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Should We Love or Fear a Digital Future?

I notice that whenever I read about the digitisation of work, I feel fearful: rightly or wrongly, it's not that I think that my role as a writer, speaker and trainer is particularly threatened. It's that I don't know what a digitised future actually means or looks like.

My fear just comes from lack of knowledge - maybe it's justified, maybe it's not. And of course, some of what I consider "work" already is digitised: I like Twitter and LinkedIn, but I see them as part of my work. I've always picked up new technologies fairly quickly. They've been useful tools to help me achieve my goals.

But this, I think, is the difference: we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. I think digitisation will be (or already is) a new way of thinking - and that's not as easy to pick up as a new tool that helps you achieve more effectively what you've been doing all along.

There's also a laziness in our thinking: a lot of people say that in the past much-feared technological revolutions brought new jobs. And they have - a Deloitte study from 2015 found that technology, from 1871 to the present, has been a “great job-creating machine.” The study found that jobs were lost, but these were mainly dull and laborious jobs (agriculture and laundry), leaving people to do jobs related to the care of others and the more interesting knowledge-based jobs.

But today's technological changes now threaten exactly those workers who benefitted from earlier technological changes: those in the caring professions and knowledge workers. Surgery will be automated. We can all do our own accounting online now with Xero and Quickbooks. The US, for example, lost 5.6m manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. And 85 per cent of these jobs losses are, according to a FT article, "actually attributable to technological change — largely automation."

And throw into this mix a few trends like globalisation and the Internet. While automation and digitisation mean fewer workers are needed, globalisation ensures that when people are necessary, there are way more workers than there are jobs. There's a glut of workers. The Internet means employees are educated (whether the information they find on the internet is true or not is besides the point), and are therefore constantly on the move, looking for something better.

To ignore these linear trends and their impact on the more circular revolutions of technological innovation is Pollyanna-ish, at best. At worst, it is short-sighted - we are burying our heads in the sand and not facing the facts.

Whether technology will ultimately create more jobs for people is an unknown: what I can see now is that there is an awful lot of uncertainty in the world of work.

It might be a good idea to think about where these trends are leading us and what a world with fewer jobs might look like - is this uncertainty a melting pot of ideas that will spur us into a brave new world? Or are we sleep-walking into a dystopia of our own making?

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