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This material comes from CBC Radio’s Ideas program and the documentaries were produced by CBC Radio. Click here to access the original article produced by Jill Eisen and Greg Kelly, first broadcast September 2017.
The future of work has become one huge, nerve-wracking question mark. Technology was once believed to be our deliverance. We’d be working shorter hours, and about the only stress we’d have would be to figure out what to do with all our leisure time. But technology hasn’t quite delivered on that promise. We’re working longer hours, there are fewer jobs and and a lot less job security. In Part 3 of her series on the future of work, Jill Eisen looks at the promise of technology — and how it can lead to a better world.**This episode originally aired September 27, 2017.
Technological change has always provoked both utopian and dystopian visions of the future. The economist John Maynard Keynes seemed to invoke both when he published his short essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren in 1930. Although it was the depths of the great depression, Keynes predicted that new technologies would eventually revolutionize the lives of working people.
Keynes died in 1946. He never got to witness the computer revolution—which really took off in the 1960’s. That was another period filled with both fear and optimism about technological change. I was a university student back then. The huge mainframe computer on campus occupied a room the size of an auditorium and it took three days to get the results of a problem. But even in those days people foresaw big changes ahead.
One of the big books on campus in the 60’s was One Dimensional Man, by philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The book was a scathing critique of consumer capitalism. It also imagined a world where technology would free us from drudgery, and liberate us to reach our true potential.
It was an enticing vision—and back then it seemed entirely possible. The economy was booming, labour unions were strong, the welfare state was expanding and the digital revolution was just taking off.
But that was the 1960’s. The 70s brought a recession, and the 80s brought the Thatcher/Reagan era. And we all know what happened to the vision of less work and more leisure time: it never happened.
There’s no going back to the golden age of capitalism of the 1950’s and 60’s. But our technologies give us the potential to create a far better future. One that’s environmentally sustainable and one in which we have the time and financial security to do what really matters to us.
There’s of course no blueprint for a utopian future. Each country, city and community will have to blaze its own trail through democratic processes. It won’t necessarily be easy, and it may involve years of political struggle.
But ultimately, if that’s the kind of world we want for our children and grandchildren, that’s what it would take. – Jill Eisen
**The interview with Evelyn Forget is from the IDEAS episode The Illusion of Money (September 21, 2016) by Anik See.