The fourth industrial revolution: Why Tom Watson believes we shouldn't fear the future

Written by
Karam Filfilan

03 Jul 2017

03 Jul 2017 • by Karam Filfilan

“People are worried about the risk of robots taking their jobs. I fear with this Prime Minister, it’s already happened.” Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson’s zinger to Theresa May was remarkably prescient, given the results of this June’s general election, but it also hinted at an interest close to the heart of the West Bromwich East MP, over his 16-year political career: the impact of technology on jobs, media and daily life. 

Currently shadow secretary of state for culture, media, and sport, Watson is probably best known for his involvement in unravelling of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, where as a member of the Culture and Media Select Committee, he was instrumental in bringing revelations about illegal phone-tapping into the open. The social impact of digital technology has always been a prime concern for the MP.

As the first minister for digital engagement, he established the Power of Information Task Force in 2008, to develop the government’s technological capabilities, with the aim of making the political process more transparent. An avid user of social media (he has more than 229,000 Twitter followers), Watson was one of the first MPs to blog and is a keen gamer, currently “obsessed” with role-playing action game Destiny.

“I am terrifically excited about how technology can give fulfilling lives to the next generation,” enthuses Watson. “You can’t stop technological change and you wouldn’t want to, as the benefits could be fantastic for everyone.

However, the wave of change in the fourth industrial revolution is unique in that it seems to be creating a ‘winner-takes-all’ economy, where in some sectors, millions of jobs are going to be displaced or removed.

“Not even the most rapacious capitalist wants that. What we need is a state intermediary partnering with organisations to look at things like ethics, how we upskill our children and how we tax. It needs to be a partnership,” he adds. 

Is automation impacting human autonomy?

To this end, Watson has created the independent Future of Work Commission, bringing together business experts, economists, philosophers and trade unionists to examine emerging trends and how technologically driven change is transforming the world of work – both positively and negatively.

In the Commission’s second public evidence session, Dr Kirsty Newsome, reader in employment relations at the University of Sheffield, examined what she calls the ‘Amazon effect’. With online shoppers now regularly expecting next- or same-day delivery, what effect is this having on those charged with meeting this demand?

Dr Newsome tracked the delivery process from warehouse to letterbox, identifying technological interventions along the way. She found that warehouse employees were required to wear devices that monitored their every move, linked to computer-generated targets that didn’t take into account factors such as age or level of fitness.

Subject to intense monitoring, employees were reprimanded for spending too long on a given task – and in some cases for taking too long in the toilet. Dr Newsome concluded that while technological advances in the logistics sector had allowed business to extract extra productivity, it had also removed all autonomy and satisfaction from employees’ jobs. “I think if you ask the owners of those companies ‘would you like to wear a device that suggests you spend too long on the toilet?’, they would all say ‘no’”, says Watson.

“At the moment, they’re getting an edge because they can get employees to spend 30 seconds less on the toilet, but is it right? How is the proliferation of measuring devices impacting an individual’s mental health, sense of satisfaction and their dignity? There is no institution dealing with this and it seems to me that there needs to be a piece of work – cross-party – that looks at this.”

With the logistics sector employing two million people and contributing £55bn to the economy (5% of UK GDP), why has the political class been so slow to acknowledge and implement policies that protect employees from the pursuit of hyper-efficiency through technology?
For Watson, the bewildering pace of change means policymakers are constantly striving to understand where technology will impact next. They’re reactive, rather than strategic.

“Three years ago, I’m not sure how many Uber drivers were on the streets of London, but now there are 50,000 [Uber doesn’t release driver numbers, but ex-CEO Travis Kalanick predicted 42,000 London drivers for 2016]. The change is so dramatic that central government doesn’t even know what’s going on, let alone adapt to it,” he says.

The future workforce

A 2016 report by Deloitte entitled Automation Transforming UK Industries suggested that 35% of all UK jobs have an element that could be automated. It’s not just the manufacturing and logistics industry struggling with the future, it’s all sectors. Technology will continue to change the way we work, and yet our education system continues to teach children many of the same skills as decades earlier.

Watson believes the only way to combat job losses from automation is to reskill people so they can do the jobs of the future. 

“Automation provides the opportunity to liberate us from the more mundane aspects of work. Many of us could spend less time doing jobs we don’t like and could create a fairer and kinder society, with wealth and opportunity shared. That’s the sort of society that my party was founded to create,” he says. He believes that putting an increased focus on creativity at the heart of our national curriculum is key to encouraging the next generation to embrace the possibilities of future technology, rather than getting bogged down in monitoring and efficiencies. After all, this is a generation of digital natives, connected to the internet from childhood.

Watson recalls how his daughter, now aged 10, learned phonics using an iPhone app, which asked her to run her fingers around a letter before pronouncing it. If she got it right, a sound rang out, congratulating her. Playing on the iPhone meant she began school already knowing her letters.

“When you have all the facts and figures ever created by humanity at the end of your fingertips on your phone, memorising the date that Charles I was executed might not be as important as before. So, how children interact with each other, their emotional intelligence, collaborative working and resilience to new ideas becomes more important,” he asserts.
But haven’t we always wanted our children to be more creative and for technology to set us free from mundane tasks?

“Yes and no. When I was growing up in Kidderminster, you needed certain technical skills to make carpets, which is a semi-skilled trade. Back then, there were 30,000 people working in thecarpet industry. There are probably less than 30 now.

“So the skills people gained back then allowed them to become great weavers or dyers in a carpet factory, but not to leap into other fields as technology developed. The pace of change is even quicker now. That’s why we’ve got to grow creativity in the next generation of workers, not just technical skills,” he says.

Watson believes technology is not something to be feared, but embraced. For business, it can create new jobs, automate some of our more mundane tasks and is fundamental to driving our economy forward. For individuals, it provides new ways of learning, slicker communication and more options in life.

“Ultimately, technology gives us an exciting future. I truly believe that. When it comes to robots, artificial intelligence, big data and the fourth industrial revolution – I can’t wait to see what humans invent next.”

Watch Tom Watson talk about the future of work

Watch Tom's full talk about technology, the future of work and his love of gaming at our Future Talent Conference. 

Or, watch him sum up his talk in our quick Q&A below.