It is the global network of networks that connects us to the lives of others through myriad applications from email and texting to Facebook and Badoo. It informs us, entertains us, educates us and brings products and services to us faster and cheaper than ever before, even before package-delivering drones take to the skies.
The internet is the most visible part of the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution that is creating new companies, new industries and new categories of employment. It allows organizations, whether companies or city governments, to understand their operations more clearly, to reduce waste and duplication, ferret out corruption and serve their users better. It gives voice to the voiceless in our own nations as well as distant lands and creates new opportunities for humanity to reduce the toll of poverty, disease and violence.
But not every change is for the better. While informing us, the network offers a perfect platform for spreading lies at a speed that leaves truth in the dust. ICT creates jobs, companies and industries – but it also damages or destroys others, from brick-and-mortar retailing to recorded music. While connecting the rest of us, the internet empowers terrorists and disturbed individuals – not to mention authoritarian governments – and increases the destruction and fear they can spread.
In our daily lives, ICT transforms employment, and does it at a pace and scale that every advanced economy struggles to cope with. As it changes everything from the check-out counter to biological research, it has made education, from the general to the highly specialized, the onramp to a living wage. What was once the “education premium” – the extra earning power gained by graduates from university – has become an education discount: a severe loss of earning power for those with only a high school education.
The future holds only more challenge. Automation was once about the factory floor. It replaced workers doing routine manual jobs with machines that never grow tired or sick, and never need a raise. As software grows ever more powerful, however, the definition of “routine” work keeps expanding. Call centers, once a growth sector for low-to-moderately skilled citizens, now greet us with robotic voices. The young, expensively trained lawyers passing the bar each year cannot find work, because the traditional entry-level jobs involve legal research that is done faster and cheaper by computers.
To stay ahead of automation, all of us must invest in the continuous broadening and improvement of our skills and work experience. The factory worker must master digitally-controlled equipment. The coffee shop barista must learn how to keep the Wi-Fi humming, and the physician to include diagnoses suggested by software into the art of healing.
This obligation is not just personal but civic: towns, cities, state, provinces and nations must reinvent education, make it more available, portable and affordable. Because as much as our citizens try to stay ahead of the automation wave, they can still find their careers disrupted by change far beyond their understanding or control.
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