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The Driverless Road Ahead

by Kumara Republic

For the past decade and a bit, I've been working as a computer technician and sales rep. During that time, I've seen the desktop and laptop computer go from being the main method people get on the Internet, to an also-ran in the face of the tablet and smartphone boom. And when your tablet or smartphone goes bung, it's often cheaper to replace them than fix them.

The result is that the computer technician is in danger of joining the TV repairer as a “rust belt” occupation. Low and middle-skilled workers who've been, or are at risk of being, dislocated out of work by external factors keep getting told, “just go back to university” or “learn to code from the Web” or “network with the right people”.

I hate to break it to all the I'm-alright-Jack motivational snake oil peddlers out there, but it's nowhere near that simple. When there's a 10-tonne lead-weight of social immobility on top of you and it's too heavy to lift off by yourself, it needs an external force to lift it unless you're a comic book superhero. And anyone saying, “if you believe in yourself enough, you can lift it off you!”, is asking for rude words to be thrown at them.

First off, here's a backgrounder. For a fuller explanation, see my blog post from 2012.

Early on in my life, my folks knew I was behaving a bit differently from others, family members included. And yet it took them many years to realise what kind of different – an ASD/SAD/ADHD kind of different, quite possibly PDDNOS.

I was an aliterate (as opposed to illiterate) youth who struggled with secondary school English class – even though English is my first language – and was frequently nagged and harangued by my mother to read more books. Ironically, I get a kick out of writing social commentary like this, despite no formal journalism training – and the Internet has a likely role to play in this – and even maintained a blog once.

Being the pushy Asian parent stereotypes of the time, they sent me to private school in the belief that the smaller classes would make a difference and get me a passport to an “Ivy League” career. Such as accountancy, one of the squarest of occupations, which my father has a background in and attempted to push me into in the hope of continuing some kind of “family business”. Upon being made a Chartered Accountants fellow earlier in this decade, he stated in his address that, “I regret that none of my kids have followed me into accounting. I guess IT and medicine will have to do.”

What I got instead from private school was no end of torment from Boris Johnson and Don Nicolson wannabes who punched down for the fun of it. And when I fell behind under the dual weights of arrogant young toffs and the immense pressure to succeed, my folks doubled down and basically had me “tutored to death” and sent to taekwondo lessons whether I liked it or not, not realising that such measures were attacking the symptoms.

When I asked why I was being sent to taekwondo, they told me it was “to increase your confidence”, when it had no effect of the sort. Safe to say that if I was Japanese and living in Japan, I would have joined the ranks of the “hikikomori”, a great many of whom are on the autistic spectrum or variants of it. Even “basement dwellers” in the West are social animals in comparison.

I was briefly one of those “basement dwellers” for a good few months after acutely bombing out of university finals, not once, but twice, and being forced to move back in with the folks after the money ran dry. All attempts to cross-credit to a tertiary institution closer to home proved unsuccessful, because of the proprietary nature of the course – a major in information science – and also because the HOD didn't want to “dumb it down”.

It was at that point I made the difficult decision to cut my losses.  Three different tertiary institutions later, I came to realise the hard way that the whole notion of “university or bust” is a recipe for a sunk-cost fallacy and a lifetime of debt for many, especially those not suited to self-directed learning.

Even the one polytechnic that I went to was little different from the theory-heavy material I struggled with at university. Some people speak of being the first in their family to graduate from university; I can only speak of being the first in the family to drop out.

And when the job market basically treats bachelor's degrees as the new secondary school, there's a problem. It seems to be largely an issue in the Anglosphere where tertiary education has seemingly devolved from a public good to a perishable good. Where people once attended university to expand their minds, people now attend university because they feel it's the only way to citizenship of the middle class – “diploma mills” are a visible symptom of this. If there's one thing I do miss about university, it's the campus life and the chance to meet many people from all over the world. And a strong academia is an important part of opposing populist anti-intellectualism.

Now to the here-and-now.

As it stands, much of my lifetime earnings have been subsidised by MSD, and I'm also partly relying on the charity of my folks who are topping up my living costs out of their pension, which, admittedly, not everyone is fortunate enough to have.

This is partly in recognition of taking a sizeable pay cut in order to qualify for a Community Services Card, which gets me greatly subsidised surgery for a rare and pre-existing dental condition – I went through something of a Trumpcare-grade experience until I was able to qualify for the card. And it's partly a gesture of apology for repeatedly misdiagnosing my neuro-deviance, trying to force the square peg that is yours truly into a round hole with a bigger hammer, and not recognising early on that I'm on some form of the spectrum and the associated difficulties with the job market that come with it.

In fairness, Dr Asperger's research wasn't translated into English until the mid-late 1980s, and it's taken some years to gain acceptance since. I may not be a “hikikomori”, but I'm still something of a “herbivore man”or a “freeter” in Japanese terminology.

I'm far from alone in facing the prospect of being on the wrong side of industrial singularity. Truck drivers are a case study in this – researchers estimate that self-driving trucks could slowly but surely render human drivers surplus to requirements. The Economist asks what becomes of the middle-aged, mid-career truckie who was bored stiff in the classroom and couldn't wait to quit school. I'm kind of like the desk equivalent of that mid-career truckie.

Even Bill Gates of Microsoft fame has called for a “robot tax” to dampen the impact of technological unemployment. The Internet is a double-edged sword – it's broken down the barriers to accessing information and media globally, and for a “digital native” like me it's heavily shaped the person I am today.

On the other hand, Instagram's employees number less than 1% of those who worked for Kodak at its peak, while the business is worth far more. And not everyone can be a gadget genius like Elon Musk or a code genius like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, who came from family affluence to begin with and for whom money was no obstacle to going to university.

For every Zuckerburg and Gates who chose to quit university to focus on building their future tech empires, there are countless university dropouts who struggle and eventually wind up in a dead-end rut. Fear of failure has long been a cultural trait in East Asian societies, whereas in the West it's more a practical thing. For all the stories of successful entrepreneurs failing once and getting back up, failure is often so expensive for the less financially secure, that it really is Sydney or the bush for them.

Repurposing workers who've been dislocated by technology and other external factors – or more to the point, rent-seekers who own most of the technology – becomes increasingly important. When you have your hands full keeping food on the table, a roof over your head, and the lights and heaters on, the time and money needed to upskill yourself is often an unaffordable luxury.

And for all the hype surrounding MOOCs and nano-degrees – with completion rates well under 10% – the above Economist article on truck drivers points out that most people who actually manage to complete a MOOC already have a university degree or otherwise can easily afford to take time off to study:

The costs of reskilling, in terms of time and money, are easiest to bear for people who have savings, can control their working hours or work for companies that are committed to upgrading their workforce. And motivation is an issue: the tremendous learning opportunities offered by the internet simply do not appeal to everyone.

For those unsuited to the self-directed approach of university or Web learning, myself included, an immersive and practical vocational approach like the one found in an apprenticeship is overwhelmingly best. The rapidly changing nature of an industry like ICT makes it far more suitable to trades training than university study.

The single biggest stumbling block to a “Great Repurposing” that can retrain people for new industries is that it's not going to come cheap, and under current Anglo-Saxon model economic thinking, it's very easy to shout, “how much will this big government tax-and-spend nonsense cost hard-working taxpayers?” A better question to ask would be, “what's the cost of doing nothing about the coming 4th Industrial Revolution?”

And such a cost has become all too obvious in just the last few years.

The Anglo-Saxon model status quo set in place by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s has been turned on its head by the Great Recession. The subsequent taxpayer bailouts of Wall St and the City of London have exposed the unresponsiveness and hypocrisy of the austerity narrative, and stoked perceptions that the hyperclasses can get away with daylight robbery.

Some forewarned that the pitchforks would come out, but they weren't taken seriously. Mainstream social democrat parties that have clung to a late 1990s Blairite/Tory-lite approach have found themselves ideologically hamstrung and severely punished at the polls – known as “Pasokification” – in favour of leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and parties like SYRIZA and Podemos to their left flank. Crank that up to 11, and you have Venezuela under Chavez and Maduro.

On the other side of the fence, illiberal and inward-looking jingoism is threatening to fill the void left by the collapsing New Right consensus, as seen in Donald Trump's America; the Brexit vote as cheered on by faux-maverick Nigel Farage; and Marine “trust me, the NF is longer anti-Semitic” Le Pen in France. Taken to its logical extreme, you're looking at France in 1789, Russia in 1917 and the Weimar Republic in 1933, all of which directly led to the deaths of millions. Here in NZ, we're unlikely to face war or civil unrest, but we still face the possibility of Winston and Shane holding the balance of power and replaying 1996 all over again.

The rise of Trump has been directly tied by some commentators to America's massive under-investment in vocational training and the associated social immobility, and the flipping of most of the Rust Belt states to the GOP for the first time in years.

The OECD ranks America and Britain, with NZ not much higher, near the bottom of the heap for active labour market adjustment policies. Even the likes of the IMF and World Economic Forum are starting to notice the connection between perpetual austerity and the rise of illiberal populism.

Leaving aside the ugly ultra-nationalism, Trump's pledge to strong-arm American industry to bring jobs back to America has so far rung hollow, with major companies like Carrier and Ford continuing to offshore to Mexico and China respectively. Trump also wants to prop up Big Coal at a time when it's being undercut by natural gas and renewable energy, the latter of which Trump seems to think of as for poncy treehuggers. By contrast, coal mining and oil drilling have an inherent red-blooded machismo that happens to be a big part of Trump's base.

A number of commentators argue that middle-class cultural anxiety, rather than working-class economic anxiety won it for Trump. One rationale is that Trump-style demagogues still made visible gains in Western Europe, despite having strong social safety nets and highly progressive taxation. Yet at the same time, Euro-Trumpists have largely failed to actually make it into government. It's possible that Trump was a wake up call to Europeans about what a Trumpist demagogue would actually look like in power.

Another rationale is that Rust Belt voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 stayed home or went to third parties like the US Greens and Libertarians, rather than Trump. Dig a bit deeper, and union-busting and voter suppression also played a big role. All the same, economic anxiety and cultural anxiety can be both interlinked, as well as confused with each other. The last thing any of us want is for the both of them to merge into something even worse, as Europe in the 1930s goes to show.

So what lies on the driverless road ahead? Thankfully, all is not lost.

The social enterprise Specialisterne is in the process of setting up shop in New Zealand. It has its origins in Denmark with Thorkil Sonne, an ICT pro whose son was diagnosed autistic and wanted to harness the unique traits of workers on the spectrum who were written off by the job market. Studies done in Britain and America have estimated that unemployment rates among those with ASD are as high as 80% – far higher than those with visible disabilities such as deafness or paraplegia.

Factors that inherently discriminate against autistic jobseekers include poor sense of eye contact, being “too honest”, and many other issues involving verbal communication. Specialisterne recognises this state of affairs, and assesses and trains them for companies needing the right people, particularly in the tech sector.

Many of the new jobs being created these days are non-routine jobs that are not easy for machines to do (such as management) and/or require greater social interaction than the ones they replace (such as care-giving). It puts at an inherent disadvantage the autistic, the social phobic and other “socially challenged” people who would have once worked routine industrial jobs that didn't require much social contact.

From a quick glimpse, the Future of Work manifesto takes considerably after the Scandinavian and German models of training and jobs, and sounds like a viable alternative to the Anglo-Saxon I'm-alright-Jack orthodoxy.

So how is it relevant to me personally? It includes proposals to retrain workers who've been put out of work by advancing technology, who would otherwise be in no financial shape to retool themselves. How very Scandinavian, and for good reason. Aside from the bread-and-butter aspects such as boosting R&D and STEM, closing the digital divide, and returning MSD to an actual jobs agency, the following aspects are relevant to me personally:

  • E14 – Establish skill-shortage levies to fund training in industries
  • E17 – Support hop-on, hop off training
  • E18 – Create gateways back into education for older New Zealanders
  • S1 – Every worker who loses their job as a result of technological change provided retraining and support
  • S14 – Advocate for better work practices for mature workers and engage them through mentoring programmes
  • S18 – Develop an employment plan for people with disabilities
  • T4 – Create greater focus on digital upskilling and creativity
  • T5 – Invest in creators through digital apprenticeships, creative thinking clubs, and garage grants

It's very easy to dismiss the Future of Work as just another talkfest at best, or an excuse to rehash the “Polish shipyard” bogey at worst. But it's an issue that goes way beyond partisan politics. And the longer the status quo persists, the more likely the Good Ship New Zealand may encounter a Brexitrump iceberg, barring a miracle and those in charge of the status quo step out of their leafy comfort zones and put the greater public good first.

I strongly believe programmes like the Future of Work are seawalls that can guard civil society against the tidal waves of ultra-populism, and more importantly, it's the politics of hope – a blueprint for a new social democratic pathway that echoes Michael Joseph Savage's “applied Christianity” and FDR's New Deal.

As with their physical counterparts, let's build bridges to upskilling and gainful employment, not walls.

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