. A good recent example is the first inter-governmental set of principles for AI that was presented during the OECD Forum and then adopted by the OECD Ministerial meeting. The OECD Principles on AI, if followed by governments around the world, can help create a global consensus on how to mitigate the negative aspects of technological progress and focus on the positive benefits. Working together we can swing the technology pendulum back to hope. This will not be easy. But it can be done. And do we really have a choice?

Find out more about the OEC Principles on AI

OECD Principles on Artificial Intelligence

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New Jobs & Occupations Future of Education & Skills OECD Forum 2019

Find out more about OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

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