Why are we making 'lose-lose' technologies?

With access to the lowest interest rates in history, corporates are undertaking a massive capital-intensive restructuring where technology is quietly replacing human jobs

Like many Computer Weekly readers I am a confirmed computer enthusiast. IT has been my work and my hobby for more than 25 years, but my enthusiasm does not extend to the uncritical use of any technology in any circumstance - quite the opposite.

The supermarket at the end of my road is replacing the check-out staff with automatic machines where you have to scan your own groceries and insert cash to pay. At a time when the real number of unemployed in the UK has risen above six million people it is reasonable to ask just what is the wisdom behind this particular application of new technology? Why should I have to do the check-out work myself at the same time as paying more every month for the same basket of groceries? This application of new technology is of no benefit to me and causes quite unnecessary local unemployment.

Job-replacing technologies

Automatic supermarket check-outs are a special kind of "lose-lose technology" where someone loses their source of employment so that a machine can deliver an entirely inferior service. Other examples that have replaced thousands of jobs are those annoying electronic voices that say, "Choose option five if you have a billing enquiry" or the automated telephone messages that begin, "We can secure you thousands of pounds in compensation if you have ever been injured in an accident". When these technologies are applied to replace human employees, families lose their source of income at the same time as degrading the quality of customer service we all experience.

Now, in the midst of the longest and deepest economic recession since the 1930s' depression, the painful truth is that when economic growth returns it is expected to be "jobless growth". Why? Because with access to the lowest interest rates in history, corporates are undertaking a massive capital-intensive restructuring. Technology is quietly replacing human jobs wherever possible.

Even in Africa, currently making headlines as the "good news" region for ICT-led growth, the evidence is that impressive economic growth is not translating into new employment opportunities, human development, or equitable distribution of income.

Critical assessment of technologies

Yet if anyone suggests there should be any kind of public consideration of technological innovation they are accused of being a Luddite - a pejorative term intended to shame the accused into an uncritical and silent acceptance of all technologies in any circumstances. Yet we do, wisely in my opinion, question and publicly debate the merits and demerits of technologies such as human cloning, genetic modification of food, weapons of mass destruction and much more besides. A considered view on employment-replacing technology is clearly possible too.

The Luddites got a bad press. The truth is that they did not oppose all new technology nor did they indiscriminately smash machines. They opposed only technology that damaged the collective interests of the community - or what they called the "common good". Specifically they opposed the use of the shearing frame which produced inferior quality goods and consigned thousands of artisans to unemployment, deprivation and hunger.

It is rarely acknowledged that there was both widespread popular - and intellectual - support for the Luddite cause. Lord Byron defended the Luddite position in his maiden speech to the House of Lords, pointing out that at a time of rising food prices and increasing deprivations, the Luddites had just reason to question the direction of technological progress. 

Initially pursuing their challenge by legal means the Luddites only took direct action when the Tory government backed the economic interests of a few industrialists over the livelihoods of thousands of artisans and their families, repealed employment protection legislation, and banned trade union membership. The Luddites were not opposed to technology per se but rather the way in which a specific technology was introduced, damaging the "common good".

Now, exactly 200 years after the Luddite's Nottingham uprising, food prices again are spiralling upwards and unemployment has reached record levels. In these circumstances it seems appropriate to pause and publicly consider whether introducing new technology to replace jobs is really in the collective interests or of the common good.

Job-creation technologies

It is also exactly 100 years since the birth of Alan Turing so it is fitting to reflect upon the unbridled opportunity presented to us by fact that the micro-computer is the practical realisation of his conception of the universal Turing machine. In plain English: a computer is a multi-purpose machine, the application of which is virtually unlimited. The computer can be or do anything that we can imagine, conceive as an algorithm, and programme as a series of unmisinterpretable instructions.

Given this unlimited potential of IT we could, for example, choose to prioritise the development of technology that enhances the lives of the socially excluded; we could choose to make it national policy to prioritise applying technology in ways that created new jobs rather than in ways that made people unemployed.

If the public was given a democratic part to play in the consideration and determination of priorities for technological choice we might expect the public to make technological choices more in line with the common good than those currently made by the market alone. The creation of productive employment for everyone and meeting the needs of excluded and disadvantaged communities are common goods that we all have a shared interest in securing. Financing these developments could also be made a matter of public choice and prioritisation; the cost of such technologies would typically cost less than your average desert war or bank bail-out.

Denmark already makes productive use of citizen technology panels in building consensus for its technology policy, and recent advances in participatory decision-making and consensus-building technologies mean that online toolkits are now available to facilitate genuinely inclusive processes.  

Enabling open debate and scrutiny of technology policy would provide the democratic freedom for public participation in consensus building and would clarify how we wish to see IT used for delivering the developments that collectively we have reason to value.

Tony Roberts (pictured) is the founder and former CEO of UK international development charity Computer Aid International. He is an expert on the use of technology to support international development programmes and healthcare and education in developing countries.

Read more on E-commerce technology