Don’t believe the hype: work, robots, history

Michael Weatherburn – Resolution Foundation

This post introduces a longer paper which takes the idea of understanding the future by reflecting on the past to a new level. The central argument is that digital technologies have been influencing and shaping the industry sectors it examines for a long time, and that that experience strongly suggests that the more dramatic current forecasts about the impact of technology on work are overblown.

The paper’s strengths come from its historical perspective – and, unusually for this topic, from being written by a historian. It is very good on the underlying trends driving changing patterns of work and service delivery and distinguishing them from the visible emanations of them in web services. It does though sweep a lot of things together under the general heading of ‘the internet’ in a way which doesn’t always add to understanding – the transformation of global logistics driven by ERP systems is very different from the creation of the gig economy in both cause and effect.

The paper is less good in providing strong enough support for its main conclusion to justifying making it the report’s title. It is true that the impacts of previous technology-driven disruptions have been slower and less dramatic to manifest themselves than contemporary hype expected. But the fact that hype is premature does not indicate that the underlying change is insubstantial – the railway mania of the 1840s was not a sign that the impact of railways had peaked. It is also worth considering seriously whether this time it’s different – not because it necessarily is, but because the fact that it hasn’t been in the past is a reason to be cautious, not a reason to be dismissive.

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