Optimism and Reservations towards the Technological Revolution

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Image source: Gizmodo article
What does a city of the Third Industrial Revolution look like?

Lately I’ve been doing some research which include watching a fair amount of talks, reading articles and books. I’ve recently been reading two books concurrently which are ‘The End of Power’ by Moise`s Naim and ‘The Empathic Civilization’ by Jeremy Rifkins which touch on similar issues that have been troubling me. From all this information I’ve been absorbing, it seems to be amalgamating into something. That something has left me with this inescapable, constant contemplation on technology and how it’s impacting our world. I have extreme optimism but at the same time reservations towards technology and what it holds for our future. I want to write about it in order to gather my thoughts.

I’ve always had optimism towards technology and science and this could be due to my upbringing. I’ve always been immersed in technology, my dad started his career as an engineer and programmer and my mum was an analyst in the telecommunications sector. I ended up following in a similar path and studying engineering, focusing on Location-based services, GIS and spatial analysis. I initially worked at two engineering firms whilst at university, mostly working on location based applications and creating and analysing geodatabases. Then I took a career change working at a digital firm designing user experiences and user interfaces for multi-platform applications. It wasn’t until I started working at a few different agencies, agencies that were inherently traditional that I started to notice a bit of skepticism and pessimism towards technology. This skepticism really took me by surprise and understandably so given my background. I wanted to know where this skepticism and pessimism spanned from as I could observe the discomfiting dynamics between those who embraced new technology and those who had extreme reservations.

Reasons for Skepticism
One reason for this skepticism is this idea that technological change is destroying jobs and generating rising unemployment. Andrew McAfee who is an associate director of the Center for Digital Business at MIT and Guy Standing is an Economist from University of Cambridge both have used the Luddites example which I believe best illustrates the disgruntledness towards technological progress.1 Two centuries ago in 1809, the Luddites in Britain smashed and destroyed the looms which put them out of work. ‘Ever since, their action has been cited as disproving the unemployment effects of technological progress.’2 We could easily remedy this by just prolonging traditional forms of workmanship however, McAfee rightly so puts it, ‘But you can see how short-sighted that would be. This would doom people to a static standard of living.3 It would also stifle innovation because then there would be no incentive for betterment. 

Luddites smashing a power loom in 1812 - source:Industrial Revolution wikipedia

Another reason for this skepticism is as Marco Annunziata chief economist at GE mentions, ‘Lots of people have been going around saying that the new waves of technology is silly games, social media and nothing else.’3 McAfee also adds, ‘community of technologists has been promising the moon to you-all for as long we've had digital technologies. So you could be forgiven for kind of turning a deaf ear to these hyperbolic claims that we all keep making over and over again.’3 I guess you could see it as the case of the boy who cried wolf, and it doesn’t help these hyperbolic claims is further exemplified by the entertainment industry with science fiction. We then see the other side of the coin where the belief that science fiction is now becoming a reality but possibly a bleak reality. More and more people are increasingly worried about the threat that Artificial Intelligence (AI) poses to humanity. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking have been very open about their reservations. Hawking warned, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race….It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate," he said. "Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded."4

Third Industrial Revolution – The 2nd Machine Age
Should we be worried? What makes this time different to previous technological revolutions? The reason it is different is ‘technological innovation is more rapid and broad-based than in any previous industrial revolution, much of it linked to Silicon Valley and the entrepreneurial dynamism of its denizens.’2 What’s happening now is this third wave which is the bringing together of the first industrial revolution with the internet revolution of the 90s to form the third industrial revolution. Economist and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin I believe first coined the term in his books ‘The Empathic Civilization’5 and ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’.6 However, there are others that share this same vision such as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson both academics at the MIT Center for Digital Business, they call it the ‘The Second Machine Age.’7

What’s happening now is the internet revolution that first dominated the consumer sector is now getting into industry which is the engine of economic growth. It’s transforming the industry in various ways such as the internet of things (IoT) which is bringing interconnected intelligence into physical essence. Accenture definition of the internet of things is ‘“a universe of intelligent industrial products, processes and services that communicate with each other and with people over a global network”. This connected web is becoming increasingly ubiquitous across a wide range of industries, from oil and gas, utilities and transportation through to the medical field.’8 This is an exciting outcome of the digital revolution and many organisations are focusing on benefiting from it and are extracting maximum value via means of big data, as well as, AI. AI lends a hand to tackling the complex analytical tasks of deciphering these oceans of data, much faster than humans could ever hope to.

Inescapable Reality
So whether we like it or not, technological revolution is inescapably and undeniably changing society in a very profound way. We can see evidence everywhere and observe the effects and changes that have been happening in our world.

Business
We can see it in business, newcomers such as tech companies who are less hierarchical, more nimble, more collaborative both globally and locally are flourishing and displacing those traditional more hierarchical institutions. ‘Now, a simple count of the US and global top five hundred companies that did not exist ten years ago shows how relative newcomers are displacing traditional corporate behemoths.’9 A perfect example is the case of Kodak and Instagram.“At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people.”10

Another good example of this is the effect of the internet and advent of electronic books on Bookstores and the repercussions. Borders Group Inc., the 40-year-old chain that helped define the age of the book superstore, filed for bankruptcy protection and closed down 275 of their stores. Borders the second-biggest U.S. bookstore chain didn’t foresee the rise of e-books and were too late to the web.11

We can see companies pivot or change their strategies. An example of this is the in home video battle between HBO and Netflix, the struggle between the packaged services and the freedoms of broadband web-streaming. The internet is now disrupting the cable business and its ability to attract and hold audiences so HBO has caved in to consumer pressure and is now offering its streaming service, HBO Go as a standalone subscription like Netflix.12

We can also observe social media slowly replacing conventional methods of marketing. Traditional media relies on a one-to-many paradigm, the brand creates a message and transmits it to the masses via broadcast, print, radio or signage. It is a one-way communication system lacking in engagement and doesn’t facilitate word of mouth. Today, people are more skeptical on brands and are more reliant on word of mouth, reviews, recommendations from friends and general public. Social media provides this engagement and creates word of mouth advertising by encouraging reshares to amplify their message, at the same time making brand claims more believable. Most advantageously it provides analytics which is difficult to get from traditional media.

We can see through ease of dissemination of information through multiple channels can also break multi-billion dollar corporation in just overnight because of brand disasters. ‘Corporations have become much more vulnerable to “brand disasters” that hit their reputations, revenues, and valuations. One study found that the five-year risk of such a disaster for companies that own the most prestigious global brands has risen in the last two decades from 20 percent to a staggering 82 percent. BP, Tiger Woods, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation all saw their fortunes shrink almost overnight as a result of events that scarred their reputations.’9

Politics
The spread of free information through the internet has encouraged freedom and human development. We are seeing it being used to promote human rights, free speech, religion, expression, peaceful assembly, governments accountability, and the right of knowledge and understanding. We are also seeing it in today’s internet generation, more hacktivists, digital dissenters uncovering the deceit and corruption of state power by way of digital medium. Snowden, Manning and Assange are all part of an internet generation that holds that transparency of governments and corporations is a critical check on power.13 These activists carry within them a vision of a new world and a more open and just society.

Socially
Unlike the age of the printing press, when information tended to be centralised, the era of the internet fosters an interactive and direct peer-to-peer form of communication. It offers more open structures and is inherently democratic in nature “there’s no hierarchy and everyone can express themselves” an Anthropologist Paul Jorion noted.13 This is tremendously transformational and is changing the way we think as individuals. It is changing our mentality, it’s training us to be more interconnected and more open. We can see this evidently through social media and the outpour of compassion and concerns when natural disasters have struck. “Frantic tweets and videos have been seeping out of Haiti, pleading for help from the rest of the human race in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that leveled one of the poorest countries on the planet, spreading destruction and death. The response by people all over the world has been immediate.”5 Even more recently with the Nepal Earthquake, tech companies are facilitating the assistance. Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter are pitching in to help survivors of the catastrophic Nepal earthquake. Apple launched a partnership with the American Red Cross, asking iTunes users to donate money through its iTunes Store for the relief efforts. Twitter is helping to raise funds through not-for-profit organisations and Google has launched its Person Finder to help people determine whether those who may have been in the area of the earthquake are safe. Soon after the Nepal earthquake hit, Facebook activated their company's Safety Check feature, allowing those who may have been in the area to let friends and family know they were safe.14 We are seeing this global collective empathicness and democratisation economically, politically and socially.

Being Optimistic but Mindful
This technological revolution brings so much optimism for the future. We are becoming increasingly interconnected, open, transparent and democratic globally as a society. This interconnectedness is changing our mentality and making us more empathic towards each other. I personally believe this is exceptional as empathic behavior endorses cooperation and helps form social cohesion. In addition, it has democratised learning by providing the freedom to access endless amounts of information that is ever evolving.

“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” Kofi Annan15

Devices are getting cheaper, access is going up which in turn increases the community of potential innovators out there in the world at ever accelerating rates. This is not just the case in western countries, but also in developing countries.

With this technological revolution there are going to be some negative consequences. Consequences such as, more technology implies more energy consumption and the usage of energy resources generally have an adverse effect on the environment. However, we can help mend this. We can assist in solving wastage and the environmental impact we produce with our living standards by venturing into sustainable energy technologies. Prominence should be given on sustainability rather than consumerism in regards to technological regimes. Our current capitalist economic system is unsustainable and is fuelling this wastage. The system requires the constant growth and the search for new markets which leads to wasteful production and exhausting and unsatisfying consumption.16

Another negative consequence is the current economic climate is generating a dystopia of socially unsustainable inequality. The biggest challenge is as technology exponentially moves ahead; this revolution will leave people behind. It will leave people behind in a sense that those that have the desire to offer their labor to the workforce will find that the economic engine will no longer have any need of it as digital labor is a lot more efficient and effective. What’s currently happening is globalisation and technological change has produced a growing concentration of wealth. It’s developed a class structure with a tiny plutocracy of billionaires coexisting with a dwindling salariat.2 This consequently forms social disparity and economic inequality which breeds detrimental social issues such as poverty, erodes self-esteem promoting social dislocation, unrest and conflict. There is a silver lining, McAfee optimistically states, “Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny. So even if we are heading into some very tough times for portions of the labor force, there are interventions, there are things we can do.”1 

There has been suggestion of adopting a guaranteed basic income where everybody in society has a right of a universal basic income without imposing arbitrary behavioral conditions and not being dependent on marital, gender or work status. “A basic income would also modestly reduce income inequality. It would strengthen individual bargaining capacities and thus reduce exploitative pressures. Basic security has also been shown to induce a greater sense of altruism and to make people more tolerant of those different from themselves.”2 There have been pilot programmes and similar experiments that have been adopted around the world in Canada, America, Namibia, India and Latin America with general positive outcomes that include decreasing poverty, increased education, health and well-being.17

Although there are arguments that a guaranteed basic income will stifle our drive to succeed and make us more complacent. It could possibly cause depression and lack of purpose, “We need to fit into society and be a cog in the wheel. If we do not have a purpose doesn’t that render us dispensable?”1 However, from the pilot programmes and experiments they have found people with basic security work harder and more productively, not less.2 I can see peoples’ reservations as work is seen as a provider of purpose, without work we resort to boredom, vice and need.

"Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice and need." — Voltaire1

However, I believe that the perception that our purpose in life is reliant on our labor force needs to change. I share the same sentiments as a commenter from McAfee’s talk ‘What Will Future Jobs Look Like?’ I couldn’t have expressed it any better. “Why do you shackle and chain your purpose in life to your labor force? We must de-chain this connection. Your worth and value as a human being and citizen in society is not glued to being a cog in the wheel or being a part of the workforce. Just because you get guaranteed income does not need to make you complacent and without drive.”1 I am optimistic that this technological revolution will free us from the drudgery and toil of monotonous, laborious work and allow us to take on ventures that are more innately satisfying. 


Bibliography

1.
McAfee, Andrew. "What Will Future Jobs Look Like?" TED Talk. TED, Feb. 2013. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_mcafee_what_will_future_jobs_look_like?language=en>.
 2.
Standing, Guy. "The Growing Precariat: Why We Need a Universal Basic Income." Singularity HUB. N.p., 30 Mar. 2015. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://singularityhub.com/2015/03/30/the-growing-precariat-why-a-basic-income-is-needed/>.
 3.
Harding, Robin, Marco Annunziata, Andrew McAfee, and Daniel M. Price. "Transcript: 2013 Strategic Foresight Forum - The Challenges and Opportunities of the Third Industrial Revolution." Atlantic Council. Atlantic Council, 9 Dec. 2013. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/news/transcripts/transcript-2013-strategic-foresight-forum-the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-the-third-industrial-revolution>.
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Cellan-Jones, Rory. "Stephen Hawking Warns Artificial Intelligence Could End Mankind - BBC News." BBC News. BBC News, 2 Dec. 2014. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540>.
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Rifkin, Jeremy. The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. Print.
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Rifkin, Jeremy. The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.
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Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. Print.
 8.
Millman, Nick. "Big Data to Unlock Value from the Industrial Internet of Things." ComputerWeekly.com. ComputerWeekly, Feb. 2015. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.computerweekly.com/opinion/Big-data-to-unlock-value-from-the-Industrial-Internet-of-Things>.
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Naím, Moisés. The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What It Used to Be. New York: Basic, 2013. Print.
 10.
Timberg, Scott. "Jaron Lanier: The Internet Destroyed the Middle Class."Saloncom RSS. Salon Media Group, 13 May 2013. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.salon.com/2013/05/12/jaron_lanier_the_internet_destroyed_the_middle_class/>.
 11.
Sanburn, Josh. "5 Reasons Borders Went Out of Business (and What Will Take Its Place) | TIME.com." Business Money 5 Reasons Borders Went Out of Business and What Will Take Its Place Comments. TIME, 19 July 2011. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://business.time.com/2011/07/19/5-reasons-borders-went-out-of-business-and-what-will-take-its-place/>.
 12.
Fung, Brian. "HBO’s Taking on Netflix like Never Before. But Now They’ll Share the Same Headaches, Too." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/10/15/hbos-taking-on-netflix-like-never-before-but-now-theyll-share-the-same-headaches-too/>.
13.
Hayase, Nozomi. "The Whistleblowers at the Frontier of Digital Liberation."ROAR Magazine RSS. Roar Magazine, 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://roarmag.org/2013/08/manning-snowden-assange-whistleblowers/>.
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Reisinger, Don. "Nepal Quake Survivors Draw Support from Apple, Google, Facebook and Others - CNET." CNET. CNET, 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.cnet.com/au/news/tech-companies-rally-behind-nepal-earthquake-survivors/>.
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Annan, Kofi. "Kofi Annan Quotes." WorldofQuotes. WorldofQuotes, n.d. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.worldofquotes.com/author/Kofi+Annan/1/index.html>.
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Cato, Molly Scott. "Why Capitalism Can't Be Sustainable." Why Capitalism Can't Be Sustainable. Green Economist, n.d. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.greeneconomist.org/page.php?pageid=capitalism>.
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