Revolutions do not always have to be loud. They sometimes almost display features of understatement. This is proven by one development currently occurring in the world of work. The technology of digitalisation has paved the way for an increasing number of jobs to be performed by algorithms and robots - ever more efficiently, ever more intelligently, as supporters of the trend would say. Yet some sceptics are already wondering: Is this really the end of (human) labour?
Caution is always required when measuring current events against historical ones. Not everything which is trumpeted as being "historic" subsequently turns out to be enduring or of any long-lasting importance in our fast moving society.
On the other hand, there are really profound changes that one can see right from the beginning will set the course for the future and will leave behind indelible traces. Modern automation or digitilisation, with all of its consequences, is one such change. One of its most radical aspects: the displacement of human labour by automated labour. "Nothing new there", many a commentator will say. We left the Industrial Revolution behind long ago - both the first one and the second as well. Quite right, but what is meant here are not classic machines but mathematically generated algorithms which, as is well known, are not at all restricted to physical, industrial manufacturing.
We take using algorithms in our leisure time for granted - from navigation devices and route planners to those cute automatic vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers which work on their own according to certain rules without our even being present. The little digital helpers assume a number of tasks for which there was not even an actual job before; they frequently provide support for us in our work, and they are replacing us ever more often.
If it has been the blue-collar worker who has traditionally been most affected by the automation of work to date, the activities of white collar workers are today increasingly also becoming the focus of processes which can be represented in mathematical terms. That has largely been realised and fully acknowledged in the meantime in a row of activities. In stock exchanges, for example, a large proportion of the turnover in transactions stems from algorithms. Human valuations of companies these days are often less significant for the success of investors then the length of the cable connection (and therewith the speed) to the stock exchange server. In the high-speed world of Algo-Trading, milliseconds are decisive. And the fact is - sorry to say - that no human can keep up with that pace.
Numerous other jobs, however, which trained experts used to carry out now also run automatically. Would you ever once have believed that in the future the work of lawyers could also have been conducted by programs which research legal texts, analyse documents and establish connections? They assess cases and compile outcomes independently.
Or take medicine: CT scans will soon rarely be analysed by radiologists to discover and measure tumours - this time-consuming work is already being done in part today by software. The software can also easily draw up comparisons during follow-up visits.
Yet even those activities which are traditionally seen as being performed by human beings, due to the need for creativity, are increasingly also being taken over by algorithms. A program has, for example, been composing reports about baseball games since 2009. It derives the data from tables, reconstructs the course of the game itself and generates sports reports of an amazingly high quality.
To put it simply: not just our muscle power, but also our mental achievements are being increasingly "externally automated". Ever more differentiated tasks are being taken away from us and more and more jobs are being rendered obsolete. Kevin Kelly wrote in an article in "Wired" magazine at the end of 2012 that 70% of today's activities would be undertaken by machines by the end of the century. But then won’t new jobs that we cannot even conceive of yet simply start to appear? In the end, technological progress has always brought about a certain transformation in its wake: old job profiles have disappeared and new ones have come into existence. The "Economist" (not the first outlet, and certainly not the last, to express the view) asserted in 2011 that the pace of today's technological advance is not creating new jobs at the same rate as it is making older ones obsolete. It is not the case that there was too little, but rather too much and too rapid technological progress to produce the kinds of employment figures generated in the past.
The goal of full employment is increasingly seen today as an illusion - even by renowned economists. US economist Jeremy Rifkin has already prophesied "The End of Work" in his 1995 book. In the long term, gainful work performed by human beings will disappear. He pointed out in an interview with the "Stuttgarter Zeitung" in 2005 that between 1995 and 2002, more than 30 million jobs had disappeared in the 20 largest economies in the world. It was true that production had increased, as had productivity, but the number of jobs had shrunk. Human beings are becoming increasingly superfluous in gainful employment.
This is actually quite logical: an economic strategy increasingly focused on making savings will sooner or later seek to eliminate as completely as possible the highest cost factor there is: human beings. The dilemma this produces is that politicians endeavour to retain or to create jobs within a system which is basically geared to eliminating these and which can fall back on deploying technologies. This can hardly turn out well in the long run.
But what does this mean for us? Are we supposed to become modern-age Luddites, deliberately put a brake on progress and restrict the level of automation? Or find ways not just of coping with this situation in a make-do manner, but instead in ways which are of use to us, not to work against machines and programs, but rather with them - and to become engaged in areas outside of gainful employment to an increasing degree?
To put the question another way: what is really so bad about a part of work becoming automated? Who is going to worry if a program takes away from them certain types of work - currently mainly routine types of work, but possibly in future also those that require the ability to learn? People's own activities will certainly shift, but may perhaps become more interesting, more meaningful and perhaps also leave them with more time for doing other things.
But what about the unemployed and the lack of income which can be expected as a result? Rifkin sees the future as providing two alternatives. "One of them is a world of mass poverty and chaos. The other is a society in which human beings who have been liberated from work can develop as individuals. The end of work can mean a great opportunity to take a huge leap forwards. We must, however, dare to take it." And that hits the nail on the head. If we do not adjust our attitudes and operating environments to a life without ("enough") gainful employment (that is to say, paid employment), version 1 will occur, but otherwise we have the chance of seeing version 2 realised.
Many various ideas about how this is to be achieved are currently being discussed. A decoupling of gainful employment and income, for example, such as is the case with an unconditional basic income (in part). This would allow people to lead a modest lifestyle without being subjected to any unrealistic compulsion to work, but leaves it up to each person to decide whether they wish to earn on top of this (for example through a part-time job). A massive expansion of the non-profit sector could also be imagined - to return to Rifkin's ideas once again. The money to finance this could come from a fundamental redeployment of taxation. At the moment, tax is levied primarily on work - instead of this, however, a shift could be made to taxing resources, or a machine tax could be introduced in the same way as there is an income tax currently. Other options are parallel currencies, either based on time or, likewise, resources. This would mean that everyone's time would be worth the same or everyone would be entitled to receive the same shares of resources.
These ideas may come across in part as utopian, but utopias are precisely what are needed when something old is threatening not to work any longer - or is perhaps already not working?
Whether we are ready for such ideas, whether the rethinking required has already taken place, or whether we are still locked in old thought patterns, could, for example, be demonstrated by the number of people who sign the European Citizens' Initiative on an unconditional basic income, which will probably be launched in the second half of March 2013.
In any case, however, less gainful employment does not at all have to be regarded as something negative - rather quite the opposite: the reduction can represent an enormous liberation. As with all revolutions, however, whether quiet or loud, the same applies here: changes have to be generated first in our heads.