Three-hour workday by 2029?

The prediction by British economist John Maynard Keynes intrigued 90 readers atThe Big Read Meet with Austrian sociologist Helga Nowotny

Austrian sociologist Helga Nowotny sharing her insights with readers at The Big Read Meet.
Austrian sociologist Helga Nowotny sharing her insights with readers at The Big Read Meet.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Financial consultant Davin Boo was wondering earlier this week how he should advise 14-year-old students of Nanyang Girls' School here on Thursday, as a member of its parenting panel.

The students' question for him was: How do I be what I want to be?

Mr Boo, 47, is married with a 17-year-old daughter and an 11- year-old son. He has been volunteering at the school, which is his daughter's alma mater, for the past four years.

Stumped for an answer, he attended The Big Read Meet on Wednesday evening to pick the brains of its guest speaker, Austrian sociologist Helga Nowotny, who was there to talk about her new book, The Cunning Of Uncertainty. In it, she shows how to be resilient amid constant disruption and argues that forecasting is useless.

Towards the end of the two-hour event, Mr Boo posed the girls' question to her, to chuckles from his 90 fellow readers.

Professor Nowotny, 79, a divorcee with a daughter and two grandchildren, replied: "Fourteen-year- olds are going through puberty and they see the world in a different way. They think adults have become completely stupid.

"I would tell them, 'You are at a very interesting point in your life; you are finding yourself. It will not last.'"

She added that they should "try to get out of puberty" in a way that would make their parents proud.

The Vienna-based don is Professor Emerita of Social Studies of Science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland's answer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); and also co-founder and past president of the European Research Council, an independent body that supports top scientists globally.

Since last year, she has also been a visiting professor at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) here. She was in town this week for The Big Read Meet and a two-day workshop on big data in Asia.

She is also a board member of the Berlin-based Falling Walls Foundation, which spurs innovation, and to which NTU students will pitch their ideas, such as making coffee cups out of hair, for the first time on Nov 9.

After reading passages from her book, she noted how, in 1929, the Students' Club of the University of Madrid invited British economist John Maynard Keynes to speak there. The club expected him to shed light on The Great Depression then.

But, she said, he surprised them with the "puzzling prediction" that by 2029, those in advanced countries would be so well-off that they would work only three hours a day.

She recalled that because she was currently "most concerned" about how rapidly machines were replacing people in all sorts of jobs, including investment banking, lawyering and seeing patients.

When economist and Meet regular Hans Schniewind, 57, asked her how likely a three-hour workday might be, Prof Nowotny quipped: "I like to stand on empirical ground, so I'd ask: Who is going to pay the rent and restaurant bills?"

She then stressed that everyone should ponder one crucial question about any technology: "What is it that we have created? And how is it acting on, or lashing back at, us?"

To questions from two readers as to how Singapore might succeed as a smart nation, she said: "Singapore has a long-term vision on that, which is very rare in political life today. Most politicians elsewhere are tactical, not strategic; they only say, 'How can we win the next election?'

"But your leaders have a long-term vision on technology, and that is very reassuring for the future of Singapore. But it's never about the technology, of course; technology is just part of how we have built our social life."

Citing the trumped-up shenanigans of this year's United States presidential race, she mused: "The Internet has brought forth some of the ugliest sides of human behaviour. Populistic politics have brought forth expressions of hate which are disgusting. But that is not the fault of the Internet; the Internet only triggers such behaviour, it does not cause it. So we should not blame such behaviour on technology."

Entrepreneur Alvin Lee, 58, then asked: "What if technology is a runaway train? How do we organise ourselves if we are on the point of no return?"

She said: "We should never take anything as a given. If something is flawed, we should start thinking of alternatives. If we don't do so, technology is the relentless, huge machinery that will run over us."

Mr Boo said later: "The breadth of her experience was fantastic. Hers was no airy-fairy talk; everything she conveyed was substantive."

At the next Big Read Meet, Dutch historian Frank Dikotter will speak on his new book, The Cultural Revolution: A People's History. It will take place on Nov 14 from 6.30pm at The Pod, Level 16 National Library Board headquarters, 100 Victoria Street. Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2016, with the headline 'Three-hour workday by 2029?'. Subscribe