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Luddites of the 21st Century Unite, Revisited

Some years ago I wrote a post on the fact that I saw the world automate fast and did not see a lot of people worrying about the consequences for their lives. Nobody was smashing automated production lines. Smashing smartphones and laptops. In fact, embrace of new technology by the masses probably never before in history went this fast. Several and very different causes, including globalization, have led to a level of wealth that made these expensive tools and toys within reach of a vast number of people.

Now, early on in 2017, it seems that discontent is all around. The hatred for institutions, experts, politicians, immigrants, the views of “others”, etc., is raging through societies leading to decisions and outcome of elections that, taken at face value, are not what rationality would dictate or even expect. It is time for change. In the following, I will try to provide a way forward from the defeatist future many see in front of us. First a sort of inventory.

The times they are a-changin’

Jobs are disappearing and not just by moving them to cheap labour countries, no, the cheapest form of labour is a machine doing the work of humans. A company like Philips has already moved production back from China to The Netherlands for a fully automated plant. So the work is back, but not the labour. I always wonder who is going to buy that product when everyone is out of work because of work replacement? Owners and shareholders do not benefit from no or little sales.

Isolation and nationalism lead to “me first” in everything. So in the end also to an Internet with high tariffs, little and expensive access, and the end of net neutrality: in other words, the much-feared fragmentation of the Internet, “Balkanisation”, is around the corner more than ever. Now it may be true, as a Dutch economy columnist wrote this week, that it may offer all sorts of opportunities for EU companies that are now without chance against major U.S. multinationals. It was not his favourite outcome but at best second best.

Is this the way then that the Internet and its related products are being smashed by 21st century Luddites? Through a movement of democratically elected parties and individuals who, taken from their thoughts and actions, are not so democratically inclined. An analogy with the early 1930s is necessary to make. It was the complacency of German politicians and industrialists that gave Hitler and his NSDAP the option to rule and then let him abolish democratic institutions to install a dictatorship within weeks after being given power. That complacency is all around again. Ideology has withered, capitalism in his loosest form is harmful to most people, religion has withered. Many people don’t belong to anything anymore, except perhaps as supporters of a team, where they see bored millionaires run after a ball here today, gone tomorrow for greener, pardon me, financially more attractive pastures. For many, this situation hurts them in ways that are hard to explain, but there seems an urge to belong with many. Nationalistic organisations can be seen as a substitute.

A change in the workplace

We live in a world that is in transition. And that is scary. No one knows where we are going to wind up. In the past years, I’ve been able to organise workshops around the theme of changing societies. No matter what experts were involved, no one saw answers, no one saw new jobs around the corner. The new jobs that have always come with transition. Yet they are announcing themselves undoubtedly. To find answers we have to listen better to industries that are in the middle of the transition. If anyone knows what these new jobs are, then it must be here.

For years I am hearing the Dutch technical community saying we have a total mismatch between demand and supply where students are involved. I heard it first in 2012 or 13 and now in 2017 things seem to have changed little. So what are the demands that change, the transitions taking place in our society and industry, asks for of our educational system? What curricula are in demand? And how do we make our children, our workforce of the future understand that it is important to take the courses and classes that will lead to jobs, instead of being educated for jobs that soon do not exist anymore? I know parents who seriously fear whether their children will ever hold a meaningful job.


In those same workshops elected members of parliaments stated that they do not see a vision of that future being discussed in their respective parliaments, that their colleagues do not grasp the transition we are all in. If this is the case, who is to lead before it is too late?

These are giant questions that need to be answered. The current discontent comes from uncertainty, the loss of jobs with no, meaningful, alternative in sight. Add to that the, stirred up, fear caused by the mass influx of refugees and the acts of terrorism. The result is a dangerous brew that drives people towards populistic politicians profiting from and heightening that discontent while feeding that fear without offering any actionable solution to any of the underlying problems.

Leadership comes in twos

It is all nice and fine to be negative about all this, but that does not make sense. So what are the alternatives? Politicians, assisted by their underlying force of policymakers, are chosen by the people to lead. It is time they do so, but not without the urge and assistance of those in the know. With the right information, it is possible to change for the better.

Together tracks can be selected that assist people to new jobs that are in line with the demand. With the right information, societies must be able to create curricula, courses and classes that match current demand. And when we are at it, together we must be able to define policies on what is acceptable online and what not. Together we can make a serious start on how to make the Internet a safer place for all. Together we can… (fill in your favourite here).

It’s time to start thinking outside of the box, outside of that safe silo, even a little will make a difference. All developers around the Internet are doing that constantly, disrupting existing structures by the day. So all involved can learn here. If relevant parties do not step forward and start cooperating, the democratic world may step into that state of complacency soon and the result may be something I simply do not want to be involved in. So let’s get to work for the better.

By Wout de Natris, Consultant internet governance

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