Are we all expendable?

If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that technology keeps on changing. Moore’s Law dictates that every 18 months it either becomes half as cheap, or twice as powerful; hence, it’s significantly more available and useful.

Whilst we herald in the age of the upgrade, with each of us clamouring for the next big thing – the latest gadget over which we can fetishise – there’s seemingly a lurking menace creeping in through the back door. Technology might be solving many of life’s problems, but it’s also creating problems of its own.

Nowhere can this be better seen than in the seemingly indomitable feud between Transport for London (TfL) and the London Underground workers’ unions that is currently bringing much of the world-famous tube network to a complete stand still. The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), are out on the picket lines for (at least) two, 48-hour strikes over the next month, striking over proposals set out by TfL late last year. The proposals, which would come into effect sometime in 2015, set out plans for 24-hour tube services at weekends on most tube lines, Wi-Fi in more stations, payments using contactless bank cards, better disabled access and, new and improved trains and stations. More controversially, at least for the unions, the proposals also include plans to shut all ticket offices across the tube network, and redeploying at least some of those staff out into ticket halls and on to platforms; this could mean up to 750 job losses across TfL.

Politics aside, the changes outlined to TfL once again highlight a spectre that has been looming over tube workers for some time; that is, with technology becoming ever more capable of performing complex tasks, are TfL’s people becoming, essentially, expendable?

The dispute between TSSA, RMT, and TfL leadership isn’t one that’s actually been created by a political game; it’s been created by TfL’s ability to understand technology, and an attempt at benefit realisation.

It’s a simple fact that TfL, like many other service providers, no longer needs people to perform many of the basic services that customers on the tube network now require. In a world where customers can top-up their Oyster online and have it debit their bank account instantaneously; where they can swipe themselves in and out of a ticket barrier in less than a second; where they can check the status of the network using their smartphone more quickly than they can be told over a tannoy system; and where trains can – at least theoretically – drive themselves, what use is a human being? Technology is now so pervasive on London’s transport system, so frictionless, and – most significantly for both TfL management and for customers – so cheap compared with a face-to-face interaction, why wouldn’t you opt to throw all your eggs in one basket for a total technology revolution on the Underground? It’s pretty clear that it’s technology that has caused this strike.

Of course, this isn’t an issue specific to the tube network, it’s one that’s been apparent across manufacturing industries, service industries, and even in government, as Digital by Default becomes the service standard from this year. The UK Government estimate that by switching transactions with a customer from a face-to-face interaction to a technology-enabled ‘digital’ interaction, they can reduce the cost of that transaction from £10, to less than 10p; figures like that should be striking fear into staff in ‘low-skilled’ service roles. If those figures are correct, and services can be delivered at the necessary scale and low-cost base to achieve them, there are likely very few service-type jobs that will be completely safe from the continuous march of technology into every area of our lives. TfL isn’t alone or unique in trying to source cheap and frictionless ways of delivering services, and TSSA’s and RMT’s members aren’t the first to be facing job losses because of enhancements in technology – nor will they be the last.

This process isn’t apocalyptic by any stretch. Whilst many will, and do, see their jobs threatened by these technological developments, other jobs are created at the same time. Staff might not be needed to process every ticket and transaction behind a desk in a TfL station from 2015, but when the inevitable happens, and services fail to work, staff will be needed to support customers; for every job that is lost through technological advancement, others are created to maintain that technology. There is a solution to the expendability of low-skilled roles, and that solution is learning, training and continuous professional development.

In 2014, we can’t afford not invest in learning and development, and specifically, in the development of skills for the digital age. When a member of staff in any organisation is threatened with displacement because of technology, it presents an opportunity that is ripe for exploitation. I don’t know where the responsibility falls to make sure that this member of staff is adequately trained to move into new roles for the digital age, but the end result must be the same – individuals must be given the skills to succeed in a role that is enabled by or supports technology, where before they were the technology. If as a society, we can manage to exploit the untapped potential that an technology-augmented workforce might bring, that’s when we see the real benefits of technology for everyone – business, government and customer. That’s when, as individuals, we move from being expendable, to indispensable.