The noise about the hopes and fears of an automated economy has been growing rapidly and will continue to do so in the future. There is a lot of uncertainty about the future of work and the ownership of the means of production. Basically, the usual debate since the days of Adam Smiths and Karl Marxs of the world. Automation has been replacing old jobs for years. Could humans be replaced entirely? This is causing some people to worry about their future.
Knowledge is Power!
Knowledge is power. Knowledge is a competitive advantage. Knowledge is necessary before you can start to make progress with your business. Other people are after that knowledge that is why people don’t often want to “sell the game” so to speak. If someone can execute faster than you, then they can eat your lunch. This view is very entrenched in our atomist individualistic world. For sure, you wouldn’t want to sell the battle plans to your enemies in a connected world too. That is why a lot of technology is often closed source. You want to build a temporary advantage to extract profit. You get the patents; you have limited access to source code; you make it prohibitively expensive for people to catch up; profit. What we often found is that the big fish keep on getting bigger with these competition busting methods while the small fries are competing instead of working together to tip the scale of power back. That is why in the software world, open source became a thing.
What is the open-source economy?
The open-source economy calls for an economic model that is based on the sharing of information, software and other services. It is made up of a lot of different companies, organisations and individuals that openly collaborate to further achieve their aims. Individuals get to contribute for altruistic reasons such as donating their expertise to the public or working on cool projects with other great minds. Companies increase brand awareness, and they can charge for other services related to the software such as enterprise grade hosting of the software and training around it. The open-source technology is not just a whitepaper or scientific journal that is published to the public. It is often fully working production grade software that is open for use subject to varied licensing agreements. The ethos of open-source understands that we stand on the shoulders of giants.
The automation economy
The automation economy is a term that describes the increasing automation of jobs and the resulting increase in productivity. The automation economy is not a new concept, but it is one that is gaining more attention because of the automation of jobs. The common narrative about the industrial revolution goes like this: a tractor replaced multiple field workers, robots reduced the need for factory workers, etc. That allowed a huge percentage of the global population to move onto new industries that are less physical labour intensive. We now have lots of people who aspire to be service-oriented/knowledge workers. Many people now a have life track that goes something like this: go to primary school; go to secondary school; go to tertiary school; get an office job; get married; have kids and then go to your deathbed.
Of course, not all physical labour jobs have disappeared. Many of them just got outsourced to nations with fewer labour protections than their own. This delays rushing unproven and expensive automation and it’s not like automation is perfect all at once. The effects have been felt. Some great industrial cities, such as Detroit in the USA, have become a shell of their former selves after outsourcing jobs. The new fear is that this wave of automation is going to take our newfound jobs. Well-meaning and maybe out of touch urban people have always recommended upskilling. It has been what we have been doing for the past century or so. We went from not completing secondary school to getting tertiary education for basic entry-level jobs. The problem is cost and time just seem to be increasing and many will not be amused by such mixed messages that the market signals. It is definitely not a short course. Funny enough this message to go learn new skills is just around the corner for all other jobs and it will be just as much of a slap in the face for an office worker as it was for a coal miner.
The future of work
The future of work is uncertain. Many people are concerned that automation will eliminate jobs; removing the possibility of finding meaningful work. However, the automation of work is not going to happen overnight. There are many benefits to automation, such as increased productivity and efficiency. It will take time before automation completely disrupts the workplace. In the meantime, people can find work that requires skills that automation cannot replace. For example, some people may be able to find work as a web developer or as a writer.
In Africa, we barely got to go through the stages of industrialization. We still have higher rates of people employed in the agricultural sector than the rest of the world and now they are talking about automation! Labour will become more expensive than machines even in Africa, so it is a ticking time bomb. The continent will have to go straight into running the machines ourselves instead of waiting for others. Not from the hands of a wealthy few, but in the hands of the community.