What does the future hold?
We’ve seen it for ourselves, and we’ve probably read a couple of articles on the subject. Technology is leading change in our world at a rapid rate. But what does it mean and where are we heading?
The official response from most people appears to be along the lines of “I don’t know, but isn’t my new phone better than yours!”
Our political leaders seem to be more focused on winning the next election than planning our long-term future and besides, those with the real power earning the big bucks are working for corporations. Maybe governments no longer have the influence that they once did. And don’t corporations only want us to spend big so they can make bigger profits?
Where is all this leading? Some say there are signs that our society is becoming more isolating, less private, less diverse and that we are locked into a cycle where we have to keep spending more just to remain a functioning member of the community. We could cry in our (insert brand here) pod machine coffee and give up hope but perhaps there is a brighter side. Let’s have a closer look at each of these claims.
We have the technology to do our office work anywhere we like. At home, the park, a beach or even the office. Schools and universities are the same. We don’t need physical rooms to sit, work and learn. Many people already work from home and once organisations realise that they can save money on real estate by eliminating offices they will disappear.
This creates a problem because office workers are the lifeblood of downtown city centres. They support the shops, the food courts and entertainment spaces that occupy all the space down at street level. These businesses will cease to be viable if offices empty and before long cities could become ghost towns. Besides, thanks to technology people shop and bank online nowadays anyway, so physical ‘bricks and mortar’ shopfronts are already on the way out.
Before long we will not even need to leave our home. Plus, with all the access we have to graphic and often horrific news stories that are pushed to our news feeds doesn’t going out seem like a tremendous risk? It makes you wonder if all the effort to build new roads and invent driverless cars is just a waste of time. Perhaps soon there’ll be no traffic jams as we all hunker down in isolation at home.
Sounds terrible huh? Are we heading towards a dystopian future with gangs roaming the dark alleyways of our abandoned city centres while we hide behind barred doors waiting for packages of food to arrive by drone? Well maybe not. We are a creative bunch, and someone will find something to do with all that office space. It might just take a bit of lateral thinking. What if those thousands of square feet could be converted to indoor farms to feed our growing population? Or if office space became living space? They might sound like far-fetched scenarios but who would have predicted many facets of today’s world 20 years ago?
And let’s not forget that working from home will save us hours every day in commuting time. Extra time free for us to do whatever we please. Surely that’s not a bad thing.
Every electronic activity we undertake results in the handover of information. Our shopping, our web browsing, the phone calls we make and the loyalty cards we collect. Even our trips on public transport are tracked. There is more information collected about us than we could possibly even remember ourselves. And it’s growing. The challenge has been how to manage all of the “big data” that is being collected.
It’s valuable information to those big corporations who want to know how to get us to spend more. But they haven’t quite worked out how to manage it all yet. Lots of it is just stored away and there’s a few pesky privacy laws that need to be worked around too. But you can’t keep a good (or not so good) multinational down. Once the ‘big analysis’ has been worked out to organise the ‘big data’ our personal information will be used by psychologically-savvy organisations to influence our behaviour.
Is this just Big Brother coming true (the George Orwell novel not the reality TV show)? Will we become mindless zombies swiping our credit cards on command? Maybe... if we mentally leap 10 steps towards the worst-case scenario. Alternatively, all this information could also be a good thing. The epitome of good service was once a barman remembering your favourite drink or a shop owner remembering your name. With “big data” that good service can be delivered to us all. Perhaps our weekly grocery list could be automatically generated and ordered by our refrigerator from the supermarket that gives us the lowest price. Or maybe our car will also become our own personal chauffeur and drive us where we want to go. Our new world might even be easier and save us more time.
The uniqueness of different cultures and societies is one reason we travel. We seek out new ideas, new products and new experiences. Now technology has made our world smaller. We share the same information, ideas and goods worldwide. The latest fad in Sydney is probably also the latest fad in Moscow and Boston.
Does this mean that our civilisation will become a large vanilla-flavoured globe which has had its spice all sucked out of it? Or does it just mean that diversity will become less geographically defined? Technology has given voice to sub-cultures that can share their ideas across the planet. A young person in a small remote village might become the only keen skateboarder in his area. Or someone in Las Vegas may have an opportunity to take a shine to another country’s folk music.
Perhaps the places that we find diversity will change, but I doubt if the uniqueness of people will.
Spend more to stay a member of society
Remaining a functioning member of today’s society isn’t as easy as it once was. We need more “stuff” and it’s all got to be new. The biggest internet connection, the latest smartphone and all our friends have the latest and greatest gear that they’ve just bragged about on social media, so we must get that too. We are locked into a cycle of spending. We value the new and discard the old. Is there anything from today that you would like to save as an heirloom for your grandchildren? We seek out the popular and discard the unique. A lot of it is technology. Nothing is repairable, so we toss things away and create more waste. In turn our spending funds teams of innovators who search for new ways to differentiate products so that we’ll replace the ones we just purchased.
An affluent society spends. As times get tougher the intensity of the spending wanes. Economies go through cycles of boom and bust. Will society adapt and become less wasteful in less prosperous times? What if someone invented a modular smartphone where you could just replace a chip, or a screen when a new one came out? If successful, its competitors would have to respond and offer something similar. If society wants an innovation, then demand will drive it.
The bright side?
Things that at first appear to be all doom and gloom show just one perspective. Sure, there is a lot of rapid change at this time in our society, and that can make us feel uncomfortable, so often we look for the worst. But people can and will shape how that change unfolds either collectively or by the wills of those we choose to be our leaders. If society does get more leisure time we might just choose to spend it with friends. We can only be certain that our world in 20 years’ time will be different to that of today, but the good news is that we have the opportunity to make it better.