Technological advances have bestowed huge benefits on our lives and our capacity to explore the unknown. But we have also paid a dear price for those gains, both as individuals and as a society. Indeed, the all-powerful influence of information and communications technologies in business and industry can fairly be considered a key cause of our current socioeconomic imbalance.
A broad look at the past 60 years suggests that technology has been at least as much foe as friend, especially in terms of the employer-employee relationship. For instance, prevailing management theory has long held that an organization prospers when its workers prosper too. In the past, that philosophy led companies to prize loyalty, longevity, teamwork, and commitment. In return for such contributions, employees received a decent living wage and a sense of security that stretched into the future. Over time, and with the noteworthy efforts of unions, employees also gained benefits such as health insurance and pension plans.
The influx of groundbreaking technologies…changed the organizational view of the employee from asset to commodity.
For the three decades preceding the ’80s, that mutually beneficial relationship yielded a relatively stable economy and society. Then came the influx of groundbreaking technologies, which launched the age of globalized everything and changed the organizational view of the employee from asset to commodity.
A cutthroat competitiveness settled in among employers, as they raced to reach and remain at the “leading edge.” Constantly seeking the best programmers and innovators, companies continually traded out “old” talent for “new.” Employees, in turn, followed companies’ lead and left employers for the highest bidders. Loyalty stopped being a key goal. Longevity became an albatross. Commitment to mutual success dwindled.
As tech stocks boomed, crashed, and boomed again, companies shifted their focus away from employees and toward shareholders. The bottom line became sacrosanct, and one way to inflate it was to have employees “do more with less.” Over time, that mantra translated into mass layoffs, salary cuts, and reduced benefits. Today, many of those who still have jobs are working grueling schedules without overtime pay, salary increases, bonuses, or compensation time. Indeed, many are expected to be on call for business 24/7.
Meanwhile, as communications technologies advanced, globalization intensified. Organizations increasingly branched into other countries, and, with access to a cheaper, worldwide labor pool, they increasingly outsourced American jobs. Thus, corporations have been able to pump up bottom lines even further, both by keeping wages and salaries low and by avoiding paying U.S. taxes.
Today, the average American worker, regardless of collar color, works harder and longer for less pay, benefits, and recognition. In-house opportunities for advancement and financial success have dwindled. Job security no longer exists. The likelihood of financial stability during retirement is all but gone. And, given the fall from grace of workers’ unions, the avenues for improving conditions are virtually nil.
Now, instead of being a society that values the individual—as democracies are meant to do—we are near to being a society where organizations and wealth rule. Is technology literally to blame for that? Well, to paraphrase an NRA slogan, “Technology doesn’t kill people. People kill people.” So the literal answer is no.
In a case of gross irony, we clamor for the very technologies that are dividing us economically and socially.
But the worship of technology is to blame. And of that, we are all guilty. Who hasn’t said, “I don’t know where I’d be without my [cell phone, tablet, laptop,…]”? Thus, in a case of gross irony, we clamor for the very technologies that are dividing us economically and socially. Author Ray Bradbury summed it up concisely when, in the story The Pedestrian, he described people in a technological world as being “alone, together.”
Other great minds of the past have warned us to be wary of technology—particularly of its ability to dehumanize us. Now, renowned thinkers, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, are making dire predictions about artificial intelligence. They see AI as the gravest concern, posing no less than a threat to our very existence.
Given our institutions’ history of leveraging technologies to our detriment, it’s easy to believe they will wreak havoc when they get their hands on AI. And get it they will. But with so much on our plates just to keep afloat, and with our heads already locked in cyber worlds, who will be paying attention?
A lifelong communicator, I'm pretty sure I came out of the womb talking. But with no siblings to chat and play with, I learned to express myself in writing. My subsequent birth as a politics junkie came while I watched my father, a career Marine, sob uncontrollably over Kennedy's assassination. Intuitively, I knew the world would never be the same, and I should pay attention. So I did.
Now, some 50 years later, I find myself dumbfounded by the trajectory of American politics and the prevalence of ignorance, bigotry, hate, and violence. I started Two Cents of Sense, hoping to help change that trajectory and to promote progressives' conversation, knowledge sharing, and actions.