Future Shock

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  • 19 Apr 2023

How should personal data be used and not used? What about the disintermediated media that has teamed up with Big Tech to re-invent politics by spreading post-truth and hate mail, wonders T N Ninan

Imagine currency going crypto (meaning secret), involving mining (of what?) and block-chain technology (more stuff to figure out). If you don’t understand any of that, or why Tesla is buying billions of bitcoins, how will you cope with the world being born? Or understand why China thinks its e-yuan can help settle bad debts?

In the early 1970s, Alvin Toffler wrote a massive bestseller. In Future Shock, he focused on people’s inability to cope with too much change in too short a time. The “futurist” expanded on his thought in subsequent books whose themes resonate today as we scan the horizons of a world that is transforming at speed. The premature arrival of the future, as Toffler put it.

If you already struggle with the periodic emails that ask you to upgrade some software that you happen to be using, think that self-driven cars too will have their software periodically upgraded, by remote control. Wars will be (are being) fought by armies of hackers employed to penetrate the networks of a modern economy, like the electricity grid. How vulnerable does that make you feel?

Almost no business will remain unaffected by the waves of change. Energy is shifting from fossils to renewables (consider what that might mean for geo-politics). Batteries will displace internal combustion engines as the latter once displaced horse-drawn carriages. In aviation, Airbus is looking at hydrogen as fuel, while Boeing may target bio-fuels. Even the steel industry, with its heat-intensive processes, is looking at achieving zero net emissions. Banks will need to re-invent themselves for the digital age, as their existing business models get challenged. New age businesses will create enormous wealth through unicorns and other vehicles, and much existing wealth will get destroyed in the churn. Aggregators will win, producers will lose.

And yet, as the economist Robert Gordon argued a few years ago, today’s technological breakthroughs mean less for productivity than those of the 19th century (such as electricity, elevators and running water, or the germ theory). So where Toffler saw “waves of ever accelerating speed and unprecedented impact”, Gordon sees a productivity slowdown! But productivity may be the wrong metric to measure disruptive change. Billions of dollars must be invested to re-invent existing businesses. Climate change is causing wildfires in California and persuading people in Silicon Valley to head for Texas. Before growth, you have to undo the damage.

Toffler focused in one of his books on knowledge, wealth and power, all of which are getting concentrated in the same hands and prompting new questions. Winner-take-all platform businesses can reduce their essential companion, the gig economy, to a loaded dice game. Ask the Uber or Ola drivers who want the rights of industrial workers, like minimum pay, without having to put in 14 hours on the road. Centralised power is by definition more remote, so 30 million people could become non-persons for the purposes of a ration card if they don’t have an Aadhaar number. Or non-citizens. Or bankrupt, because of the all-too-frequent misdemeanours of those managing Big Finance. And, with the spread and use of Big Data, what price privacy and autonomy?

New rules will be needed for this emerging world, but who will write them? How should personal data be used and not used? What about the dis-intermediated media that has teamed up with Big Tech to re-invent politics by spreading post-truth and hate mail? Or, how incapacitated would you be if your internet connection were switched off, as governments sometimes do? The Supreme Court has declared that access to the internet should be a fundamental right. It should be, but the digital divide remains real.

The great white hope of digitisation has, therefore, acquired dystopian hues that need to be painted out. But there’s still a positive side: Technology enables even if it can disempower. The office commute won’t be a daily drudge. The pay-per-use, or sharing, economy may grow. And if zero net emissions become reality, even if only by 2050 (which would still be an achievement), we would finally begin to undo some of the depredations that have marked our anthropocene age. Good or bad, it will be a different world.

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