There is a word that brings it all together: the Far Right pulling in German voters, the latest controversy to envelop Uber, Jeremy Corbyn’s pronouncement over Brexit, and the row between NFL Players and President Trump. The word lies behind the message articulated by President Macron of France, and that word is ‘disruption’. If you want to qualify it further, you can add, another few letters, which together form the legend technology.
Technology is changing the word at a breathless pace, but whatever changes it has wrought so far, they are as nothing compared to the changes it will bring. It will destroy jobs, and create jobs. It promises to let us enter an age of plenty, it threatens to herald a new era of extreme inequality.
Uber expresses the case in miniature: it illustrates the dangers of the gig economy writ large, it is helping to transform London’s transport infrastructure, an infrastructure that has been creaking at the seams for years, that has often seen – but by no means always – very rude, and petulant cab drivers ignore hapless passengers. But the row between Transport for London (TfL), which may or may not be putting its political agenda before the interests of Londoners themselves, and bowing to pressure from lobbyists, is little more than a rehearsal– and a fairly low-key rehearsal at that – compared to the debate that will follow as autonomous taxis reach the streets of London.
According to the United Private Drivers trade body, TfL has partly used Uber’s failure to provide proper safety checks when awarding medical certification as a reason for not renewing its license, when in fact the provision of such certification is the responsibility of TfL itself. But computers don’t need medical certification, computers don’t need an enhanced DBS (Disclosure and Barring service) certificate, AI may well turn out to have all the characteristics of a psychopath, but its rise is unstoppable. Countries that apply the head in the sand approach to AI will be forced into ignominy, but if you can’t find a way of absorbing Uber economics, what hope is there when the economics have an autonomous twist?
But technology is changing the world in more profound ways than that. It is even influencing the way we think, and the views we hold. Speak to leading UK entrepreneurs, and one by one they tell you that they believe technology is creating a more collaborative way of thinking, not to mention creating a more entrepreneurial mindset.
Critics say that technology is reducing our attention span, it certainly seems to be polarising opinion, as, in an era when it is possible to fact check just about anything in just a few seconds, we see the rise of fake news and a backlash against scientific reasoning.
And as NFL Players in the US, and indeed at Wembley, kneel during the playing of the US national anthem, President Trump says that “When you get on your knee and you don’t respect the American flag or the anthem that is not being treated with respect… This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country, and respect for our flag.”
But then President Trump believes in making America great again. At his recent speech at the United Nations, he said that the UN was founded as a forum for proud self-interested nations. It is the emphasis on self-interest that is key.
There is nothing wrong with that, we all have our own interests. But the inference is that different self-interests are not compatible with each other. It Is the language that suggests US needs are not being served when the needs of other countries are being met. The ethos is the polar opposite of the spirit of the more collaborative way of working that seems to characterise most of the people who make up the latest crop of successful entrepreneurs.
Technology under development will enable real-time voice translation, augmented reality will enable communication over vast distances, which via holograms, will simulate face to face meetings. New technology will have the effect of making country borders an irrelevance, as the world gets smaller, and more intertwined, cultures around the world more integrated. The calls to make America great again, and the rise of the Far Right in Germany, are a reaction against this, but you cannot stop technology from creating a more global outlook of the world among its citizens, any more than regulators can stop then the rise of the sharing economy.
John Lennon once sang “imagine there’s no country”, the ideology behind those words is creeping into the psyche of millions of people, the rise of nationalism is just one of many ways in which the forces that are afraid of change are trying to resist.
In his speech at the UN, President Trump mentioned sovereignty 21 times but made no reference to multiculturalism. Emmanuel Macron stated the word sovereignty twice, multiculturalism three times. He said: “The future of the world is that of our planet, which is on course to take vengeance on the foolishness of men.” He said it is the UN’s job to protect freedom of speech, and called for a special representation for the protection of journalists around world. Contrast that with President Trump’s anti-CNN rhetoric.
Meanwhile, we finally get confirmation of why Jeremy Corbyn was so silent during the EU referendum – he is anti the EU because of the way it makes it harder to subsidise industry, such as steel or coal.
He may not like the comparison with President Trump, but both men are caught trying to resist the rise of tech, and instead, want a return to traditional industries that supposedly once made their respective countries great. But if he had spoken up for investing in graphene instead of steel, AI instead of manufacturing, in how to make the gig economy serve the interests of workers and consumers rather than, via the support of the normally forward thinking Sadiq Khan, try to stop the likes of Uber in their tracks, he would be far more relevant to the brave and exciting world of the 21st century.
Instead, by trying to stop it, those who are scared of change, and want to stop the clock, risk missing the bigger issue. New technology is both exciting and frightening, trying to halt it is like swimming against the tide, and it risks letting the negative side of technology drown us, rather than liberate us.