A lot of tech gurus like to pretend they have all the answers to our questions about the future.
Not so with Tim O’Reilly. When it comes to what’s next and what it means, the technology publisher and Silicon Valley forecaster isn’t afraid to admit that he doesn’t have everything figured out and boiled down to a five-point slidedeck that’s easily shareable on Twitter. That’s because, for O’Reilly, figuring it out is part of the fun.
And figuring it out starts with trying to ask the right questions. In this case, O’Reilly is trying to understand what are the right and wrong questions to be asking about his new obsession: the future of work. O’Reilly just finished a two-day Next:Economy conference in San Francisco, where he hosted a wide range of entrepreneurs, academics, investors, and community organizers trying to get at the topic.
“I’m really focused on ‘How do we explore how technology is changing the future of work?'” O’Reilly said in an interview. “There’s something going on. All these fears of tech and unemployment…I’m trying to wrap my head around things like on-demand services and A.I. and what they mean for work.”
What makes this puzzle interesting for him is not any single strand of tech, but rather the way the various aspects are colliding and impacting each other in unexpected ways. What that means isn’t always clear. Is this technology building a better future or eroding the foundations of civil society? But O’Reilly’s immediate concern is that too many people are looking at these issues from the wrong angle.
Take A.I., for instance. He worries that while there are legitimate philosophical discussions to be had about the long-term implications, these future fears tend to overwhelm analysis of the very real impact A.I. is having today.
“A lot of the conversation about A.I. is focused on entirely the wrong things,” he said. “It’s the very pre-ordained general fear of A.I.: ‘Oh my God, A.I. is an existential threat!'”
Debating the distant future is fine. But what that misses is the fact that people’s lives are already — and to a growing degree — governed by algorithms that contain inherent biases. At work, at play, or in the marketplace, mysterious forces are making decisions with minimal human input and affecting us in often unseen ways. It’s not enough to say: “Hey, don’t worry about it.”
“We’re building a world that is ruled by systems we don’t understand and that we’re not in control of,” he said.
This affects the movies we watch, the posts we see on social media, the ads we see, the friends suggested to us on LinkedIn, and the behavior of financial markets. And that lack of control has the potential to breed anxiety as it also increasingly determines how our workplace functions. O’Reilly wants to know the real economic impact of those systems, not just on a macro-economic level, but on an individual level, as they change our notions of stability and compensation and the satisfaction that we derive from work.
While many tech startups hail algorithms as drivers of innovation and new efficiencies, O’Reilly said many people don’t realize the degree to which brick-and-mortar stalwarts have also adopted them to drive employee scheduling, hiring, and turnover. That may indeed bring efficiency, but it risks making employees seem even more interchangeable and less valuable than they already do.
“Everyone is talking about Uber as this new approach to labor, and they’re missing that people at Walmart are already being managed by algorithms,” he said. “I’m trying to bring about a whole different framework for this conversation. I want people to understand why we need to talk about Uber and Walmart in the same frame.”
Still, it would be wrong to describe O’Reilly as a pessimist. Rather, he’s intensely curious and believes there is a strong case for optimism. For example, he’s not convinced that growing automation or things like self-driving cars and trucks are going to be the job-killers that many fear. Often these systems, no matter how sophisticated, still require human intervention. But the technology is shifting those roles and the skills needed to do them.
The hopeful scenario is that these new systems remove the drudgery, taking over the repetitive parts of work and liberating people to focus on more creative tasks. Of course, that means new training and education and compensation models are needed. But if people are free to focus on other tasks, that creates a new capacity to direct people’s time and intellect toward solving bigger societal challenges.
As O’Reilly is quoted on the conference website: “In the Next Economy, companies use technology to augment workers, not just to replace them, so that they can do things that were previously impossible.”
Again, that is the hope. But striving toward the more optimistic path, O’Reilly argues, starts with ensuring that the benefits that flow from this transformation are shared widely. He may still be asking questions, but he’s done enough thinking to start to formulate a kind of manifesto:
It is only when everyone is richer, not just a few, that an economy truly thrives. It is our opportunity — not just our responsibility — to make the economy enjoyed by the rich into the economy for everyone…the Next Economy.