The so-called Luddites (the textile workers who took up arms against the innovative machines of the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England) are not simply a phenomenon of the past. Back then, as now, doubts about the advantages of technological developments pervaded social discourse, with an incipient trade union movement aspiring to unite the working class to defend itself against its capitalist “oppressors.” On the table were the economic benefits that automation would bring to the looms (including concepts often mentioned today, such as “efficiency” and “time to market”) coupled with the impact on actual employment that each machine would generate. Thus, the manual workers who were initially displaced by technology joined forces and decided to sabotage, with sticks and hammers, what modernity had created. It was only the beginning.
Today, there are new topics on the table. Regardless of whether or not digitalization helps the overall employment rate, other variables such as privacy and third-party control have exacerbated the potential answers. This is where digital transformation and political strategy come together, in two areas that might seem at odds with one another but are in fact perfectly compatible. How far are the powerful willing to go in their quest to control the population? And how far are citizens willing to compromise?
Let’s start with employment. The population enjoys many of the advances provided by the digital world, such as a broader range of products and services, significantly lower prices, greater speed and simplicity, and the availability of much more information. Conversely, they may perceive that the jobs that were once the work of people are now being done by machines and come to the conclusion that this is the reason behind the rise in unemployment. Yes, the initial effect of consolidated digital transformation in a traditional company is, in fact, to reduce the headcount required to perform the same amount of work as before. (I can personally recall the outcry from staff in the back office of a large Spanish company when they realized that the “efficiency” of the new digital process would result in some layoffs.) It is often the case in such situations that, after the learning curve and development cycles, fewer people are needed when a new system “settles in.”
However, with this new end-to-end process, the price of what these companies sell should go down and, therefore, demand should rise (as a standard response by the law of supply and demand that drives markets.) As a result, society as a whole has access to products and services that were previously only the privilege of the rich. This leads to the questions: who will satisfy this new demand? And who will design and deploy these machines on the production line? The answer is that new “traditional business” companies come forward to cater to this increased demand and start-ups and consultancy firms also emerge to provide technology to other companies. To give a hypothetical example, if six workers were needed to manufacture and sell a product before, now four employees may be enough to manage the robots and programs that run production.
However, it’s important to remember that the economy no longer wants just one product but is now hungry for many more. This means that engineers will be required to develop new software and new consultants required to recommend the best solution for each company. In other words, the six employees who were previously in one company manufacturing one hypothetical product now work in several different types of companies in the value chain, delivering various types of goods and services. On a net aggregate level, no jobs have been lost. Less-skilled workers, though, have had to retrain to adapt to the new situation, especially those in charge of routine tasks or those that can be easily automated. In this regard, countries such as South Korea and Japan, two of the three countries with the highest rates of robots per employee in the world have, in turn, enviable unemployment rates (2.3% in the case of Japan and 3.9% in South Korea.) Southern Europe would be delighted to have either of these automation or employment rates, not to mention at the same time.
Millions of pieces of data are blindly and blissfully handed over by users, the majority of whom remain unaware of their personal exposure and the government’s capacity for surveillance.
If we jump from here to the political sphere, there are two temptations related to the digital revolution which I have overheard in more than one conversation with representatives of different political ideologies. The first comes when the governors who aspire to sell technology as being beneficial for the country’s industrial and economic fabric, are also anxious not to miss out on the “additional benefits” that cutting-edge technology brings. Millions of pieces of data are blindly and blissfully handed over by users, the majority of whom remain unaware of their personal exposure and the government’s capacity for surveillance, whether it be the tax authorities or the police. No state is yet willing to relinquish this golden bullet to control the population and hunt down the “bad guys.”
Logically, all developed countries have made a firm commitment to the intelligence that these new technologies offer. Privacy? It is explained to the electorate, and rightly so, that it is to fight terrorism, tax fraud, and criminals. It is even suggested that this data has statistical applications. (In Spain, however, a huge controversy was sparked when it was revealed that the National Statistics Institute was going to buy anonymized data from cell phone lines to draw mobility patterns). The boundaries, on the other hand, are just a click away: for example, when the opinions of voters begin to be deemed as crimes, as is already happening in more than one “democracy” in the world.
The same platforms that have multiplied access to information and entertainment are the ones that host our private opinions and interactions, and users are prey to a possible misuse or even a self-interested leak. This is in addition to the risk of potential cyber-attacks on the other systems where our personal details are also hidden in plain sight, such as CRMs and ERPs. Our interlocutors in a public sector project assumed that until citizens (and SMEs) truly understood the damage that data thieves can cause, millions of euros must be invested regularly in “awareness” campaigns. In the meantime, the pirates continue to gain ground and some governments have already organized real hacker armies to fight on the new battlefield.
It is against this background that the second “electoral” temptation may appear: that of politicians who want to capitalize on (and even spread) social discontent and the legitimate doubts of citizens about digital advances. If there is already fake news about the supposed microchips that COVID vaccines inoculate in our bodies, why shouldn’t the protests against digital transformation be a new source of votes? So far, there are not many legislators openly defending a supposed “involution” towards the analog economy. But the controversy surrounding the big players has gained widespread traction in public opinion, particularly in light of the poor working conditions of their employees coupled with their dubious tax practices that help them avoid contributing to the public coffers of the countries in which they operate. Yet, rather than a criticism of the digital nature of these companies, people seem to be more against their colossal size and the excesses they can commit as a result. In fact, citizens continue to use the services of companies such as Amazon, Uber, and Apple on a massive scale and switch smartphones with unprecedented frequency.
Anti-digital discontent has not yet taken hold, nor has it provoked an organized population uprising in the purest Luddite style, but the sources of social anger could spread rapidly and, who knows, some political party could justify violence of this kind. It certainly would not be the first time that a party has used the dirty work of terrorists for its own benefit. The issue could lend itself to a gripping action thriller.
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