You can’t wall off change

“How do you feel?”

a man in a suit and tie

A question that many in America and across the world have been forced to contend with this morning. But the deepest wells of feeling are often the hardest to draw from, and still more difficult to articulate.

Personally, I found myself pondering a recent panel event at Bloomberg – “Glimpse into the future” – which featured former Chancellor George Osborne and a gaggle of self-professed futurists. It was pretty “out there”, as panel discussions go.

One guy thought that human beings would spend more time in virtual reality than in plain old bog-standard reality by 2025. Given this morning’s news, I’m all for it.

Another said that computing will become subsumed into our daily lives to so pervasive an extent that the notion of a computer “as a thing” will cease to exist. Could be useful for the pollsters.

A professor who spends his life weighing the likelihood of global calamity said that the big surprise over the next decade would be the adaptability of people – the capacity of people to “not be surprised”. I can think of a few exceptions to that theory this morning.

An expert on artificial intelligence warned that mankind is on the verge of a period of sweeping change which will – uniquely among industrial revolutions – destroy jobs, rather than creating them. Where previously we’ve seen automation applied to muscular function, we’ll soon see machines encroaching more and more on cognitive ability. We’re moving towards a “post-jobs” world, or so he claimed. Robots, Donald. They’re coming to your country. They’re taking your jobs.

When Osborne’s turn came around, he described himself as a “great technology optimist”. However, he reminded the panel that human beings are seldom keen to see their interests impinged upon, and that human beings “have a vote”. In other words: don’t get too excited about the future, folks, human beings will always find a way to clog things up.

Mr. Osborne concluded with the point that each of the many technological innovations under discussion during the panel – everything from augmented reality to blockchain – is a product of “free-thinking, liberal societies”. So Silicon Valley might be headed for a dry spell.

While each of them had their bugbears, the panel of change-gazers seemed to agree that globalisation and technological progress are ultimately to the benefit of humankind; but I doubt Trump would agree. The big challenge is the bifurcation of wealth that these forces create in the short term. The creators of seminal technologies stand to accumulate unfathomable fortunes, while the vast majority of the world’s workforce faces a very real threat of unemployment. Tax policies will need to change over the next few decades in order to bring some level of balance, distribution-wise, to the fruits of technological advancement in an increasingly global market.

But the bottom line is that jobs coming under pressure from immigrants could soon be the least of the new President’s concerns, if the futurists are to be believed.

Trump and his isolationist ideals are swimming upstream, and can only go so far. In an ever more technological world, borders are breaking down, and will continue to break down. We’re more connected now than ever.

In sum: you can't keep out technological change, Donald, no matter how high the wall. 

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