Technology and Society

I have been meaning to write about this for a while, but have always procrastinated on it because I didn't want to figure out the logic behind my intuition. But then today I was linked to an article about how computers are making a lot of people unemployed, so I thought it's time explain my idea:

I think we are taking the first steps towards the guarantee of food, shelter, and clothing for everyone in the world.

This seems crazy, but here are the trends I'm seeing:

  • As the article suggested, networked computers are very quickly replacing a number of jobs. Where before humans are necessary for communication between individuals and organizations (grocery stores, shopping malls, airlines), this can now all be done digitally. From the users' perspective, this is desirable, since it's generally faster and less hassle. But it does mean that most people in the communication pipeline will be out of a job.
  • A separate article suggests that the people out of a job will be forced to move either up or down the social hierarchy. There are three main classes of jobs that haven't been automated yet: jobs that require significant creative input, such as scientists, CEOs, etc; jobs that require non-information-based interaction with humans, such as actors, babysitters, etc.; and jobs that exist in a chaotic environment, such as janitors, plumbers, etc. These categories obviously overlap; surgeons, for example, fit all three categories. Back to the point, only a subset of these roles can be filled given the average education of workers. These jobs, in general, are lower-paying than information-exchange-based jobs in the service industry.
  • But that's not all - the bigger problem is that jobs are disappearing. This article says the same thing. It is not the case that technology is merely changing the distribution of jobs, but it is actively shrinking them. A system which allows people to buy things online replaces thousands of workers who would otherwise have to be in a brick-and-mortar store - while maybe creating a hundred jobs of mostly warehouse workers and a couple programmers. I think, for the first time in history, the sustenance of human civilization no longer requires the input of the majority of its population.
  • Which begs the question: are jobs necessary? This article has a great quote: "We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?" Taken to the extreme, which considering the growth of technology is very likely to happen, society will be automated to the extent that only a minority is needed to maintain the automation. By the law of supply and demand, these are the only people who will have jobs. Of course, the rest of the population will still have to eat, sleep, and fulfill other needs, but it's unclear how.
This is one of the reasons I've said to anyone who would listen that we live in interesting times. Technology is changing at a quick enough pace that governments can't keep up. Just look at the mess that surrounds every contact point between technology and law: software patents, internet censorship, net neutrality, social network privacy, online anonymity, and so on and so forth. There are also spill over effects from the massive userbase of the internet: WikiLeaks, dissemination of police brutality recordings, DDoS attacks, and so on and so forth.

While we're here, I want to bring up a rarely discussed facet of copyright, that of 3D printing. As material extruders become more popular, the fight over design of physical items is going to eclipse that of over music, films, and other pure information. This article gives more details.

What I find even more intriguing is that, while technology is disrupting the fabric of social by creating a jobless world, it may also be on the cutting edge of suggesting solutions to those problems. The main insight I had was that the digital world already has many of the properties of a jobless society. They include:

  • Zero marginal cost. Software, once written, can be copied at essentially no cost. This is already somewhat true of what has been automated - we are being charged very little for buying things online.
  • Universal access. Anyone can get online (assuming the minimum equipment of a computer and a connection), and without censorship, can access everything the internet has to offer.
  • Voluntary contribution. It used to be the case that most users of the internet are passive receptors, only receiving information but not contributing any. With the rise of social networks and online collaboration, many of the users are now also contributing - voluntarily.
It is not surprising that, giving these properties, we are still struggling with some of the implications:

  • Artificial scarcity. In other words, companies are trying to artificially increase the marginal cost. This is, ultimately, what DRM comes down to:  making people pay for something which otherwise costs nothing. This can also be seen in the (however small) charges we incur for making online transactions.
  • Competing with free. How does a company remain in business when other people are giving the same product away? I am writing this post in Firefox on Linux, neither of which I paid for. Ditto for most of the tools I use for research; in fact, our entire research project can be downloaded for free. Chris Anderson's book is all about this topic.
  • Attention-based economy. This is somewhat surprising to me, since I don't understand it. I rationally know that Google makes 40 billion USD each year, most of it from advertisements. I have personally never clicked on an ad, and have software which blocks them. But the plus side is that I have free access to a lot of things - including this very blog - because other people are clicking on the ads.
I think there are lessons that can be translated from the digital world to the physical world, which may give rough predictions of what will happen in the next century. At the risk of looking like an idiot when that time comes, here are some analogous societal changes I think might (and I hope will) occur:

  • Copyright holders will finally give it up as a lost cause. Beginning with software patents, it is becoming very hard to say when something is novel or not. There will still be patents, but their domain would be strictly limited. In the mean time, people will be sharing a majority of the creative output of the world, free of charge.
  • Work will be for the most part voluntary. It would be for pay if the final product is conducive to such; otherwise, attribution credit is all the creator will get. A lot of the results of "work" will fall into the public domain by default, which benefits the population as a whole.
  • Companies will be the main providers of social welfare, including food and shelter. They will do this because the economy is no longer focused on physical currency, but on something less separable from the individual, such as attention, time, and so on. Basically, the company will stand to gain more from you being well fed than from you starving. An interesting take on this is that people will start buying experiences.
I have been keeping an eye out on how technology - computers and the internet in particular - have changed society. It's astounding to think that even my childhood twenty years ago is very different from the childhoods of the people growing up now. I cannot begin to imagine the world in which children in another twenty years will be accustomed to. I wonder to what degree will the above problems be solved, and what new problems would have arisen as technology takes more unpredictable turns.

I guess there is one last question I haven't asked. Let's say all this becomes true. Is this a world we want to live in?

PS. A more speculative, transhumanist take on technological evolution.

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