Flat White

Technology and the coming revolution in Australian politics

29 July 2020

5:00 AM

29 July 2020

5:00 AM

“In terms of crisis, people are generally blind to everything outside their immediate necessities.” — Albert Einstein, The World As I See It 

The management of COVID-19 will dominate public policymaking for the foreseeable future. 

Beyond COVID-19, there is however a major political realignment coming to Australian politics. 

Political realignment will not be driven by future pandemic concerns, climate change politics nor our relationship with China. 

The driver of this realignment will be technology and there will be two factors behind the realignment. 

These factors will be the economic impact of technology and the increasing existential ramifications of technology.  

These simultaneous economic and existential challenges are on a scale unique in human history. 

The debating points around the impact of automation, digitisation, robotics, and artificial intelligence on employment and the economy are well known. The only consensus though in terms of the impact is that there is no consensus. 

For the record, I subscribe to the pessimistic view in relation to the impact of technology on jobs for one reason. Agrarian job losses in the first industrial revolution were offset by the factory worker jobs created. This time around that option does not exist.  

The farm and the factory are both being automated. Additionally, the Australian service economy is already being automated through chatbots, workflow management software and voice recognition technology. 

Ironically, the “jobs of the future” are also vulnerable. 

If you are coding the algorithms behind the automation driving the job losses, you will likely be made redundant by advances in ai over the next twenty years. 

You can disagree with the concepts of universal basic income, a negative income tax or a robot tax, but we need to start thinking seriously about managing the looming employment and economic dislocation caused by technology. This employment and economic dislocation are being accelerated by digitisation during the COIVD-19 pandemic. 

The existential challenge is much more complex and divisive. 

Over the past century, various philosophers and political scientists have attempted to address the existential questions posed by technology. Some of the leading thinkers in this area have included Martin Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, and Francis Fukuyama. To quote Fukuyama: 

“The experience of the twentieth century made highly problematic the claims of progress based on science and technology. For the ability of technology to better human life is critically dependent on a parallel moral progress in man. Without the latter, the power of technology will simply be turned to evil purposes, and mankind will be worse off than it was previously.” 

The existential questions around technology are no longer the preserve of radical academics or polymaths.  

The major religious faiths are increasingly focused on the existential issues concerning technologies such as ai and the genome editing tool CRISPR. 

The Vatican is now fully engaged in this existential debate. Pope Francis raised ai at Davos in 2018. In 2019 the Vatican convened a conference entitled “The Common Good in the Digital Age” and in February 2020 the Pontifical Academy for Life convened a workshop at the Vatican entitled “The ‘Good’ Algorithm? Artificial Intelligence: Ethics, Law, Health.”  

Given the world remains overwhelmingly religious, technological advances pertaining to existential matters are problematic. However, over the next twenty years, this dynamic will shift. A younger population more comfortable with transhumanist principles, reduced religiosity and the commercial interests of the technology sector will be behind any shift. 

Existential debates are never conducive to compromise, but are tailor-made for polarisation. 

The rise of emerging technologies such as ai and CRISPR will not deliver a post-ideological era but will define a new one. This will require new political philosophies and will force both Labor and Liberal to adapt to this new reality. 

Neither party is currently well-positioned to address both the economic concerns of workers and the existential concerns of faith-based communities. Historically the former has been the weakness of the Liberal Party and the latter has been the weakness of the modern Labor Party. 

If you were to launch and build a new Australian political party to reflect the politics of 2040 and the constituencies concerned with the economic and existential challenges of technology, what would it look like? 

A new political party would appeal to two major constituencies, these being the union movement and non-unionised workers displaced by technology and organised religion. Why? 

The economic impact of Covid-19 on a casualised workforce and growing technology-driven job losses will likely strengthen the union movement over the next decade. 

The Catholic Church and other religions will become increasingly engaged with the existential issues posed by technology over the next decade. 

The Liberal and Labor parties will have no choice but to adapt to the increased influence of these two key constituencies or face a new challenger to the two-party status quo. 

Illustration: Eugène Delacroix/Musée du Louvre.

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