Some Trends Regarding Technology and Society

Some trends to think about:

First, consider the shift from desktop and laptop computers towards mobile phones and tablets as most people’s primary source of computation, and their principal gateway to the internet.

We interact with desktops via keyboard and mouse. A MacBook Pro has 78 keys, plus a trackpad. This allows for hundreds of possible interactions with a computer, via two hands and ten fingers. When you take into account the building of muscle memory for typing and the using of keyboard shortcuts, you realize that this keyboard/mouse combination (or even a keyboard alone) allows for an incredibly high-bandwidth connection between you and your computer, where meaning and intention can be communicated quickly and with great precision. This makes the computer a powerful and flexible tool under your precise control.

Screens are much larger on desktops and laptops. These computers usually support multiple screens, allowing for a user of a desktop or laptop to work with a substantial canvas of screen space. This means that the computer user can easily coordinate among several applications, and execute complex workflows (and enable complex thought-processes).

In these ways, desktop and laptop computers can serve very much like extensions of ourselves — they are powerful tools, which, with skillful operation, can perform a very flexible range of tasks.

Tablets and mobile phones, on the other hand, are more limited. For pure touch-screen devices (tablets which support keyboards and can be operated similarly to a laptop are excluded), there are far fewer possible interactions between the user and the device. Touch screens currently support a fairly limited number of interactions — single, double, and triple touches, and swipes. While in theory a touch screen can be more flexible than even a keyboard, allowing for actions hitherto undeveloped, current touch screens are less precise and slower. So, for now and the near future, the connection between the user and the mobile device is lower-bandwidth.

The smaller screen size is also significant. A smaller screen is more prone to clutter, while fewer things can be displayed at any given time. This means that there are greater limits on the possible complexity of use of these devices — a kind of technological Newspeak of the 21st century, maybe — and might explain at least in part the trend towards isolated apps as the primary gateway to products and services.

This trend towards isolated apps is itself significant, for reasons extending far past the devices themselves. The last two decades have seen a significant shift in the way that humans interact with media, as the transition from analog to digital media has dropped the cost of distributing media to virtually zero. This disrupted prior business models for media companies, whose profitability depended on their ability to control the distribution of their content (manufacturing and producing records and CDs, for instance).

During the period of the dominance of the desktop and laptop computer, a technically savvy and politically progressive (sometimes quite radical, occasionally outright anarchic) class of people led a movement advocating for the free distribution of media. This movement, combined with the weakening ability of media companies to control the distribution of their content, created crisis for these companies. Consider: computers at the time were simply too free, and moving data too easy.

With the shift towards mobile and tablet, we are seeing a counter-movement back towards control. The limitations of these devices mean that media companies can reassert control over their product by providing an easy means of access to that product. While it is relatively easy to acquire media for free on a desktop, it is quite a bit more difficult to do so on a phone — the interactions available are smaller, the tools less flexible. Users of tablets and mobiles are limited to the interactions that were designed and which they were given. The more complex and skillful interactions, the interactions necessary to locate and acquire media, are much more difficult to achieve on a mobile device. The friction to acquire the media is greater; convenience has real value. We are finding that the convenience of access to media via a proprietary app is worth paying for.

Are media companies saved? Likely not. The 20th century was good to media companies — the technology of the time allowed for large-scale distribution of media, but such distribution was capital-intensive. Printing presses, recording studios, film equipment — all available, but at great cost. It was the technological moment for large media companies, but that moment has passed.

Ease of both production and distribution of media has shifted much creative power back towards the individual. Individuals produce media for many reasons, and can appeal to their audience for support. We support artists and writers who move us, who we care about. It is a much more intimate and human way of creating and consuming media, and likely a very positive shift. 20th century media was about calculated mass appeal; 21st century media is about genuine niche appeal. Appealing to a niche requires a deeper understanding of your audience — a deeper understanding requires a truer connection. This is a beautiful thing. The art of the 21st century will be wonderful.

All these trends, while meaningful all on their own right, are insignificant when compared with the following.

The continued progression of the methods of automation will, in this century or early next, make possible a world in which humans no longer have to work. In our current historical moment, we perceive this as a loss of jobs to machines, but this perception is based on flawed assumptions. For our entire history as a species, humans have had to work to survive. Human societies from the earliest agricultural settlements to our modern global cities have had as their primary purposes the coordination of labor and the distribution the fruits of production. To contemplate a society in which both of these tasks are unnecessary is challenging. But this is the society towards which we are heading. As John Stuart Mill perceived, the processes of production and distribution, while often linked in the social imagination, are in truth separate. The development of ever more sophisticated techniques for automation, especially in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence, will create the potential for a world free from work, free from material want.

Potential, however, does not guarantee realization. There are many people, some with influence, who would oppose this, be threatened by this. A society in which everyone is compelled to work, for long hours, is a society that is predictable and more easily controlled. Those who value stability over the realization of human potential would likely resist any softening of the compulsion to work. While this may sound dramatic, consider the experience of the 20th century:

The productivity of an individual worker would increase by many multiples over that time period. And yet the response was not a lessening of the hours expected, but rather an increase in the output expected. Where one person could now do the work of two, the result was not two people working half as much, but one person who needed to find another job. This same trend is continuing, only now the pace of automation is increasing to such a degree that there are no longer other jobs. We have or will soon have reached an inflection point where good jobs are being eliminated faster than they are being created, and there will be nowhere left to go.

This may seem grim, but as mentioned above, there is the potential for a blossoming. This loss of jobs is only a crisis if you assume that every human needs to work. If you are able to release that assumption, then automation leads to the potential for freedom in a sense never known before by any human society.

Potential, as said above, does not equal realization. History is strewn with example of theorized social orders. It seems inevitable that there will be a breaking point, in which the rising pace of unemployment overwhelms existing welfare systems, and the reality of the economic and social transition will become visible to public perception, and there is an irresistible call for action, but there is no guarantee that this will all end well. There is an equal or likely even greater chance for violence as there is for any sort of peaceful transition. A peaceful transition would require a smooth adoption of social forms never before practiced on this earth. It would take an extreme optimist to expect this to occur. The truth is that this transition will likely be painful. Potentially extremely painful. The extent of that pain will depend on many factors, none of which are particularly easy to discern, especially in these early days. However, it is likely that there are actions that can be taken now which will ease that transition, when it finally comes.

What exactly those actions are, at this time, are unclear. But they will become increasingly more discernible, as the years unfold. Hopefully we will be able to perceive, anticipate, and act in a way that secures good and prevents harm.


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