Tech revolution spells big changes for workers

PHOTO: Tech revolution spells big changes for workers

SINGAPORE - The global technological revolution has evolved to a point where we live in a "hyperconnected" world that is also increasingly interdependent, according to The New York Times' foreign affairs columnist and author, Thomas Friedman. This has profound implications for companies and workers, creating new opportunities but also new challenges, even for individuals.

Mr Friedman was speaking during a day-long forum yesterday entitled "The Next New World", which he anchored. Held at the Four Seasons Hotel, the forum commemorated the rebranding of the former International Herald Tribune newspaper as the International New York Times.

A prolific writer on technology and globalisation in both columns and books, Mr Friedman noted that whereas the invention of the PC in the 1980s allowed individuals to author their own content in digital form for the first time, the spread of the Internet in the 1990s enabled it to be transmitted everywhere virtually for free.

Thereafter, the emergence of workflow software such as Google Apps and Microsoft Sharepoint allowed people to work collaboratively online; and search engines made it easy to locate content. In more recent years, applications such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype enabled people to connect with each other and share as never before, at virtually no cost.

The emergence and spread of mobile and high-speed broadband wireless dramatically expanded the scope for doing all of this. Other developments such as cloud computing, crowd-sourcing and Big Data (the collection and processing of large data sets) brought about further advancements in knowledge creation, storage and sharing.

We are at "a Gutenberg moment", Mr Friedman said, referring to the invention of movable-type mechanical printing in the 15th century, a revolutionary technology at the time which enabled knowledge to be disseminated widely at low cost, and opened the way to mass communication.

The technological changes of our time have profound implications for workers, said Mr Friedman. He noted in particular that:

"The age of 'average' is over": every company now has easy access to above-average cheap software, above-average cheap labour and above-average cheap products and services. This means those who work for companies "must find and justify their unique value proposition, and demonstrate why they should be hired or retained."

"If what you do now is all you've ever done, you'll be below-average in the new world," he said.

High-wage middle-skilled jobs are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. The high-wage jobs of the future will be high-skilled.

Workers are like immigrants to the new world. "To succeed, everyone needs to think like an immigrant" - to find and pursue opportunities and to think entrepreneurially.

Workers must also act like artisans, bringing unique value to whatever jobs they do. Persistence and curiosity will count for more than intelligence; there will also be a "motivational divide" - those who have the persistence and grit to seize opportunities will benefit, while those who don't will be left behind.

"The world doesn't care about what you know," he said. "The world cares only about what you can do with what you know."

During another session at the forum, Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology drew attention to some potential problems arising from the science-fiction-like technological changes of our time. One is that the benefits of technology may not be evenly distributed.

"As technology races ahead, some people can be left behind," he said.

The economic impact of technology can also be mixed. Whereas in the past, output, wages, jobs and productivity grew more or less in tandem, now they are diverging. For example, in some rich countries, wages are going down and not enough jobs are being added, even as output and productivity are growing.

But Mr Mcafee pointed to two reasons to be optimistic overall. First, interconnections between people will expand dramatically. "Billions of people will have access to computing power, and to each other," which will significantly add to the brainpower the world can harness.

And, second, "we really now have access to artificial intelligence", in the form of, for example, expert systems that can provide medical and legal services, vehicles that can drive themselves and the use of Big Data to diagnose and treat diseases.

He noted that the new technologies can also be harnessed for negative and even criminal purposes. "The bad guys will take advantage of them too," he said. "But I have more faith in the good guys than in the bad guys."

Get The Business Times for more stories.