Who will blow on the dying embers of the white heat of technology?

It is a well-worn meme that the Tories are fighting an election to take us back to the fifties and the Labour party is trying to take us back to the seventies. Whilst there is some truth in both these things the bigger truth is that both are stuck in, at best, current day thinking about the world. Now, I promise that this is not a post about 21st century learning, but it is a post about 21st Century policy making.

A good primer for understanding my thinking is this post by Benedict Evans. The post considers the impact of autonomous electric cars (and lorries) not just on the road user, but also on the wider economy. What I like about this thinking is that he goes further than just looking at the effects of changing cars but looks at the second and third order consequences of this. It’s a really good read and I would advise you to look at it – here’s an extract:

The really obvious consequence of autonomy is a near-elimination in accidents, which kill over 1m people globally every year. In the USA in 2015, there were 13m collisions of which 1.7m caused injuries; 2.4m people were injured and 35k people were killed. Something over 90% of all accidents are now caused by driver error, and a third of fatal accidents in the USA involved alcohol. Looking beyond deaths and injuries themselves, there is also a huge economic effect to these accidents: the US government estimates a cost of $240bn a year across property damage itself, medical and emergency services, legal, lost work and congestion (for comparison, US car sales in 2016 were around $600bn). A similar UK analysis found a cost of £30bn, which is roughly equivalent adjusted for the population. This then comes from government (and so taxes), insurance and individual pockets. It also means jobs, of course. 

Even simple ‘Level 3’ systems would cut many kinds of accident, and as more vehicles with more sophisticated systems, moving up to Level 5, cycle into the installed base over time, the collision rate will drop continuously. There should be an analogue of the ‘herd immunity‘ effect – even if your car is still hand-driven, my automatic car is still much less likely to collide with you. This also means that cycling would become much safer (though you’d still need to live close enough to where you wanted to go), and that in turn has implications for public health. You might never get to zero accidents – the deer running in front of a car might still get hit sometimes – but you might get pretty close. 

The level 3 and level 5 systems discussed are the different levels of autonomy for vehicles – 3 being where the ‘driver’ doesn’t have to look at the road and 5 being completely autonomous, a robot taxi, say.

For some kind of reality check, the schools budget in England is around £40bn a year. £30bn saved by automating cars is not an amount to be sniffed at. And that’s just the direct impact (sorry) of the lack of collisions. What happens if the level of smoking goes down as well? Why would automated cars affect smoking? Well that’s one of the second/third order consequences.

Next, gas itself is bought in gas stations, of which there are about 150k in the USA. Those will also go away (unless there are radical changes in how long it takes to charge an EV). Since gas is sold at very low margins, these retailers make their actual money as convenience stores, so what happens to the products that are sold there? Some of this demand will be displaced to other retailers, and some may be going online anyway (especially if an Amazon drone can get you a bag of Cheesy Puffs in 15 minutes). But snacks, sodas and tobacco sell meaningful proportions of their total volume as impulse purchases attached to gasoline. Some of that volume might just go away. 

Tobacco in particular might be interesting – well over half of US tobacco sales happens at gas stations, and there are meaningful indications that removing distribution reduces consumption – that cigarettes are often an impulse purchase and if they’re not in front of you then many smokers are less likely to buy them. Car crashes kill 35k people a year in the USA, but tobacco kills 500k. 

So where is this discussion occurring? It’s not happening in this election. But, I hear you say, all this is years away. Er, no it’s not. Most of the major car manufacturers have plans for level 3 vehicles to be available by the mid 2020’s at the latest. Governments around the world are beginning to legislate for autonomous cars (in the UK they are permitted to be tested on public roads). The focus, when this is discussed is always on the “Gee whizz, look at this car parking itself”. There is little discussion about the second or third order consequences Evans discusses. When the move to electric and autonomy occurs, these consequences are likely to be momentous. They will impact on how towns and cities are built. Over the next ten years we hope to build over 2 million new homes. Will they be electric ready? We are arguing at the moment about HS2 and HS3, which are proposed to provide capacity. With level 5 autonomous cars will we need that? Where is the discussion of this in our politics?

There are many discussions we need to start having related to the consequences of technology change. They are 10- and 20-year horizon issues that currently seem a long way away. But, you know what? 2020 is just around the corner. 2030 is a short hop away. Before you know it we’ll be in 2050. At that point we should expect a lot of our current infrastructure to be different, to be more based around electric rather than fossil fuel. And we can’t even get started talking about electric production because, you know, nuclear, innit? Where is the discussion of this in our politics?

Over 50 years ago, when the economy was dominated by coal and cloth caps Harold Wilson made his “White heat of technology” speech. This was a visionary speech then. The really, really sad thing is that it still is today. He said the following:

Let us be frank about one thing. It is no good trying to comfort ourselves with the thought that automation need not happen here; that it is going to create so many problems that we should perhaps put our heads in the sand and let it pass us by. Because there is no room for Luddites in the Socialist Party. If we try to abstract from the automative age, the only result will be that Britain will become a stagnant backwater, pitied and condemned by the rest of the world.

He went on the say:

So the choice is not between technological progress of the kind of easy-going world we are living in today. It is the choice between the blind imposition of technological advance, with all that means in terms of unemployment, and the conscious, planned, purposive use of scientific progress to provide undreamed of living standards and the possibility of leisure ultimately on an unbelievable scale.

This has always been the promise, hasn’t it? Technology will save us. Nuclear will bring us limitless power and robots will free us from work. Well, its never going to be quite like that but we are at the point where we have to either do, or be done to.

Two examples. First, the sale last year of ARM to Softbank. The crown jewels of the UK IT industry sold to a Japanese telecoms company (note also that Softbank has since sold on 25% of ARM to middle east investors). Second, this morning, a $500m investment into a UK IT start-up. Again by Softbank. No-one throws half a billion dollars at a start-up “just on the off-chance”. This company too will pass out of UK control. In both these cases, and more, we, as a nation lose the intellectual property we have developed. But more than this we lose the ability to use it to shape our future. How long before we sell graphene to the highest bidder? Where is the discussion of this in our politics?

To date automation could be said to have created as many jobs as it has taken over. However they are different jobs. Generally they require a more highly educated workforce. Where is the discussion of this in our politics?

As a nation our industry is generally underproductive. This issue is largely caused by under-investment, a by-product of short-termism. At the moment our manufacturing is undercut by cheap human labour overseas. In years to come, because we don’t face the realities of automation, it will be undercut by cheap robot labour, again predominantly overseas. Where is the discussion of this in our politics?

If Wilson were here today he would be both surprised at just how far automation has come and be shocked by how badly we’ve thus far squandered the opportunities it presented. He would be in awe of what comes next. When we start to add AI into the mix, few jobs are safe from the changes that are just around the corner. I think he would be the first to recognise that the proper response to technological change is to invest in education, not just early years, not just school, and not just university, but all through life. This involves not just a structural change (and the Labour proposal for a National Education Service is a start to this) but a wider cultural change. Such changes don’t happen over night, nor do they happen on their own, so we need to talk about them now.

Wilson would speak to the electorate about this change. He had that gift in a way that no politician of the current age has. He would involve them and help them understand that whilst change was ahead, we shouldn’t fear it, but we should grab hold of it and wield it to our advantage. He would completely understand the point that Evans is making, that to look only at the direct effects is almost as bad as not looking at all.

Our choice is a simple one. We can allow our boat to drift along in the currents of the tech companies and hope they take us to a good place. This seems to be the prevailing intention of our political leaders. Or we can re-engineer the boat for the voyage ahead and actually start to steer it ourselves. We need a new White heat of Technology moment. Unfortunately I’m not sure any of our politicians are up to it.

Unless, dear reader, you know better…

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2 thoughts on “Who will blow on the dying embers of the white heat of technology?

  1. We are living in parallel, if not multiple, realities. Technology advances – there are probably answers to most demands – but politicians are a breed apart. ‘Experts’ are not to be trusted. Deals are entirely down to flawed cost-benefit analysis, where the benefits are increasingly selfish and short-term. I see it as a race between the technology and the likelihood that society will break down in the next half century because of the vast changes coming our way through climate change.

  2. Lovely post and link to Benedict Evans.

    “Well, its never going to be quite like that but we are at the point where we have to either do, or be done to.”.

    I do not believe this is the case. I believe we are already being done to. The reason this stuff isn’t being talked about in the election build up is that it is no longer the realm of Governments, it is in the realm of Corporations. And corporations are talking about this.

    For me, you rightly identify the potential enormity of the effects of the changes. We should not underestimate the impacts of the Industrial Revolution on everyday life of the masses and it is likely that this stuff will make that stuff pail into insignificance.

    For me the idea that people will simply be able to sleep and/or work while they travel is incredible. The fact that anyone will potentially be able to drive anywhere in the world given a few ferries. If one can stash their car as hold luggage then voila. I do remember when Sinclair developed the C5 and the Cambridge calculator. People said the world would never be the same and they were correct, it is just that he was ahead of his time.

    For the record. I do also think that without doubt technology will re-engineer educational processes within the next 10-20 years. At 58 I hopefully will be about to see a good part of it all from retirement (semi-retirement?), but I am absolutely sure that when my time comes and I stand at the pearly gates will be looking at potential change that even Benedict will smile at.

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