Digital Economy Series: Will a digital utopia finally come to pass for us all?

In July 1893 220 men and women from the relatively new settlement of South Australia decided to start anew and create a utopian society in Paraguay, South America. Although this “New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association” had some quick wins in clearing land, establishing a township and using cattle as one of their sources of nutrition it all fell apart within two years. Despite their efforts, the ideal that this assortment of well-meaning people sought for was beyond them.

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While examples abound across the globe and across the centuries of utopian projects that ended in disarray, there are others such as the Shaker communities in the 1830’s and the modern Tamera project in Portugal that have achieved success.

However, when it comes to a future digital utopia will the dream be realised like the Tamera case, or will it be another failed venture like the “New Australia” community? Driving these outcomes are answers to several questions. For example, what does this future state look like? What is attractive about it? Do we actually want to live in a society and operate within an economy where “digital” is more dominant than it is today? What of the relationships between business, government and the citizenry? And then there are the global considerations – what structure will the interactions and governance frameworks at a geopolitical level take?

Now, building on the common meaning of utopia, being: “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect” of what form will this anticipated mid 21st Century digital utopia take? Could we attain perfection in employment, in well-being and in society? Regarding employment, one can argue that the technologies of automation and machine learning are laying the groundwork for universal basic income. When it comes to health, advances in personalised medicine could lead to us living in trouble-free bodies. Likewise with the social sciences, and with regtech and fintech, are we not marching toward more efficient transactions and services as well as removing impediments to social harmony?

But, while we can view all this progress and these trends though the prism of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the unfolding reality will be more complex. For one, Maslow’s theory of human nature, where the pinnacle of “everybody desires to reach their full potential” (which is the sub-text of the previous paragraph) doesn’t account for say McClelland’s achievement, power and affiliation motivational impulses. In similar fashion can we ignore Hofstede’s cross-cultural dimensions of power, individualism, masculinity, risk taking and indulgence as we advance towards this “i-nirvana”?

For the Western digital utopian vision may include a freedom to individually pursue creativity and education, but for those across the Asian or African continents the digital utopia may centre on social unity and shared economic activities. And while either personal or communal achievement is at the heart of each of these potential future states, individuals motivated by power could well be disenfranchised.

And this is where our move to digital ubiquity may actually reconcile these competing impulses and world views and realise a digital utopia. For the long-held and default perspective on our atom-centric economy is scarcity. It’s supply and demand. We pay a price in exchange for owning a thing. But in a bit-centric economy abundance is the dominant narrative. This abundance stems from the fact that there is relative little marginal and distributional cost associated with the production of digital goods and services.

For example, social media services don’t have limits on the number of people that can access their platform simultaneously. Likewise there are relatively few limits that can be placed on sources for Internet of Things data. And with the relative price of computer power and data storage always falling, the opportunities of artificial intelligence influencing the natural and social sciences seemingly knows no bounds.

It is with this perspective of abundance in a fully digital economy that a digital utopia may well come to pass for us all. While not in the same format for everyone across the globe, but certainly with some common threads and with unique contextualisations dependent upon who and where we are.

 


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