For all the mediocrity of ITV2’s sitcom Plebs, it has several redeemable features that mark it out as a pertinent piece of social satire. Set in Ancient Rome, it follows the main characters’ eternally doomed antics in business and love. Many of the comedic moments within the series derive from the occupations of the four protagonists: copier, shredder, slave and water carrier. Notably, these jobs rely on a specific human physical activity and are therefore considered to be fairly permanent areas of employment.
These hapless Romans would be forgiven for slipping into total panic and existential dread if they were to be told that a future world with machines would render their employment useless.
Yet our society has brought with it innumerable job opportunities owing to technology. Nonetheless, current changes are fuelling a nonsensical widespread hysteria that millions of jobs are about to imminently disappear.
In spite of the immeasurable benefits that new technology has gifted humanity, our relentless pessimism insists that the apocalypse is just around the corner. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the relentless doomsday rhetoric of public figures such as Frankie Boyle who, like most so-called comedians, has become more of a propagandist than an entertainer.
The irrational fear that the “end is nigh” plays out across the jobs market. It is the paranoia that within the next few decades millions of hardworking citizens will be turfed out of employment, with hordes of Robocop-esque machines ushered in to take their places.
Indeed, within the world of academia, researchers have spent a great deal of public money conducting “studies” that supposedly support the claims of the stirrers of panic. The Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that 13.7 million British jobs will be lost in the robot revolution and an oft-cited 2013 study from the University of Oxford reaches the particularly alarming conclusion that a gargantuan 47 per cent of jobs in the US are “at high risk” of automation.
Even the Bank of England has got in on the act, inciting further consternation by announcing its belief that 15 million jobs will be lost in the UK as the robots take over. This is why over half of Americans surveyed told a Gallup poll that they saw artificial intelligence as the biggest threat to the nation’s jobs, and why a Pew Research poll found that nearly three-quarters of respondents were seriously concerned about machines performing tasks currently done by humans.
The extensiveness of these beliefs is staggering given their ludicrousness. The fact that the global population will almost certainly plateau at around 11 billion before the end of the century should eliminate anxieties stemming from the notion of an exponentially increasing population. Moreover, the face of employment will inescapably continue to change as society evolves around new technology. Inevitably, as the development of technology accelerates, the parallel evolution of economies and societies will appear more drastic but bear no major negative consequences in the longer term.
If the mainstream media had existed as it does today in the mid-eighteenth century, it would almost certainly have whipped up a comparable mass hysteria to the Industrial Revolution. Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have been portrayed as either a self-serving elitist figure or a dangerous anti-establishment pseudo-anarchist, depending on your political leanings.
Yet, throughout the Industrial Revolution, workers migrated to the cities en masse and found exciting new career opportunities operating, repairing and improving the supposedly evil machines. The revolution facilitated the creation of entirely new, previously inconceivable industries and the bringing about of endless new jobs. Within a few decades, employment levels reached all-time highs. In that sense, the Industrial Revolution is directly comparable to the increased use of robot-like machinery today.
And greater technological advances have been made in the past 200 years than in previous millennia. Thanks to technology, by the time the current millennial generation reaches middle age, human life expectancy will be notably higher and the world will look completely different to how it does at present.
As Hegel would be shouting incessantly were he still alive, humanity cannot and will never adapt to such a degree that it eliminates its ability to sustain itself. That is simply not the way society works. We are currently enjoying the fastest technological and societal development in human history, but rest assured that future generations will look back on this mass hysteria with the same condescension with which we now view the Y2K panic and the Mayan 2012 phenomenon.