Revisiting the Arguments of Richard and Daniel Susskind
I decided to launch this blog late in the summer of 2015. One of the catalysts was a book called The Future of the Professions bv Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, a father (lawyer)-son (economist) team who live and work in England. The book was not yet published in the US, but I had received an advance copy.
The book is highly informative and in many ways fascinating. It is also provocative, and not surprisingly I disagreed with several of its key claims. Some months later, when I decided to write a lengthier essay on the same topic, I devoted part of my discussion to a brief summary of their argument and mentioned some of my misgivings.
Any doubts that I may have had about the power of the Internet were dispelled when, barely a week later, I received a note from the Susskinds themselves. Though we did not know one another, they had apparently learned of my critique through social media. They were making a trip to the United States—their book was now available in the US as well as the UK—and they expressed the hope that we could meet. My wife Ellen and I invited them to our home for brunch. Richard and Daniel turned out to be delightful guests, and we discovered many ideas, experiences, and persons whom we had in common.
Our conversation over bagels and lox also helped me to understand better our areas of agreement and disagreement. It is hard to dispute their point that digital technologies (e.g. powerful apps that can do one’s taxes or suggest an appropriate medical diagnosis and treatment) can make available a degree of expertise that ordinary individuals all over the world could not afford to hire and might not even be able to access. Indeed, various apps help almost everyone, while others are especially helpful to those who cannot afford the high fees charged by professionals in law, medicine, and other high-status occupations. I also agree with their point that many professionals—we talked particularly about individuals in law and accounting—are best thought of as business people whose loyalty now is directed toward the profitability of their respective companies and not, alas, to the founding values of their profession.
It’s important to separate the following questions:
1.) Are the predictions of the Susskinds likely to come to pass?
2.) If they do materialize, should we be pleased or distressed?
As to the first question, the Susskinds have made a convincing case that many if not all existing professions will be fundamentally disrupted by the powerful new technologies that have emerged in the past few decades. These technologies will make it possible, at a fraction of the present cost, for ordinary persons to have access to knowledge and services that until now were available only from other human beings (called professionals), who typically charged large sums for their services. It’s not clear which vendors will provide these services and whether these vendors will be reliable and trustworthy, but there is little doubt that the services will be widely available and frequently accessed.
It is by no means clear whether these trends will abolish all present and all conceivable future professions or instead lead to the creation of new professions. As an example, while they are not yet dubbed as professionals, technology specialists—such as those who control servers—have tremendous power, possibly amplified by the fact that their identities are currently largely unknown. It is conceivable that the rise of cyber-society will introduce a whole new set of professions and professionals who manage data, algorithms, hardware, software, privacy, and the like.
Also, as I argue in my original essay, not only are we unable to predict the effectiveness of various digital entities; we also cannot predict the kinds of problems and possibilities that may arise within and across nations. Issues ranging from climate change to digital warfare to the migration of huge populations to the lengthening of the life span may require all sorts of new human expertise which could well congeal into new professions.
It is also possible that, if most ordinary work comes to be done by digital entities, more attention will be directed toward creative activities, particularly in the arts, and to new and complex face-to-face social interactions among human beings. Both spheres could conceivably spawn new forms of professional expertise.
Turning to the second question, I’m persuaded that many individuals, particularly those without means to purchase expensive services from other human beings, will be better off obtaining those services from various technologies. In this sense, I am a utilitarian—the greatest good for the greatest number.
But I continue to have other concerns. First of all, human society has always depended upon work—the sweat of the human brow of the laborer as well as the furrowing of the brow of the professional. It’s not clear that, as a species, we will easily come up with an acceptable substitute. (I believe that the Susskinds share this worry.)
Second, I worry about who will be designing these platforms, apps, and technologies, who will “own” them, whether the designers and their products can be depended on (indeed, whether they’ll behave in a professional manner!), and what happens should the various new technologies point users in opposite directions… is there a “master” algorithm to consult? As the Romans put it, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (“Who will guard the guardians?”) Perhaps there are advantages to “muddling through,” a process that will be lost in a completely digitized society.
Finally, and this is central to the theme of a blog called “The Professional Ethicist,” the true professional—even though she may be rare and getting rarer—represents a remarkable human achievement. I stand in awe of individuals who devote years to mastering an area and use their expertise to serve others in a disinterested way, over a long period of time, without much attention to personal wealth or prestige or power, and then seek to transmit expertise and exemplary values to younger acolytes. I want to live in a world where it still matters to say of someone, “She is a real professional!”
I close by thanking Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind for their exemplary collegiality. They kindly accepted an invitation to speak at the American Philosophical Society, and I am likely to be a commentator. Conversations central to this blog are likely to continue for some time to come.
This is the sixth in a ten-part series in which I respond to the comments received regarding my essay “Is There a Future for the Professions? An Interim Verdict.” To follow along, click here for a general outline of the planned responses, and check back often for new posts!