A friend of mine once said “I’m such a Luddite“. I had never heard of Luddites before. The Luddites were a group of textile workers who protested against the mechanization in the textile industry in the early 19th Century in England. The new machines had left them jobless. They had been replaced by lower-skilled and lower-paid workers that could run the machines. The name comes from James Ludd, who had destroyed two machines himself.
The Luddites did not win. There resistance was quite massive, and still they did not win. 200 years ago the army was used to break that resistance. The resistance was isolated, in one industry. And it could not stop the introduction of new technologies at that time.
There are fears for our future. I don’t think we will have a jobless future, like Martin Ford suggests. However, we will need a different approach in the talent market (see my blog on the jobless future and on Humans and Robots). We are experiencing a shift, comparable to the shifts we had when the wheel was invented, print was introduced, the steam engine changed the industrial world. Today digitalization disrupts many traditional industries.
There are robots that mow the lawn, automated vacuum cleaners, drones, … The technological progress means that robots can emulate a human’s sensory and cognitive capabilities. Companies are integrating artificial intelligence in more decision and service processes than ever. Almost every activity can to a certain extent be performed, supported or enhanced by some kind of robotics or artificial intelligence.
Are the Luddites back?
So if that’s the case, should we expect the Luddites to return? There is something like neo-luddism. It’s a word that stands for the resistance against technology and consumerism. You could say that it’s a movement of resistance against blind innovation.
But I do not see this happening. Any (technological) revolution will be met with some resistance. Two centuries ago, the Luddites were just one example of this. Usually it’s the people who have the most to lose, who will resist. But at the end, the (r)evolution takes place.
And compared to former changes, changes today take place faster than before. There is no time for resistance. Look at Uber. They have grown so fast. And there are massive protests by taxi-drivers in cities where Uber enters the market. And yes, Uber adapts. AirBnB complies to local regulations. But they are not stopped.
Could there be new Luddites standing against digital technologies? Where are they? The funny thing is that the resistance against technology uses technology to resist. We are being attacked by hackers, worms, bots, Trojan Horses, Viruses, … and they do one thing: they make technology better and more robust.
What if a worker would stand next to a humanoid robot and is compared to it? What if a worker is sacked and replaced by a robot who does his job better or cheaper? What if we would have jobless factories?
Well, there are factories that have very few people in them already. This did not happen overnight. Highly technological process plants have only few people in them. Labour has been replaced massively by technology. And if there is reindustrialization in the West, it’s of a highly automated nature.
New technologies will change society, will destroy jobs and will also create new jobs. It has always been like that. We can use new technology to our advantage, to create a healthier, safer, cleaner society. Stopping technological evolution would be like asking humanity to stop breathing.
Make it better
But the thing is, we need to reinforce ethics in that evolution. We are on the brink of enormous breakthroughs but we risk to forget humanity. We can make automated war drones, but they dehumanize war even more. War becomes a video-game. We can find medical ways to prolong life, but do they preserve human dignity? We can close down plants and delocalize, automate, … but is the alternative better? Why do we still have child labour? Why do we still have people working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions? Why does the ILO have to stress the importance of decent work? We know that inequality threatens social stability, and yet it’s growing.
Change is a challenge. Our society is shifting. But it’s not only through technology. There is a lot of tectonic friction emerging because we are evolving at different speeds. And maybe some people will be the violent Luddites of our age, but they will not stop evolution. Therefore, we should all become ethical Luddites. This only means we should remain critical towards those evolutions. It means we should act responsibly and try to assess the impact of the shifts that take place and build in measures to avoid negative societal or ecological consequences. The purpose is not to stop that evolution, but to simply make it better. The word “Luddite” could be a badge of honor, and I believe my friend has used the word in that way.
Common interest versus personal interest
Have you noticed? There’s an evolution towards a “new world of we”. That’s a world where common interest comes before personal interest. Increasingly people are disapproving behaviours that go against the general interest. Even more, people are uniting to build new meaningful connections in which the general interest is dominant. Three examples illustrate this evolution. (1) The idea of the cooperative enterprise is back. (2) The past years have seen also collective action like the Indignados and Occupy Wall Street. But this has weakened. (3) And under public pressure governments are limiting certain practices that are at the origin of the 2008 financial crisis. These are interesting evolutions in a society that has focussed on individualism as basis for it organisation.
The old world of me
The new world of we is based on the (1) universal need to belong to something bigger and the need for togetherness and (2) on the increasing resentment of how the behaviour of some has changed the lives of many, for the worse.
Don’t be mistaken. The causes of the crisis lie also with the many, not only with the few. We as a society have taken many things for granted: cheap textile, cheap food, cheap consumer electronics, housing, two cars, consumption of social security benefits … Our entire society has been built on the idea of producing and consuming more and on earning more to be able to buy more stuff we don’t really need. We have come to define our happiness and even our identity on material expressions of ourselves instead of spiritual and social expressions. In the process we have lost connectivity and spirituality defined as belonging to a system, a community. Our society has become obsessed with growth instead of sustainable prosperity, possession instead of well-being, rights instead of duties. And there is this tremendous pressure to be successful, defined as being better and having more than the other. This competitive definition of identity is the core of the old world of me.
So my question is if this evolution towards a new world of we means that our behaviour is fundamentally changing. How many people are prepared to let go of some of the nice and comfortable (sedative?) characteristics of the old world of me? Does the new world of we mean that we are approaching a state of interdependence, in which ancient values of human kindness, compassion, ecological grounding, … will conquer greed?
The new world of we
The new world of we is not a world without differences. It’s one of equality. It’s not one of uniformity, but of diversity. It’s not a world of exclusion, but of inclusion. It’s not a world of anonymity, but of accountability. It’s not a world of indifference, but of tolerance and respect. It’s not a grey world, but a world full of colorful patterns. The new world of we is a world where people – citizens, employees, … – join in order to make things happen no one can do alone. It’s a world where people give before taking and cannot hide within a maze of public systems. It’s a world in which meaningfulness is the driving force.
The thought of coöperation and doing things that serve the general interest might be stronger than we think. It’s a matter of togetherness. Could it be a part of our natural reflexes?
If this is the case, how is it possible that the old world of me has become so strong? I guess we have been inspired by personal gains and not by collective gains. We have developed value systems that fostered egocentric behaviour. We have been idealizing personal success and independence above collective well-being, progress and prosperity. We might have underestimated the need for integration and inclusiveness and overestimated the cohesive capacity of society.
There is no society?
Margaret Thatcher allegedly said :
There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.
This sentence has been taken out of context. She said also something else:
There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.
I agree with that quote as much as I disagree with many other things that she has said and done. And I disagree with the statement that society does not exist. What is lacking in her definition is the “togetherness”.
For generations we have not taken full accountability of the consequences of our behaviour and we have burdoned future generations in order to enjoy many current pleasures. Sloterdijk calls this “futurism”. But let’s not forget, this futurism has been the basis of the material prosperity of many. It has also allowed companies to attract funds needed for research and development, innovation. But we have created a society that focuses on immediate pleasure, to be obtained by individual and competitive action. Moreover this is combined with a focus on entitlement: my flexibility, my rights, my prerogatives, … The idea of personal obligation towards the other has waned. So we are in bad shape.
The new world of we still allows for individual initiative and success. It applauds people who take on endeavours that create value. The new world of we allows for differences between people, but not for unjust inequality. The new world of we defines justice as fairness, like John Rawls did. It has no tolerance for people who ruthlessly take advantage of others. And it has compassion for those who are weaker. It has no tolerance for those who abuse social care systems or who do not put their talent into action.
But I am skeptical. The current model of the world is not that of interdependency but of independency. Looking at what made the West into the example for so many nations and cultures, Niall Ferguson, defined six killer apps: competition, science, property, modern medicine, consumerism and work ethic. Some of these killer apps are now causing the western world to break up. Competition has been the basis for progress in science, innovation, … but it has led to very destructive behaviours as well. Consumerism has led to a certain kind of prosperity but it is based on growth and depletion of natural resources and ecological devastation. And the problem is, that we cannot easily stop.
The new world of we might be the answer to many of the problems that humanity is facing. But there is one issue. We have to step in that new world together. And there’s the challenge. If we cannot evolve together towards a state of interdependency, and if we continue to excessively value independency and competitiveness above the social aspect of humanity, we shall not make it. The new world of we will be based on coöperation and togetherness. But like the sociologist Richard Sennet says in his book Together, coöperation is a skill. It takes an effort. And not everyone has the talent for it. The superficial communities of the web are caricatures of what the new world of we could be.
Interdependent companies in the World of We
Companies suffer from the old world of me. In times of networking, co-creation and intertwined economic processes the behavior linked to this old world is potentially harmful. Companies can join the new world of we by
- involving employees more than ever; by focussing on what connects people.
- creating policies that foster inclusion of people, employability, …;
- developing practices of corporate social responsibility that are more than mere ethical window dressing or social tourism;
- getting involved in local communities;
- sharing know-how with people through networking, buddy-systems, open systems;
- offering chances to people who have maybe a less privileged background and a difficult access to work;
- focussing on the long-term and sustainable development and not the short-term maximisation …;
- joining networks that have a common purpose that exceeds the company’s interests;
- focussing on the personal accountability in a collective context.
Even with this new focus on the common, attention needs to be given to the person. By providing a context that enables people to experience professional and personal success, companies also contribute to the new world of we. Success must be meaningful. And what’s important: by focussing on togetherness and interdependence, companies will develop a sustainable competitive advantage.
In all this dialogue is crucial. It’s a choice.
Fergusson, N (2012). The West and the Rest. London, Penguin Books.
Senett, R. (2012). Together. The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. Yale, University Press.
Sloterdijk, P. (2012) interview in De Groene Amsterdammer.
Thatcher, M. (1987). http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=106689