National borders are dissolving, with millions of jobs moving to cheaper parts of the world. Meanwhile computers are taking over roles from finance to law. Is this the birth of Earth Inc?
When an American software company discovered an open connection between their headquarters and a mysterious location in China, managers were alarmed. Concerned that hackers been using malware to steal confidential information, they launched an investigation.
What they found was not a security breach, but something far more surprising. An enterprising employee had given a Chinese consultancy firm access to his login details. In return for a fraction of his salary, Chinese workers completed his work while he whiled away time watching videos of cats.
The nameless man became an instant internet sensation. But in fact, he had simply taken advantage of an economic truth that multinational companies are exploiting on an enormous scale: by exporting jobs to countries where living costs are low, it is possible to get the job done just as well while paying far lower wages.
This process is called ‘outsourcing’, and it has transformed the global economy. Because the internet makes transferring information so easy, there are few disadvantages to moving jobs abroad.
Today £70 billion worth of labour has been relocated to developing countries, and the growth of multinational corporations has increased cross-border trade flows tenfold over just thirty years. This, says former US politician Al Gore, is the birth of ‘Earth Inc.’
But revolutionary as outsourcing is, there is another trend that may transform the world even more: robosourcing.
Recently, the powerful Swiss bank UBS fired one of its top traders.
His replacement? A computer. Today, supercomputers use hugely complex algorithms to trade millions of pounds worth of stocks in mere milliseconds. Their operations are so complicated that it takes humans months to discover the logic behind what this technology has done.
Almost nobody’s job is safe from the boom in technology.
Robots, says one expert, will soon replace ‘lawyers, accountants, financial executives, even managers’.
And now software enables computers to analyse data and turn it into prose: even journalists may soon become extinct.
Two hundred years ago, machines began to take over the work of building and manufacturing. In the 20th Century, factory farming mechanised agriculture too. Now, computers are capable of thinking independently and responding to their surroundings. If even these tasks are removed from human hands, what will be left for us to do?
Across the developed world, unemployment rates are rising – and it may be more than just a temporary blip. As production becomes dominated by machines, the only people who stand to benefit are the people who own those machines.
Around the world, from China to Russia to Britain, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very few. In the USA, 50% of all capital gains income goes to the wealthiest thousandth of a percent.
We may be heading for a future in which all industry is owned by a global super-elite technology, whilst everybody else is left by the wayside.
Would this really be so terrible? With technology doing all of our work, ordinary people will be free to devote their time and energy to pursuing whatever life they choose. Absolute freedom from toil and obligation: it is the future that humanity has dreamed of ever since humanity has dreamed.
But is this really what we want? Socially, economically and politically marginalised by an all-powerful international clique, some predict that our lives will be stripped of meaning and control. Without power or purpose, the ‘freedom’ we crave will prove nothing but a hollow, worthless shell.