The view of the future is increasingly determined by rapid technological advancements. At the same time, episodes of dystopian series like Black Mirror that looked improbable at the time of initial release have become all but reality. The disturbing episode of the series where people were given social status based on an algorithm has, for example, started to prove as real with China introducing a similar system for their citizens.
“In ten years, the cars will be self-driving,” “Shortly, jobs will be replaced by short term gigs,” “Artificial intelligence will misplace most of the currently existing jobs,” are some of the things we tend to hear a lot in the recent years.
But are the changes that the “technology” is selecting for us the changes that we want, the ones that are needed and the ones that will make the life of the majority better? It seems that there is no consensus about the changes we want tech to bring, yet we continue to rush into this brave new world by simply accepting fate and hoping for the best.
In this reflection, I will propose and attempt to explain a couple of goals we should consider making sure we are getting the future we want and not the future pushed upon us by the world moving faster than we care to understand.
1. We need to be critical to ideas that disregard social security.
Freelancing, driving for Uber, gig economy — the concepts sound fresh, but they risk essentially selling poor work regulation. Just because it happens through an app, it doesn’t mean it’s from the future. The basic problems those concepts introduce are from the past — social insecurity, inability to qualify for a bank loan, no real pension plan and problems that derive from the ones listed — stress because of insecurity, delayed adulthood etc. As this type of labour is just emerging and mostly affects young people, we might not have a real picture of what it means and what the effects will be in the longer run.
Just because it happens through an app, it doesn’t mean it’s from the future.
There surely are changes in relation to labour that technology enables and brings forward, but they by themselves are not enough. For a gig economy to work, the safety net much more efficient than today will have to be developed so that people participating in such an economy, in the long run, won’t be without security, loans for homes and pensions.
Labour isn’t the only way technology development might threaten the social security we got used to — services like Airbnb and booking.com have begun causing problems for real estate prices in the cities as apartments are getting easier to rent to global tourists. Again, just because it happens through an app, it shouldn’t mean that the rules don’t apply. If such services, in fact, lead to gains for the wealthy and hurt the poorer whose rents go up, technology can’t be an excuse.
2. We need to ask ourselves if a certain vision is taking us to a place we want to be.
Mobile phones were first seen as a way to connect people, as were the first smartphones. It soon turned out that we are capable to sit with our friends in silence, staring at our phones, perhaps even chatting with people other than the ones we are sitting with. Is this really the place we wanted to get to? Are we happier spending an hour, two or more per day staring at the screens of mobile devices than we were before that was possible?
Similar is true for social networks like Facebook — they were intended to bring us together, but in the end, they turned out to perhaps isolate us even further. Is interacting with schoolmates over Snapchat, Instagram or WhatsApp really a better way to spend the youth than it was hanging out with buddies in real life?
In the end, they turned out to perhaps isolate us even further.
I am not saying that it would be better that above-mentioned inventions would not exist, but I would argue that we should carefully study the pros and cons of tech that is bound to bring huge social changes and have a say if we are better off with them or without them.
3. We need to make sure legislators are able to respond to innovations in near real time.
The two goals mentioned above both risk stifling innovation as IT companies can move much faster than legislators or public can follow. This needs to change, as more and more decisions made by parliaments and governmental institutions in the future will be linked to the informational technology.
The first visible examples of the legislators stepping into the world of IT are perhaps the two EU cases, the one with control of the browser cookies (which can be argued didn’t do much) and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation, which just might pave the way how to regulate similar problems in the future).
The challenge is not new, as legislators were always required to respond to challenges of the times, but in recent decades it feels like the IT giants, not the governments (and behind them, the people) in which direction things should move.
Lawmakers will simply have to be able to weight in as equal and prepare reasonable laws regarding IT.
The issues have already arisen in the areas of privacy, internet neutrality, and taxation. One of the problems on the horizon is the fact that the internet is getting more and more centralized (as giants are getting an uncatchable lead with their datacenters worth hundreds of billions). Also, the area of machine learning (popularly AI), which is expected to gain huge importance in the future, is likely to be dominated by tech giants, as smaller firms simply cannot follow in this demanding field.
Some of the current and future challenges in the IT area will be too important for the legislators to let sort out for themselves. For the future that is driven in the interests of the people, lawmakers will simply have to be able to weight in as equal and prepare reasonable laws regarding IT so that technology continues to work in the interest of those they represent.
4. We shouldn’t assume people will (or should) change.
In discussions about the future it also feels taken for granted that, for example, some industries would disappear, that all people should switch to life-long learning or that in the future almost everybody will have to move to the cities. Such foregone conclusions are naïve and have proven as very dangerous in the past.
Many such predictions were taken for granted with the rise of globalization in recent decades. As part of the middle class in well-off countries turned out to lose out, the anti-establishment sentiment started pushing forward populism.
If people continue to get left out for the sake of the progress itself the backlash, similar to Brexit, is always on the horizon.
If truck driving jobs are, for example, to disappear because of self-driving trucks a solution for the people losing out on their livelihoods as truck drives should be found. It is true that jobs don’t exist for the sake of those that want to do them — but it is at the same time true that the system that governs us and the economic system within it wasn’t born out of the natural order of things but of the agreement of the governed. And if people continue to get left out for the sake of the progress itself the backlash, similar to Brexit, is always on the horizon.
The goal of making a system that is fair, or at least considered as such for the majority isn’t only a moral, but also a pragmatical question which, when neglected because of the short-term goals, tends to bite back and cost a lot more than considerate decisions would in the first place.
5. We need to prioritise technology and protocols that inherently protect privacy.
We all know that there are companies out there having a lot of data on us. We have even, in most part, accepted the fact that every move me make is recorded by somebody in some way. The fact is, we have no idea what is going on, how is data on us used and how it is protected from being stolen. Are there people looking at our personal pictures that we uploaded to the cloud to add some tags right now? Is an employee of some tech company reading our chats or emails just out of boredom?
With the internet boom, not enough attention was given to data protection. We all just kind of hope and expect that nobody would look into our personal data, that everybody at every company with access to our data knows what he is doing and has good intentions. We should demand more.
The fact is, we have no idea what is going on, how is data on us used and how it is protected from being stolen.
There needs to be a push for technology with end to end privacy and real oversight that those technologies are properly set up and maintained. No data should be exposed any more than is needed for the systems to function. Within companies, all data accesses should be strictly limited and monitored and all personnel that handles it trained how to properly protect it and be aware that is responsible for it. There should be protocols beyond companies that ensure all of this happens.
The data exposure and exploitation we are witnessing right now should go into history as an exception, not as the beginning of the end of privacy with potentially devastating consequences.
6. We need to make sure the internet stays open.
Some data suggests that Facebook and Google account for more than 50 percent of all web traffic. Cloud computing is becoming more and more popular and proprietary services offered by cloud giants threaten the disperse multitude of servers that used to compose the internet. The similar is true in the field of smartphones, where providers of content are reliant on only two global distributors of their applications on the two major operating systems. In the field of machine learning (AI), only a few big winners are expected to take most of the new segment.
We shouldn’t forget that the internet became what it is today because people used it in millions of different and creative ways to solve real-world problems and inconveniences.
Any new internet company is likely to be heavily reliant on an existing giant — for hosting, distribution, and marketing. That means that for every successful company, an existing giant gets even bigger, while it has nothing to lose if the new company fails.
The trend of takeovers is also problematic, as most of the promising newcomers get eaten up by the giants before they could compete with them. The current system seems to be working in favour of the big players keeping small ones on the margin.
We shouldn’t forget that the internet became what it is today because it was free, and people used it in millions of different and creative ways to solve real-world problems and inconveniences. As internet — and larger and larger chunks of our lives with it — is falling into the hands of a few big companies, we are at risk of losing freedom and creativity that created it.
7. We need to enhance the role of education and learning.
It has become a norm that a person should spend around 15 years of his or her life in school before getting a bachelor’s degree and get a job. Even if that seems long, it should be clear that is not nearly enough. The model where a person goes to college, graduates and works until he qualifies for a pension has become unsustainable. Constant changes — mostly because of technological advancements — make any knowledge that isn’t constantly updated insufficient in a matter of years.
People who have the potential to be at the top of their field should be motivated to seek careers at least partially based on sharing their knowledge.
This dynamic should be made clear and taken into consideration, and not only by an individual but also the system around him. Learning, when practically devised, is not only for the benefit of the individual but also of the society around him. Also, learning and work aren’t as separated as they used to be and should be better connected, supplementing each other. A decision about what a person will do for the rest of their lives can’t be taken before that person has even entered their twenties.
As lifelong learning is coming into focus, so should the role of educators. Quality of education should rise, and teachers should be better awarded and motivated to do everything they can to help develop a person. Educators on every level should be treated and compensated as are the college professors right now to make sure people who have the potential to be at the top of their field would seek careers at least partially in sharing knowledge.
8. We need to make sure people don’t fear old age.
Pension systems, similarly as the systems that ensure employment stability are increasingly seen as an unsustainable remnant of some old way of doing things. They shouldn’t be. The problem of social security in old age is as old as humanity and should be addressed for a society to thrive.
The problem of social security in old age is as old as humanity and should be addressed for a society to thrive.
Expecting people to work forever and calling it progress isn’t going to work. It can seem to work at the time when people should apply to don’t see so far in the future yet, but it will break down once they do. The younger generations don’t trust retirement systems already, so the problems aren’t only coming when they those young people will reach retirement age but are already here to face — people who don’t trust retirement have a lot less trust and perceived need for the welfare system.
9. We need to make sure the welfare state is forward facing.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the traditional left has often put itself in the position to defend rights from the past and paradoxically often became a conservative force in society. Siding and being content with the old industries and fighting to make sure decades-old promises aren’t touched on the expense of younger people and progress is a bad bet that is making the welfare state unsustainable, unpopular and ineffective.
The move to an increasingly tech-dependent society means changes in the workforce that are too big to be left for the market to resolve.
The welfare state is no less needed now than it was ever in the past — the society should help its members from merely fighting for survival and in return, those members will perhaps be able to become a version of themselves that will be able to give back more than they would otherwise.
The move to an increasingly tech-dependent society means changes in the workforce that are too big to be left for the market to resolve. A welfare state should be able to step in and make sure people are striving to move forward, learn, if they want to, and not fear change. For that to happen, attitudes of the left should turn to the future and not to the past.
10. We need to accept that China is a player that will rival the US in tech.
Issues like the US had in recent years with the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei aren’t likely to go away. They do not come from pettiness but are a symptom of the fact that the relationship between the two large powers has changed forever.
The relationship between the two large powers has changed forever.
For the last few decades, China was a cheap manufacturer for US companies, a fast-growing country with the willingness to do business and cause as little trouble as possible. That phase has ended and as has China started to develop its own huge base of consumers and modern military, so has it started to become a top world power when it comes to technological advancement.
The two countries appear to be destined to be the big rivals when it comes to technology — as just one of the things — in the years and decades to come. The problems they have now will stay in one way or the other and the return to the old way of doing things — US designing, China producing for cheap — cannot be expected.
Note: The essay was originally written as part of a class assignment.