Ismail Lagardien: Modernisation marches on

Most people have some sense, by now, of technological innovation, progress and the diffusion of technology across natural and human- made boundaries.

It is impossible to go out into public, at least in urban areas, and not find evidence of the progress that has been made through innovation and technology. It all seems terribly passé.

It takes nothing away from the fact that from traffic lights to text messaging we are all part of this inexorable process that is associated with modernisation.

Parenthetically, modernity and modernisation have become pejorative terms in the deep left. Nonetheless, it is amusing that the deep left and the deep right meet each other in solidarity around pessimism.

It is probably on the left where hard thinking is required about the future of organised labour. They have to embrace the reality that technological advances have made many jobs redundant over the years and this will probably continue for many years to come.

One of the finest minds in economics, John Maynard Keynes, referred to this as “technological unemployment”.

It is worth stating a key passage from his work – if only for the way it remains relevant, more than 70 years later: “The prevailing world depression, the enormous anomaly of unemployment in a world full of wants, the disastrous mistakes we have made, blind us to what is going on under the surface to the true interpretation of the trend of things.

“For I predict that both of the two opposed errors of pessimism which now make so much noise in the world will be proved wrong in our own time – the pessimism of the revolutionaries who think that things are so bad that nothing can save us but violent change, and the pessimism of the reactionaries who consider the balance of our economic and social life so precarious that we must risk no experiments.”

The challenge for labour, then, is how they will approach technological change, modernisation and the consequent redundancy of jobs.

Unless one is given to vast capitalist conspiracy theories, or willing to roll back human achievement, the redundancy of jobs has to be addressed with a firm understanding of the history and the future of work.

I should lay down a marker. I probably have done so before. I leave future studies and predictions to boardwalk fortune tellers, prophets and as American physicist Richard Fyneman suggested, to people who fool themselves into believing their own stories. The past is a little easier to delve into.

We can start by acknowledging that we made tremendous technological progress over the 20th century. We have not made much moral progress, though. Consider the technological achievements that produced the nuclear bomb.

It was an epoch-making technological achievement, but it really just meant that we found more effective ways of killing each other. What, then, about jobs and Keynes’s technological unemployment?

Again, it is worth getting some perspective on the process of technological change and the way it has affected jobs. In 19th century Britain, and presumably elsewhere in the world, there were people loosely referred to as “knocker -uppers”.

These were people who would walk the streets of towns, mostly before sunrise, and tap on the bedroom windows of working people to wake them up every morning.

Then the reliable alarm clock was invented. The job of knocker-upper became obsolete because of technological progress. Back further, in ancient Greece, street lighting was provided by oil lamps.

At the time there were people called lanternarii who would walk from one lamp to another, and start the flame. Fast forward to Victorian London, street lighting was fed by gas.

When natural light faded, lamplighters would carry their ladders from post to post, and light the lamps. At some point electricity was used to light street lamps.

The job of lamplighter became obsolete because of technological progress. Fast forward, again, to almost any time in the 20th century and there is evidence of how technology has displaced working people.

From work re-organisation in assembly lines to industrialised farming and technological achievements, sponsored mainly by private corporations and lent legitimacy by states, have altered the way we work.

We may, then identify three main actors in this onward march of technology. One is organised labour, as the voice of workers. Another is private corporations that innovate, re-organise work and implement new technologies.

The third is states which provide the legal and institutional frameworks for organising society. For these three to work together to harness technology for the greater good, without resort to conspiracy theories on any side, there would have to be vast amounts of goodwill and trust.

Together, and through deliberate policies on full employment, it may be possible to mitigate against technological unemployment. Unless, of course, we want to go back to being “knocker -uppers” and lanternarii – or some 21st century permutation of those.

Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU.

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