Renaissance or Civil War - Debating the Future of the Job and the Work Ahead

This is an email exchange between myself and my colleague Ben Pring

To: Ben Pring
From: Robert H. Brown

Dear BP,

So, Donald Trump got inaugurated last week.

Remember when we wrote this? Our take on “The Future of the Job”, only a couple of years ago? Seems like so much of what we talked about is coming to pass.

To say that “we’re at an inflection point” seems like the understatement of this (still young) century. (Cue the menacing voice: “Only THIS time... it’s for real”). When we wrote “Future of the Job” piece – interestingly, on Labor Day, 2015 – the forecaster and strategist in me felt like the big shift was all 1 or two cycles away, when it really seemed like future of work (and “the job”) was still – distantly – in the future.

You’re just back from Davos – and as you landed, people were in the streets, marching. And as cool as “The Digital Revolution” is, was, and could be: it seems like people are mad AS HELL. The country and the world are divided. And yet – you wrote about it here (“The Blasé Index”) – they’ve seemingly never had it so good. What’s up?

Is it REALLY “Renaissance II” (or, as Vinnie Mirchandani calls it: “New Florence”...)? Or is it (in the US, UK, The West) setting the table for “Civil War II”?

As the song goes, “There’s something happening here... What it is ain’t exactly clear”.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that digital technologies have fostered great heights of trust between total strangers for transactions (like Stubhub, Craigslist, Airbnb, Transferwise, etc. etc.).

And yet: the comments section of even the most stalwart news site (NYT, WaPo, the SF Chronicle, etc.) sounds like a bin of chattering bedlam lunatics half the time, bringing out the worst in people.

Reasoned discussion of “the civilized” gives way to the discussion of bullying barbarians. Not sure what the answer is, but there you have it, and it’s where we are today: welcome to January 2017.

Your new book, “What to Do When Machines Do Everything” emphatically argues we’re on the cusp of “Renaissance II”. I believe that too – looking at all the new technologies, industries, ways of living, working, creating, making and communicating happening, Renaissance II does feel like it’s tantalizingly close. That’s why I do what I do for the Center for the Future of Work – I believe that too.

But here’s a question we should ask ourselves: Did the people living through Renaissance I know they were living through it?

The weeks before I started work in the CFoW exactly three years ago, I read a tome from 1953: “The Renaissance”, from the 11-volume “Story of Civilization” covering Western history by husband and wife team Will and Ariel Durant. I literally carried this 7 pound doorstop in a backpack from my front door to the sea, on a 14 mile, solo hiking odyssey with my dog. Doing what? As you might put it, Ben, trying to answer the question about the future: “What’s it all about Alfie?”

In the Conclusion (or “Envoi”, as it’s called), the Durants make the case that the Renaissance “was based materially upon the economic exploitation of the simply many, by the clever few... The splendor of Florence was the transmuted sweat of lowly proletaires who worked long hours, had no political rights, and were only better off than medieval serfs only in sharing in the proud glory of civic art and the exciting stimulus of city life. Politically the Renaissance was the replacement of republican communes with mercantile oligarchies and military dictatorships”

Ben, I thought I wanted the Renaissance, but perhaps the time is NOW for something else. More than anything else, what I want is good times for everybody.

As the kids in the streets might say: “What do we want? Jobs. A house. Affordable healthcare. Respect for all people’s rights. Respect for the police. No street crime. No ocean dumping. A meaningful median income raise. Justice. Truth. The American Way.” Sounds like America, to me.

So, for our time, that’s the question: Is it going to be Renaissance II, or Civil War II?

Sit bonum tempora volvunt (let the good times roll),



From: Ben Pring
To: Rob Brown

Hey Rob

Hmmmm ... that’s a good question! A big question! And one to which I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Am I allowed to say “both”? Need they be mutually exclusive? History shows us (time and time again) that we can have the best of times and worst of times ... at the same time. (Hey, that’s a cool phrase – maybe somebody should use it in a book). Great human achievement – in art, music, literature, science – can come in the midst of battle, famine, and pestilence. Picasso’s Guernica was painted amidst the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Hamlet was written while England was at arms with Ireland. George Orwell was on the breadline when he wrote Down and Out in Paris and London.

So will new waves of ever increasingly pervasive technology create a new Florence or a new Gettysburg? Yes!

It’s an odd thing, this sense that the future will be all black or white. I’m not criticizing your asking a question like this – it’s a very human impulse to cast the future in those terms. I do it myself sometimes. But surely, given that we know that the past is full of wonder and horror, as is the world today, it is illogical to imagine that in the future things will either be good or bad.

In our upcoming book (thanks for the plug earlier!) What To Do When Machined Do Everything we write;

The future won’t be one extreme or the other; it won’t be a utopia or a
dystopia. We firmly believe, as we have argued throughout this book, that
intelligent machines will increase living standards; create better, more
satisfying jobs; allow us to solve big problems; and invent entirely new
products, services, and experiences. But we also fully acknowledge the truth
that intelligent machines will replace some occupations, put pressure on
wages for many jobs, make some people’s skills and capabilities irrelevant,
and leave behind those unable to keep up and compete.

Will the downsides of technology – the entire replacement of some occupations and pressure on wages for many occupations – lead to war? Perhaps. But if they do, it won’t be due to the technology itself – it will be because we haven’t figured out what to do with these new machines ... hence the snappy title of our book.

As MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson has rightly said, “technology is a tool we can use to change the world. We get to choose whether the outcome is good or bad”.

If new tech leads to war, then it will be us – people – that have failed, not technology itself. Though I am no fan-boy of Wayne LaPierre, there is a certain logic to his position, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. The same logic applies when considering the pluses and minuses of the technology being invented around us right now.

Our increasingly tech-centric world is full of tensions as we try to leverage the upside of technology and limit its downsides. Facebook is wonderful (catching up with long lost buddies) and terrible (more humble bragging from Cousin Frank on his fifth vacation of the year). Twitter is wonderful (getting the news in real-time, faster than from the MSM) and terrible (full of your aforementioned bedlam lunatics). iPhones are great (you can work from anywhere) and terrible (you can work from anywhere).

But ‘twas ever thus. Technology has always been a double edged sword. Moveable type was great (information could spread more easily) and terrible (the indulgence business went into the toilet). Cars are great (we go further, faster, and in more comfort than on foot, or horse, or train) and terrible (nearly 1.3m people die per year in car crashes). Nuclear power is great (“clean”, cheap power) and terrible (Chernobyl, Fukushima). This is simply the nature of the tools that we invent.

So, back to your question – what’s the future of the job in a world of smarter and smarter technology? And how will changes in work and the nature of work, which is so central to society, play out? For good or for bad?

There’s no doubt that work – what we do, and how we do it – is going to change radically in the next generation or two. Machines will do more and more of what we do today. I firmly believe that in 150 years just 2% of the world’s population will work in offices, but will shuffle the same amount of paper that we do today . (Just think of the 2% who today produce the food that it took 90% of us to produce 150 years ago). But I also firmly believe that the other 98% of us will find things to do – work that today has not yet been invented. Would a farmer in 1867 know what an Ethical Hacker was? Or a User Experience Designer. In 2167 maybe one of our descendants will be piloting a Phantoma LEV (Google it!) for a living. Or be a member of the Psi Corps? Or maybe just the singer in a rock and roll band. They will still have those in 2167, won’t they? Heaven help them if they don’t!

Work will still exist – there will still be things to do in the future. Plenty of things. If on the journey to that work there are big punch-ups along the way, well, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose ... The history of man is as much the history of war as it is of work. But I’m an optimist; on balance I think there is more good than bad ahead. To me being optimistic is more difficult than being pessimistic and, given my contrarian nature, more of a challenge. I’m fully expecting the worst but preparing for the best.

Agreed - Laissez les bons temps rouler! Take it Clifton!!!

Best, Ben



1 Well, metaphorical paper ...

This is an email exchange between myself and my colleague Ben Pring