Back in late 1970s and early 1980s, the advent of the synthesizer in pop music was an early forerunner of the coming digital age. Early “Synth” bands like Kraftwerk and Gary Numan envisaged a cold, technocratic future where music – and life – would be programmed, not created. “Are Friends Electric?” asked Numan, in his typically wintry number 1 single.
And how wrong they were.
One of the great paradoxes of our digital, computer-driven society is that has led directly to a much more feminised culture. Early phases of automation replaced hard and dangerous physical labour and at the same time released women from the drudgery of household chores. These trends, plus the banning of sexual discrimination in employment, allowed the formal economy to exploit a hitherto under-utilised resource – women’s generally greater empathy and social skills. As women advanced in the workplace and in spending power, society started to shift accordingly – the process of feminisation had begun. In parallel to this process, a second – and perhaps even more powerful – ‘feminising’ influence has been the rise of an insufferably smug, spoilt and narcissistic Metropolitan elite, made up of both sexes, that has completely captured the commanding heights of our culture.
It took society around a decade from asking whether infuture friends would be electric to understanding that the future was in fact female, and no doubt it will take us just as long to really understand the ramifications of the coming 2nd machine age, too. However, whether the process of feminisation will continue in the age of the learning machine is one of its most fascinating questions: whereas earlier phases of automation affected mostly male-dominated manufacturing jobs, this phase seems set to replace many of the service jobs done by both sexes.
For instance, as retail moves inexorably online, the art of selling is being replaced by the cold efficiency of the recommendation engine. Rather creepily, these are already set to become ‘emotionally intelligent’ courtesy of the new science of customer emotions, based on mapping human feelings to big data. More significantly still, ‘robots’ are on the verge of passing the Turing Test, which theoretically would allow them to compete on near equal terms for jobs requiring at least low-grade social skills, for example call centre or reception work. In future, we will all experience our own “Turing moment”, when we realise only half-way through a conversation that we are not speaking to a human*.
So is the future still female? – for now, probably yes: despite the rise of all those mighty male-dominated tech firms, my own hunch is that the feminisation of our culture has some way to run, but that its dominance as the great social issue of our times is clearly starting to fade, replaced instead by concerns, foronce probably justified, that whole tranches of the lower skilled will find themselves entirely redundant.
And “Are Friends Electric?” No, but perhaps Numan was just before his time.
*Recently I had a conversation with Apple technical support that informed me, in a broad, fluent, Scottish accent, that it was an automated service capable of understanding complete sentences. Apple was plainly aware that many would think they were speaking to a human. I recognised it as a machine, but only just.