Resolved: The Average Worker Is Being Left Behind by Technology
Last Sunday, I found myself once again standing before a standing-room-only crowd at the Oxford Union, the world’s most famous debating society.
For a suburban kid who stayed as far away as possible from my high school speech and debate program, this is a pretty intimidating experience . . .especially when you realize the spot where you are standing was once filled by Churchill, Gandhi, Thatcher and a bunch of other folks who actually deserved to be there.
Eleven years ago, with the late Dean of Oxford’s Said Business School Anthony Hopwood, I created “Silicon Valley comes to Oxford”, which to my amazement has grown to become the largest annual event for entrepreneurs in Europe. Three years ago we added a Union debate, and I’ve been involved in all three – the first as a commenter from the floor, the second as part of one of the two teams of four debaters (we won), and this year again as a commenter.
As always, the Union presents cocktails and dinner before the debate, so everyone involved typically has a good buzz on. And victory usually goes to the team that can best combine facts, shameless appeals to the audience’s prejudices, and wit. That’s all you need to know – other than that I rose in support of the opponents – and that the proponent team included (reluctantly, because I don’t think he really believed it) my old pal Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn and these days the most famous entrepreneur/superstar on the planet. Hence my less-than subtle digs at him and his company.
Resolved: "This House believes that the average worker is being left behind by advances in technology"
Madam President, honored leaders of the Union, ladies and gentlemen, this is the third time that I’ve stood at this table, and my wonder at being even a small part of this great institution only grows.
I’ve risen to speak in support of the opposition because not to do so would be to give tacit support to those who would put the brakes to the technology revolution, to the most important force for the improvement in the quality of human lives – and indeed, of human work – ever created. I ask that you stand with me.
It is with no little irony that we hold this debate just a few miles from where, exactly two hundred years ago, the Luddites began their revolt. Like my esteemed friends in proposition tonight, they too believed that technology was leaving the average worker behind.
And yet, somehow, those average workers managed to adapt to the changes taking place around them, to find their way, and in the process embark on the greatest burst of wealth creation ever known. The “average” worker – and as an American even that term makes me uncomfortable – has somehow, over those last two centuries created a world in which he (and now she) enjoys better health, a longer life, more education, much more personal wealth, and an access to information and knowledge once only available to monarchs.
There are many laws in the world of technology, such as Moore’s Law of semiconductors and Metcalf’s Law of networks. And, as it happens, there is also one named after me. It says that “Technology revolutions always arrive slower than predicted, but quicker than we are prepared for.” In other words, we are always shocked when a revolutionary new technology like the personal computer or the Internet or smartphones or social networks arrives on the scene.
But a corollary of Malone’s Law is that “the technological miracle of one generation is the everyday appliance of the next.” This afternoon, schoolchildren were walking down the street outside this building listening to their iPods and talking on their iPhones – an image that will be repeated within a few years on the streets of Lusaka and Pnom Penh. At many of the world’s biggest corporations managers and employees who have worked together for years, have never met in person. My oldest son, who came home from Oxford in June, found a job in two weeks on Craigslist. My youngest son talks to his teachers via Facebook. And just before I came here, I checked my email to find that three people – average workers all – wanted to connect with me on LinkedIn.
Yes, advances in technology do leave us all behind – temporarily. But that’s the point. And those same technological advances also give us the tools to quickly catch up – and to improve our lives. One need only look at the productivity tables of the last half-century for proof of that. That same mainframe computer that once threatened our jobs, is now the laptop computer that lets us work at home and virtually communicate face to face with anyone in the world. Technology isn’t leaving us behind; rather, as always, it pulls us along in its wake.
To believe otherwise is to surrender, to join the army of King Ludd in trying to slow the pace of innovation, to throw a spanner into the gears of the most rewarding force in the modern world. It is to abandon your belief in human progress, imagination, and will. And it is to deny the future the same fruits of innovation that we so casually enjoy today.
Let me close by saying that if you believe, like the proponents of this resolution, that technology is only leaving us behind, that there is no countervailing technological force to help us keep up – then, to echo my dear friend Reid Hoffman’s words from last year, I suggest that you pull out your smartphones right now and cancel your LinkedIn accounts.
So, how did it all turn out? We lost – which surprised even members of the other side, who agreed that the opposition had made a far stronger case. I suspect, sadly, that our defeat said more about the increasingly pessimistic European character than the quality of our performance. In my experience, every new tech breakthrough, every new Google or Facebook, is met with fear and dread, rather than the enthusiasm we see in Asia, and here in the States.
As for us losers, we drowned our sorrow in a few pints at a nearby pub and told ourselves that next year we’d get ‘em.