In this guest post, BOP associate (and novelist) Tom Campbell examines the effects of technology on the creative industries and their workers.
A two-sentence history of the British working classes over the last half century goes something like this: a combination of technology and international competition transformed Britain’s traditional manufacturing sectors, and led to a dramatic contraction in the size of the industrial workforce. The labour movement, its weakness compounded by government policy, was unable to resist, resulting in lower wage inflation and a generation of mass unemployment.
At this point, of course, many economists and policy makers will describe the upsides to this story: how the UK economy was able to restructure and prosper (up to a point and at least for a while) through high-value services. The role of manufacturing was displaced, and instead well-educated, highly skilled professionals working in sectors such as finance, business services, ICT and, of course, the creative industries became central to the economy.
So what happens next? The global financial crash and recession has made it difficult to distinguish between immediate distress and more long-term challenges. But beneath the noise, there are growing indications that those same forces that proved so destructive to the British working classes are starting to inflict comparable damage on the rest of society.
To put it bluntly, it seems that high-skill occupations can be mechanised and outsourced in much the same way as car manufacturing and personal finance. In recent decades, we have become accustomed to the notion that manual labour in the UK has been rendered obsolete, uncompetitive or poorly paid. But are we now prepared for the same thing to happen to skilled labour, to white-collar workers, to the creative classes?
Already, some of the country’s most prestigious occupations are under threat. There is commercial software that can analyse legal contracts, and medical diagnostic tool-kits which have been shown in trials to be more effective than qualified doctors. Earlier this month, a banker friend on the point of retiring, who has spent the last twenty years lucratively analysing equities, told me that there is now a desktop application that can equally well do everything he has done for his clients – and which can be downloaded for free. And what can’t yet be mechanised can be done at a fraction of the cost by the graduates coming out of India, China and elsewhere.
Are there any reasons why the creative industries should be different? Is there intrinsically anything of a higher quality about the work of a UK designer or film editor that cannot be done faster and cheaper elsewhere? Much is often made of the ‘creative process’, but it is just that, a process, and as such, it can also be an algorithm. And while politicians have spent the last fifteen years celebrating creativity, and economists have tried to measure it, computer scientists have been getting on with understanding and replicating it.
It may still be some time before robots are writing novels or painting pictures, but it is striking how many of the UK’s most high-profile creative industries have already been automated. In music, for instance, it is disquieting how easy it now is to produce a record of commercial quality. To learn to play, let alone compose, a piece on the guitar or piano would take most people years of dedicated effort. But with readily available software on a standard laptop, and a few days of instruction, it is possible for bedroom record producers to generate and aggregate all the components of a perfectly reasonable pop song.
Similarly, film and television can be considered a branch of the IT rather than the entertainment industry. The UK’s well-established strengths in editing, post-production, special effects, animation are all central to modern film making, and the studios in Soho are filled with a highly accomplished workforce. But with every passing year, the machines are getting more powerful, the software more intelligent and the skills to use them less demanding. Even the performers are no longer indispensable in the way they once were. Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that actors should be treated as cattle has been superseded: in the era of George Lucas and James Cameron, they are no more than images to be scanned into a computer and manipulated with software packages.
Industrial design in the UK largely went the way of industrial production, offset by a rapid expansion in graphic design to meet the demand for logos, brands, websites, publications, advertisements and screen interfaces. But the amount that can be charged for these activities has fallen. The tools to make such products, and the skills to use them, are commonplace, as the entire world acquires the expertise. It now makes as much sense to insist that your website is made by a British design agency as it does to hire a building company which doesn’t use migrant labour.
In all of these industries it is increasingly the digital tools themselves, rather than the people who use them, where the power, intelligence and creativity now resides, and using many of these applications becomes no more than clicking through a series of menus and agreeing to recommended choices. While the business rhetoric of the last twenty years has been fixated with ‘the war for talent’, the modern creative professional is becoming increasingly like the machine operator of the Victorian industrial economy. The value of a modern creative business, such as it still is, has much to do with its brand, marketing and sales capabilities, its clients, distribution chains and intellectual property. But it has relatively little to do with its human capital.
This is best shown by the way in which creative businesses actually treat, rather than talk about, their employees. Although the creative workforce is highly educated, it actually has the characteristics of the unskilled service sector: uncertain career progression, low levels of investment in training, precarious working conditions, eroding wages, and the endemic use of unpaid interns and casual labour. Does anyone believe that these are industries in which the workforce is valued? Nor do they have the bulwarks of other white-collar sectors: very few creative occupations require professional qualifications, and trade union membership, with certain exceptions, is negligible. There would seem to be little protection from the winds that once decimated British manufacturing.
It is almost exactly two hundred years since the textile labourers known as Luddites began to rampage the countryside wrecking the mills and machinery that were threatening their livelihoods. In the decades that followed, violent attacks on the navvies, the immigrant Irish labourers undercutting British workmen, became commonplace. On the streets of Hoxton, the artisans of the digital economy are not yet pouring lattes down the back of Apple Macs or joining the English Defence League. But much of the creative class – the designers, editors, producers and programmers who have been so lauded in recent years – may now stare down at their computers with trepidation, and wonder if the tools that they have become so dependent upon, and the global markets which have so expanded their reach, may also prove to be their undoing.— Chris Gibbon