Tom Stringham: Conservatism and technological change

Modern technology is realizing a new stage in its evolution, as artificial processes threaten to replace not only human exertion, as they have been doing since the Industrial Revolution, but vast roles hitherto played by human cognition as well. Firms like Google, whose autonomous cars are only years away from the market, are at the vanguard of this transformation, as Cody pointed out yesterday. Robotic devices, until now mostly out of sight, will soon find their place in our everyday lives.

Cody argues that while previous modernizations allowed for the creation of an expanded service sector of the economy, the next wave of innovation will leave no new space for human labour, perhaps leading to mass unemployment.

On this point I don’t agree: if we can’t imagine what the future’s jobs will look like, I think it reflects more on our imagination than on the future. This seems especially true given failed predictions of technology-triggered labour sector collapses in times gone by.

Where I do agree is that the shift toward a highly-technical economy has led, and will continue to lead, to profound social consequences. The less educated, the less ambitious, and the less inclined toward cognitively intensive, technical fields among us will probably be left behind—if not in jobs, at least in pay and status. We are already seeing some of these trends play out, as in yuppie tech haven San Francisco, where according to new data, income inequality rivals Guatemala’s.

This sort of impending social disruption probably justifies, for a conservative, at least a mild Luddism when it comes to technology. If the ship of civilization is thrown off course by rapid technological change, then its crew might do well to cast an anchor on the side of institutional caution.

This cautiousness will require its own ingenuity. Governments might have an educational role to play in mitigating media addiction, especially among young people. Or maybe the astounding, almost accidental accrual of massive wealth to technology firms and their employees will justify future changes to patent laws or tax regulations.

While innovation is prosperity’s lifeblood, it does seem clear that our society’s cultural maturity is lagging its own technical intellect, and large segments of our population will likely pay the price. As Cody mentioned yesterday, the economic and the social are truly inseparable—perhaps the approach to both requires an extra measure of conservatism.

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