Farewell the fair go in 21st century Australia?

By Sandy Plunkett

Thursday June 28, 2018

Global communication network and AI (Artificial Intelligence) concept.

We can’t even imagine 21st century policy for Australians if we don’t know the particulars about the pros and cons of the digital and AI-driven era, says Sandy Plunkett.

Labor MP Anthony Albanese opened his recent Gough Whitlam Oration with an ode to his late mentor, parliamentarian Tom Uren and the much-loved Aussie notion of the ‘fair go’. It was the second speech in as many months where Albanese put the egalitarian philosophy front and centre of his vision for Labor and the nation.

“The ‘fair go’ is an Australian phrase that is beautiful in its simplicity and where two words encapsulate a deep philosophic belief,” said Albanese. “Too often such phrases lose all meaning through overuse. But Australians understand what the ‘fair go’ means.”

We can expect issues of fairness to pop up frequently in coming weeks and months as we head toward five by-elections and the next federal election. We’ll hear much about low wage growth, tax cuts and trickle-down economics, big business and corruption, insecure work and dropping home ownership rates.

What we won’t hear, from either Labor or the Coalition is any nuanced exploration of one of the biggest threats to the Aussie practice of the fair go – the winners-takes-all structure and momentum of the 21st century digital economy.

In the past 30-40 years of neo-liberalism globally and 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth domestically, the twin engines of globalisation and the technology revolution have thrust upon us a global digital culture where we willingly, or slavishly, jack into a vast and manipulative system of algorithms created by a handful of increasingly powerful – and non-Australian – technology giants.

Living with a high degree of automation

Much of what will happen in the next decade and beyond is driven by technological trends and laws that are already set or are in motion; trends and laws that Australians had little to no role in shaping. Given this reality, it would be prudent to consider in advance how we can live in the near and long term with a high degree of automation.

Seven of the top ten of the world’s biggest companies by value are technology companies. A decade ago, only one made that list. With head-spinning speed and ruthless pragmatism, these companies leveraged the exponential power of the internet, populated it with a plethora of connected devices, services and data algorithms, and ushered into our lives a scary new world of big data, constant surveillance, cultural polarisation and increasing economic inequity.  Through both deliberate design and unintended consequence, popular digital platforms and services treat people as small elements in a huge information machine.

As a nation, we are far less prepared for the ongoing socio-economic consequences – both seen and unseen – of the digital and AI-driven economy because not only have we had almost no role in creating it, relatively we have paid scant attention to it.

This should be very disturbing for a nation that values the notions of fairness and egalitarianism in our social contract because in an era dominated by ever smarter tech and the propaganda of efficiency and productivity (along with projections of the loss of an estimated 40 per cent of traditional jobs), fairness has had virtually no place.  It’s not the overuse of the fair go adage that’s the problem. It is that fairness outcomes are under-delivered in policy planning and development.

“In Australia and across the globe, thousands of remote computers are constantly refining secret models of who we are.”

And it is not just our political leaders who pay lip service to technology’s accelerated and uneven impact on our lives and economy. These themes are still rarely discussed and debated among our intellectual elite, our mainstream media and among most of Australia’s baby-boomer leadership generation.

Last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that Australia is among countries with the highest growth in income inequality in the world. The top one percent of Australians own more wealth than the bottom 70 per cent of Australians combined; wages are stagnant or declining; property ownership now a pipedream for many.

Today’s and tomorrow’s technology potentially intensifies the uneven distribution of wealth. If you want to see the current malaise of societal fracture and inequality rise to a whole other level, we had better look more closely at the incredible advances in digital platforms, AI and robotics. The digital revolution is now accelerated by the combinatorial effect of ever powerful computer chips supporting “smart” algorithms and sensors, purpose-built chip chips and networks – and it scales like nothing we’ve ever seen before in any other technologically-driven economic shift.

Why we need ‘humaneness’ at the centre of it all

Without policy that puts “humaneness” at the centre of all this capability, we are in for one hell of a trip to an unrecognisable and murky place.

Devising effective, fair 21st century policy is extraordinarily difficult. Leaders and policy makers in most countries are grappling with digital era issues of privacy, the future of work and fair pay.  But in Australia, any solutions will most certainly miss the mark unless we bring the issues and tools of the tech age out into the open.

In Australia and across the globe, thousands of remote computers are constantly refining secret models of who we are. Whether they are consumer-facing services like Google and the much-maligned Facebook, or more hidden capabilities like high frequency trading (or robo-debt algorithms) is a matter of semantics.

As renowned American computer scientist and artist, Jaron Lanier wrote in his confronting book Who Owns the Future?:

“In either case , the biggest and best connected computers provide the settings in which information turns into money. Meanwhile trinkets tossed into the crowd spread illusions and false hopes that the emerging information economy is benefiting the majority of those who provide the information that drives it …

“Maybe digital technology won’t advance enough in this century to dominate the economy, but it probably will. Maybe technology will then make all the needs of life so inexpensive that it will be virtually free to live well and no one will have to worry about money, jobs, wealth disparities or planning for old age. I strongly doubt that. Instead, if we go on as we are we will probably enter into a period of hyper unemployment and the attendant political and social chaos. The outcome of chaos is unpredictable, and we shouldn’t rely on it to design our future.”

Today’s tech is anything but neutral. But we can’t even imagine 21st century policy for Australians if we don’t know the particulars about the pros and cons of the digital and AI-driven era. How could we when we don’t apply ourselves to the pursuit of understanding it, let alone building and commercialising it?  And changing that requires a deeper dive and detailed analysis by people other than those who have a vested interest and are not captured by the system.

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