Tomorrow’s teenage grandchildren
Just like those in their retirement years today have witnessed so much change since their teenage years, so will today’s teenagers when they reach their autumn years and help raise teenage grandchildren.
For those currently in the latter seasons of life, what have they witnessed over the course of their adult years? Consider the geopolitical tensions pushing history to unfold in uncertain directions (ie. Cuban missile crisis), the scientific developments ushering in hope (penicillin) and despair (nuclear fission), and popular music performers swaying the life choices of fans across the globe (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix) are among the many changes witnessed.
We now know how all of this unfolded, for it is today’s lived reality. Looking back over these decades we view this historical path as the “business as usual” path. The scenario that happened and that we now experience, study and use as reference points for what may happen in the decades ahead.
But what of other possibilities, of other scenarios, of other ways that things could work out. Just like our current reality could have turned out differently, what paths could history take for today’s teenagers? Specifically, what could unfold in our context of focus – the digital economy.
Its relatively easy to imagine one scenario – the business as usual path. For example, in 50 years time (ie, the lived experience of the teenage grandchildren of today’s teenagers) and based on what we know now, it is conceivable that consumer purchases will all be cashless and will involve automated delivery technology, and that all business transactions will use blockchain technology for goods and services prioritised by company-wide artificial intelligence algorithms?
How could things turn out?
But what about other scenarios? Will the history of the digital economy unfold such that there will only be an upside for your life, your job and your community? Where machines and robots undertake the work we don’t want to do, provide for our needs effectively and facilitate the richness of humanity’s many bonds and opportunities?
Imagine, then, a scenario unfolding where everything is restricted, or perhaps a scenario where anarchy rules.
First, restriction. Today we live with our social media feed being individually unique. No one else on the planet has exactly the social media friends and followers as I. Likewise with the configuration of ads I see in my browser; they are unique to me. And what about my purchase history where I shop with loyalty cards. This too is unique to me, as are the offers I receive. Why not then, in the time ahead, only seeing on my screen the things I am interested in? Only being shown political messages that will resonate with me, only being offered membership to social groups aligned with my past experiences and interests.
A scenario where the lives we live have boundaries that can not be altered. Where a superficial peace is the dominant mood.
Second, the anarchy scenario. Today there are forces that seek to upend the order that liberal democracy has brought to bear upon hundreds of millions of people across our world. What if they succeed? What if the internet is technically re-architected into ideologically walled gardens, that the Global Currency – the US Dollar – is replaced by the Chinese Renminbi, the German Mark and the Brazilian Real, and that the bounds of ordinary life are limited to self-contained urban zones each with different digital capabilities and intents.
A scenario where social and business life is dissimilar across the many enclaves, in which tension is a common theme.
With business as usual, life retains its complexity; with restriction it is hollow; as for anarchy it is wearying.
The future is not set
As outlined above, an AI-rich digital economy that supports quality of life is a likely outcome of the business as usual path. But what of the other two scenarios under consideration? For the consumer, the restriction path implies only uniquely tailored goods and services. Similarly for business. Where success is tied to this unique tailoring, implying that prospects for innovation are limited by the scope of these personalising algorithms.
With respect to the dystopian scenario, some enclaves no doubt will have the economic resources to realise a business as usual outcome, but most are likely to be unrecognisable societies by today’s standards. And so, due to resource scarcity, lack of trust, and through the application of technical digital capabilities built up over decades, local oligopolies reign supreme with deep surveillance and intense social stratification core characteristics of each society.
Understand that the future is not set. History indeed can unfold along one of these three paths. To our question at the start, the answer then is no. We are not assured of beneficial outcomes for our life, our jobs, our community in a digital economy.