We don’t normally venture into politics in this venue – tech issues only. But technology – and its social implications – is at a crossroads. It comes to a head around what we as a society, and as part of our political process, are NOT discussing.
In the U.S. we are on the eve of the first republican candidate debate. For the democrats, the die is cast – although there, too, is a healthy dialogue between two candidates (a favored one, and an upstart). But the dialogue, and the debate, doesn’t focus on what could be the most single important issue that the new president and her (or his) administration will have to deal with. Not global warming, Not ISIL. Not even the economy. To steal a phrase: It’s Technology, Stupid.
We are on the verge of the biggest job (and economic) shift in recorded history. The cloud, smart machines, AI, autonomous vehicles, drones, additive manufacturing. You know how there aren’t many toll takers, record shops, book stores anymore? You know how home package delivery has soared, while Amazon continues to compete with local businesses? You ain’t seen nothing yet. While the last 50 years of technology advancement has (through policy and through natural selection) resulted in the largest wealth gap in society – wait until most of the work done by humans today will be done by machines tomorrow.
Now don’t get me wrong – I am not espousing a chicken little “we’ll be out of a job” message – far from that. Creative destruction promises the creation of new jobs, the dissolution of old, and clear winners and losers. But what I don’t see happening is a POLITICAL discussion about how we manage the transition – should we restrict innovation in drone development (current policy) or get out in front of the Internet of Things and encourage the transition to a new economy, and new solutions? This leads into discussions of minimum wage requirements, policy around government support programs, corporate tax breaks, etc etc — but those are all the effects – not the cause – of the changes that are imminent.
What will happen in a world where trucks and cars can drive themselves (decimating transportation as we know it – along with jobs like taxi drivers, long haul truckers, and fundamentally changing accident insurance)? In the meantime, our policy may be to shift regulated, living wage, relatively safer taxi jobs to low paying, dangerous, wild-west Uber jobs – because technology lets us. You do know that an airline pilot spends, on average, less than 7 minutes out of every flight actually flying the plane? The computer does the rest. Does that mean we continue to pay highly trained baby sitters at a high wage? Or, pay them less? Or, pay them for sitting at home. Or, retrain them into another job that will disappear?
And speaking of “sitting at home”. Many jobs are now “anywhere anytime” roles; working out of a home, coffee shop or car has tremendous tax and growth implications. Maybe an impending commercial real estate melt down. Or should we have government policy that rethinks “1099” workers, stipends, perks, and work hour rules? What does THAT mean for transportation/commuting patterns? Energy usage? Temp job employment?
That’s just a glimpse into the future – the NEAR future (like 20 years) for the rest of us. How do our policy makers help guide the transition – where do they stand? Hold off the future as long as you can? Encourage the change – and all its pain – to arrive faster than it would naturally happen? Be out in front – or wait to react?
And you – in IT. Think you are immune? Analytics, cloud, smart machines, AI – these are all areas that promise to significantly change how we design, develop, and deliver systems. Along with consolidation, via cloud and outsourcing, to just a few major providers of services ( such as Amazon for IaaS, or Salesforce for SaaS). So while current policy is to encourage more programmers (everyone’s IT), the actual need for programming and system support skill may shift from being in short supply, to a guaranteed ticket to unemployment in the 2020s. Especially for the masses – assuming there will always be a ‘priestly core” of technical experts. A new spin on the wealth gap will be the tech gap – with not enough tech jobs to feed our economic engine.
Finally – there is the issue that is on every CEOs mind – especially after the Sony Pictures breach. Is my company next? Are we building a world where – through technology- we are all inherently unsafe, have no privacy, and vulnerable to malfeasance? And what are we prepared to do about it? Lock down our liberties? Are the front lines of war now in corporate systems, rather than fields of battle?
I don’t profess to know the answers of what policies will get us to where we want to be. I don’t even know where we, as a society, want to be! But I do know the technical trends – and the trends are clear and, unquestionably, hugely disruptive. Gartner has been leading the disruption discussion in board rooms and with senior company leadership through a focus on “The Digital Business”.
My job in Gartner is researching, and working with IT Professionals, about professional effectiveness. Not employee development. Not skills training. How IT professionals do their job and do it well – beyond technical knowledge, and in alignment with the technical trends for their organization. Next week in San Diego is our Catalyst Conference: Exploit New Architectures and Create Your Digital Future. We have a track on “Radical Thinking”. Maybe some of the presidential candidates should be there to get a briefing on what the challenges will be in the future.
A message to the candidates: take a stand on the future of technology – and how these next few years should be addressed with policy initiatives.
Or maybe we should all avoid talking about it, and let society walk into the uncharted abyss…