You might not have noticed but I’m British. I know. I hide it well. The sense of entitlement. The colonial platitudes. The thousands of dollars a year spent on skincare products to protect my translucent skin. It helps that hotel staff often think I’m Anglo-Indian, greeting me with a hearty ‘Good morning, Mr Amritaj’. But I’ve never felt quite so British and so sad as I did last month when my countrymen voted to leave the European Union.
Don’t fret. This is a tech column, I’m just taking longer to get there than usual. I wasn’t born a European. The UK only joined the EU in 1973, the year after I was born. Back then, the UK was one of the poor men of Europe; stymied by economic and industrial stagnation, wedded to the industrial ideas of the previous century.
Back then, the UK was one of the poor men of Europe; stymied by economic and industrial stagnation, wedded to the industrial ideas of the previous century.
Neighbours like Germany were adopting many of the business and technological innovations that were propelling the US and Japan forward at breakneck speed. You only have to look at the national car industries of that period to see what was going on. Germany had its sleek BMWs, Audis and VWs. France had its futuristic, if not flawed, Citroen DS. And Italy was churning out items beauties such as Ferrari all through to FIATs. The UK however, with the MINI aside, was producing monsters like the Austin Allegro and the Morris Marina that looked like they’d been designed in Soviet Russia.
But we changed. We joined Europe. We learned. We sold Rover to China. And the rest of the car industry to India and Germany. The cars may not be British in the truest sense, but they are good, which most people accept as a reasonable compromise. Forty years on and there’s a sense that we’ve come full circle, with the rise of neo-fascist parties and popular assumptions that Europe and foreigners in general are ruining the country.
Stay with me now—and feel free to disagree—but I think that what the UK was looking for wasn’t Brexit. It was Techxit™. People are happy with their smartphones and tablets and superbleedingfast Internet. But they didn’t understand the implication of computer chips so cheap you could put them on food labels.
The same technologies that are making our lives easier are also making it harder to earn a stable living. How many of you or your friends are now driving for Uber or Grab-Car part-time? For the first time, the middle classes need a second job just to survive. We like to think that these shocks are specific to our own economy but there’s a global contraction in employment underway that will only increase over time.
The same technologies that are making our lives easier are also making it harder to earn a stable living.
Manual labour is being outsourced abroad or replaced by machines of all shapes, sizes and intelligence levels. Skilled professions like law and accountancy are being challenged by web-based services using machine-learning databases. Even the medical profession is under pressure from diagnostic tools and surgical bots that are simply better than humans at the process of curing people.
Of course, you’re not going to blame an app running across multiple servers in Amazon’s cloud for your economic woes. Far easier to blame politicians for being out of touch, for letting too many foreigners in. It’s their fault. They took the jobs away. It’s easier to forget that the foreigners were doing jobs you didn’t want to do until progress made you obsolete.
The same pattern is running across the US and other parts of the world. Populations turning inwards, focusing their energies on the ‘enemy within’ while external forces reshape their world. We like to think of these technocrats as being venal, corrupt and unforgiving, but, while some are undoubtedly tossing empty champagne bottles from their Gulfstream jets with a horsey laugh, other parts of Silicon Valley are watching these changes with horror.
While they press ahead with business empires that make billions but employ almost no one, these guys are researching radical policies like Universal Basic Income that would enable the majority of the world’s population to receive a basic salary for doing… nothing. Sounds crazy? The logic is simple if untested: the innovators and entrepreneurs should be able to generate enough money to pay everyone else not to work while the technology they create brings living costs down.
Still, it didn’t happen fast enough to stop Brexit. It might not stop Trump or the dozens of other populist movements springing up around the world. And until technology can show us a new way forward, otherwise decent, normal people are going to continue to jeopardise their future by voting Techxit™.