Can’t read a map or add up? Don’t worry, we’ve always let technology do the boring stuff

The dystopian novels of the last century were mostly filled with terrifying visions of the rise of technology – a genre of which we are still to tire. Charlie Brooker’s hugely successful Black Mirror series in which technology kills, maims or subjects people to terrible fates will have a seventh incarnation this year.

But just for balance, just for once, I’d like to see a dystopia in which humans of the 2020s are catapulted into a world equipped only with the technology of a few decades ago. The repetitive domestic chore. The mind-numbing assembly-line job. The tyranny of a thousand paper forms to fill out by hand, post and file.

In 1949, the year George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four, the simple task of washing your clothes took, for many people, half a day’s grind. Thousands in the UK toiled in factory jobs in which their value came down to the ability to complete a simple arm movement. Accountants wore out their eyes and bored themselves stupid over endless pencilled columns of numbers. Even since 2011, when the first Black Mirror series came out, shopping, doing your taxes, booking train journeys and a thousand other dull tasks have been made simple and frictionless.

Fiction reflects cultural anxieties at large. Last week, the Times’ Matthew Parris lamented the skills being lost to information technology: map reading, handwriting, mental arithmetic. Our ability to remember any information that can be Googled is often added to such lists. A second concern is that automation is making our lives less healthy, and more artificial. And then there’s the big one: the worry that tech is replacing us at work, and will do so in ways that will make us less fulfilled and less equal. These fears deserve a challenge now and then. Let’s look first at the concern that we are losing skills to tech. This is true, but it has been true since the invention of fire and the chopping tool. All kinds of skills have fallen by the wayside in the course of our journey, to be replaced by others.

There are some jobs that robots will never be able to do as well as humans: care work, teaching, therapy, hairdressing

Modern humans have been raised on the idea that the ability to do mental maths and commit lots of facts to memory is vital – and, moreover, a sign of intelligence. This might explain why we fret about preserving these skills even as they become less useful. But letting computers do the job won’t make us stupid. It may instead free up mental space for different kinds of thinking: more creative, perhaps, more essentially human.

This leads us into the second worry – that technology is inevitably leading us into an un-human, artificial, unhealthy kind of life, away from the lives we were “meant” to lead, or evolved for. This is the idea you see captured in a take on the March of Progress image: in the stages of evolution from ape to man, Homo sapiens eventually straightens and stands upright – before he acquires a smartphone and begins hunching again. Is this so inevitable? The historian Yuval Noah Harari has theorised that the process of making life “unnatural” started much earlier, at the dawn of farming, a time some technophobes tend to treat with nostalgia.

Farming bullied our bodies into tending fields and lugging water long distances, work we were not meant for, and which took a toll on our spines and insteps. Later, the rise of writing, numbers and the need to record large amounts of information bullied our brains into unnatural patterns. Instead of free association and holistic thought, he writes, these swathes of new clerks and accountants started to think like filing cabinets.

All kinds of human skills have fallen by the wayside in the course of our journey, to be replaced by others

In fact, employers were treating workers like machines long before there were robots to do the job. What if AI and modern tech is taking on the tasks that humans were never suited to in the first place? It is at this point, though, that people tend to voice the third and biggest worry: that this is all very well but how will we adjust as AI eats up vast sectors with millions of employees? What about earning a living?

The economist Oren Cass has a compelling answer for these concerns. He says they suffer from bias: the idea that this technological revolution is somehow unique, when we have lived through many epochs of innovation and upheaval. They also overestimate the pace of change (robots are a long way off from competing with humans in many areas) and assume that new kinds of jobs will not be created in the process.

Then, there are some jobs that robots will never be able to do as well: care work, teaching, therapy, hairdressing (who would trust a robot with scissors near their ears?), work that involves comforting, understanding and communicating with other humans, work that requires non-linear, creative thinking. Perhaps these jobs will get a deserved boost in pay and status.

Perhaps, as our understanding of mental health develops, we will start valuing and seeking different sorts of work. A report last week from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education showed that “heritage” jobs such as stonemasonry and wool grading are making a comeback among the young: as finance and service jobs become less certain, they seek careers with meaning and cultural connection.

Will this utopia happen, though, or will we end up in some future horror story? Well, that is up to us. Tech dystopias tend to assume humankind will somehow be run over by tech, as if it were some natural disaster over which we had no control. That’s a fiction we should resist.

Martha Gill is an Observer columnist

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