The future of work -- and the future of your data

, 1,344 words

Ryan Avent's book The Wealth of Humans: Work and its Absence in the Twenty-first Century covers the abundant capability of technology, the resulting reduction in jobs, and the seemingly unanswerable question of what might happen if that leads to a long-term post-work world. That world might not be so far in the future, and I enjoyed speaking with him recently at an inspiring Exponential View event.

The argument runs that exponential increases in technology stand to involve fewer and fewer people in economic value creation. IBM at its peak employed a fraction of those hired by GE. Facebook a fraction of those at IBM. So it goes. Not only does technology allow for this consolidation, but it also stands to obviate the need for some jobs with the rise of the gig economy. Despite varying degrees of political success, Uber has to all practical purposes created a class of new gig economy worker, with technological constraints making it harder than ever to unionise.

Distribution of wealth from companies like this is unequal. Remote workers in the Philippines do not earn as much for the same skills as they do in the US, even in skilled roles. The lesser-skilled roles, such as those of Uber drivers, are set to themselves be destroyed as the company continues its push to autonomous vehicles.

Peter Thiel argues in Zero To One that technology is complementary to people, rather than a potential replacement of them. But whilst his arguments are often compelling, he also has spoken at length about leaving America behind to join a global elite on floating libertarian islands. Who, and what, gets left behind? More to the point, what vision of the future inspires leaving the rest of the world behind, and physically detaching from it?

What will happen with the generation of wealth lying increasingly with tech-led or tech-enabled companies, and tech companies becoming smaller and less distributive than ever in terms of their human footprint? The likes of Y Combinator are experimenting with Universal Basic Income (UBI). In testing this, they are trying to answer the question: if we create a peasantry for whom there are no jobs, how do we stop fighting in the streets for a greater share?

Whilst it is only a step, and the start of their research, UBI seems like an inadequate sticking plaster. Cake does not seem like the answer, and with the proceeds of the gig economy being deeply and structurally unequal, other questions arise. If people cannot work, what do they do? The benefits of work transcend receiving an income. Work provides growth, a sense of mastery, autonomy and purpose. These are all important things in human identity.

This inequality is already being keenly felt around the world. Societies seek to redistribute wealth in some small measure to address it, but those mechanisms in turn can give rise to nativism. Strong social benefits work better in more homogenous Scandinavian countries, where there's a sense of shared culture and identity amongst residents. But in more diverse, multicultural regions a different politics rises. In the US, a presidential candidate stirs fear of Mexican immigrants. In the UK, a majority of the population vote to leave Europe over fear of immigration. Politicians play on the unfairness of new arrivals gaining a share of the redistribution of social wealth, and communities revert to tribalism.

In part, one solution to this is the outcome of these political changes: fragmentation of larger countries and the rise of the city state. Many European countries have regions demanding autonomy already, and even London's Mayor talks about a separate visa system for London. The inefficiencies this gives rise to will hinder the progress of technological unbalancing and create opportunities for arbitrage.

Ultimately, though, those changes will only go to delay the inevitable. It seems unlikely that private enterprise will solve this problem. Henry Ford is often misquoted on paying his workers good money to buy his product, but analysis of that reveals a different story. Company towns and the welfare capitalism of that era may have been presented as paternalism but were tools in building dependance and monopoly, in entrenching elites, and in heading off the emergence of a welfare state and unions. Much as the Universal Basic Income seeks to do.

So when far fewer people are needed for work, whose role is it to provide for and occupy them? Most likely the state. When faced with such an efficient example of the capitalist model as Uber may prove to be, how can a state capture a share of the wealth to distribute? Without a highly regressive model for taxation, global technology companies have proved notoriously difficult to tax effectively. One radical model might be to look at companies that could ultimately resemble utilities, and to nationalise them.

It bears thinking about what the utilities of the future are. Aside from the physical infrastructural of today, big technology platforms will likely resemble utilities. If companies such as Facebook and Google continue to build compelling and increasingly pervasive technology, and are used as such, they will ultimately regarded that way. There are already examples of the US Government treating these companies as such. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States looks increasingly at whether it is "likely that an investment will have US national security implications where the US business is involved in the provision of critical infrastructure or technologies". Justifying nationalisation would require some convoluted thinking, however, and without a significant and unlikely global shift it would disincentivise creation of IP and further development of technology.

Much of the value these companies create comes from use of data, and often it is sourced from individuals. After all, isn't it information on needs and behaviours that go to power Google's AdWords and much of Facebook's ad revenue? And haven't Facebook already patented approaches to using their users' data for uses as broad as credit-scoring? Their value is derived from their data, and this in turn comes from their users. Markets recognise this, with quarterly updates and valuations driven by talk of MAUs alongside earnings.

Given that nationalisation seems so unappealing, perhaps there's another approach. What if the states of the future sought to reframe legislation around personal data? If it belonged in a more structured and persistent way to the commons -- or to individuals -- and technology companies used it to drive wealth creation, one could link use of that data with a resulting share returned to individuals or to the state. Thus some tech firms might be treated as extractive companies in the sense that mineral resource companies are, as Jaron Lenier argues in Who Owns The Future?. Clearly, many things must change for this to happen, not least as the governments of the day are amongst the worst guardians and arbiters of personal data, and as technology firms are rapidly developing their ability to lobby, silo and lock-in.

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee said of the tech giants and the state of the Internet:

The more you enter, the more you become locked in. Your social networking site becomes a central platform – a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it. [...] The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.

There are many different paths our future may take, but my vision is that the world will increasingly come to recognise and safeguard the value of individuals' data, perhaps as some of this plays out. In part, that's why I do what I do at Reincubate in helping facilitate broader access to that data.

With thanks to Azeem Azhar, Ryan Avent and many of the incredibly smart attendees at November's Exponential View event in helping me frame this piece more cogently. If you're interested in the future of technology, why not sign up for the Exponential View and check out The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century?