Tim O’Reilly has such a relentlessly optimistic mindset that he sees redemption even in the Black Plague. He does have a point – it did, after wiping out a third of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages, give rise to the Renaissance – but it gives you the sense that O’Reilly sees even the worst burdens as opportunities.
And that is exactly his approach to the evolution of the tech industry and the workforce. O’Reilly, who’s written books like The Whole Internet User’s Guide & Catalog in 1992 and WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us in 2017, and who popularized the term Web 2.0, has a credible perch from which to address the topic of artificial intelligence in the workforce. It’s a message he delivered last year at the California Workforce Association’s Meeting of the Minds conference in Monterey (and which happens again locally Sept. 3-5), and a message he’s now seeing presidential candidates trumpet.
“We need to reinvent worker power,” O’Reilly says. How to do that, he says, isn’t going to look like the old model of unions, but it’s more about taking ideas straight from the tech industry playbook and determining what we want. “Everyone should be skeptical of, ‘The robots are taking our jobs and it’s inevitable.’ If the robots are taking our jobs, it’s because we’ve asked them to.”
O’Reilly wants people to be unafraid of Big Data and technology – it’s designed by us to optimize for any function for us. Corporations, similarly, can optimize for whatever we want them to; in the immediate aftermath of the Depression and World War II, business leaders and policymakers optimized for employment. It’s only a relatively recent shift to optimize for corporate profits, at the expense of all else, and we’ve seen the results of that experiment: widening inequality, a debt-burdened middle class, an opiate epidemic ravaging underemployed communities.
“We took away the prevailing power of labor,” O’Reilly says. “They hollowed out the economy in the name of this optimization function (profits), and they were wrong.”
But O’Reilly, remember, is an optimist. He points to climate change – what he calls a challenge bigger than World War II – as an opportunity to reinvent the workforce and power structure. “I don’t accept the narrative that it’s just inevitable,” he says. “There’s a lot of hunger for a different system, and experiments.”
In this week’s issue, we examine a few of those experiments. One, a universal basic income, has been popularized recently by presidential candidate Andrew Yang and is currently being trialed in Stockton (see story, p. 21). There’s the all-out embrace of AI that runs the Amazon Go store (p. 19), but also renewed investment in vocational training for Monterey County’s largest (and human-dependent) industries, agriculture and hospitality (p. 20).
Not all of the experiments will be successful. O’Reilly talks about valuing labor like housework, something that happened on a small scale in Monterey County with a time bank – people trade hours and all hours are equal, whether it’s an hour of dentistry or of watering plants – but after seven years, the time bank shuttered in May due to lack of resources for operations. Even a time bank needs cold hard cash to operate.
At this year’s Meeting of the Minds, at least one speaker, CEO of the Center for Work Ethic Development Josh Davies, is positioned to deliver a doomsday presentation in direct contrast to O’Reilly’s a year ago. From the conference agenda: “Looking ahead to 2030, there is another revolutionary wave that is going to crash the future of work in America. The combination of automation and artificial intelligence will create a new revolution that will destroy not just jobs but potentially entire industries.”
That’s one way to think about the future of work. I prefer to think in terms of revolution and workers taking control of the machines we make. But as O’Reilly says, it’s our responsibility to rethink it. As he puts it: “In the late 1700s, we believed in the divine right of kings, that they deserved what they had. If we could change our minds that deeply – the world changes if we change our mind.”