Category Archives: Futurist

Digital Economy Series: In a fully digital economy will the dollar still be king?

We trade in what we value. Whether it be a young child trading a small coin for a sweet at a corner store, the consistent portion of a wage over many years in exchange for a house, or the complexity of financial transactions to fund a manufacturers expansion. If we value something we will participate in a fair exchange with the seller.

money coins finance cash
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We are all aware of the barter economy, of an era long past, where that form of trade was the primary mechanism to establish fair exchange between parties. Over the course of time it was hard currency that first supplanted this ancient mechanism, then promissory notes, until now where digital representations of cash are the means through which value is exchanged fairly.

Also today, it is a sovereign currency, the dollar (or Euro, Renminbi or Yen) if you will, that is king. It is this fiat currency, this legal tender of value backed by an issuing government that is implicitly trusted so that we can fairly exchange value. Whether its that young child at the corner shop, or the insurance company guaranteeing the importation of that machinery, we all implicitly trust that issuing authority.

We pay, and governments collect, taxes based on that trust. Businesses leverage the inherent strengths of the banking system to invest in growth, based on that trust. Governments trust other governments based on that trust.

But in a fully digital economy, what entity will be the foundation of that trust? The case could be made that a single global currency could become king. Where, over the coming decades, a currency founded on blockchain principles could supplant the many sovereign currencies in existence today. The case could also be made for a return to the barter system. Where, again over the coming decades, the nascent peer-to-peer sharing economy becomes the most trusted mechanism for the fair exchange of value.

For I don’t believe that we can safely assume the future of financial transactions is just a more efficient version of what we experience today. Where sovereign entities of trust anchor computerised exchanges of value at retail, commercial and government levels. What if the world moves to a type of universal basic income or universal basic services model? Where the accumulation of wealth is a foreign concept to most and bartering is de rigueur. Or, what if the digital economy transforms into the intelligence economy? Where real value is no longer held in varying compositions of bits, but in prized abstractions of knowledge stored in quantum computing machines.

But I do believe that human nature will fundamentally remain unaltered in the coming decades. In a fully digitised economy there will continue to be shining examples of our “better angels” and likewise examples of those with more sinister intent. And, because of our human nature we will still form systems of governance and administrative oversight. We will still need the ability to enforce exclusion upon those who are a danger to society. We will still participate in fair exchanges of value. And don’t forget, people will still be people. At our core we’ll be motivated by the desire to either work toward goals, to work with people, or to work to accumulate power.

Given all this, and as we look far over the time horizon, will the dollar still be king in a fully digital economy? More than likely, the literal dollar won’t be king but the metaphorical dollar will be. Even though human nature is not likely to change, the mechanism for the fair exchange will continue to change. For each of us will continue to have something of value that is worthy of trading.

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Digital Economy Series: “In a fully digital economy will you still be needed to work in a factory or sit at an office-desk?”

vehicles on road between high rise buildings
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Work. Whether we sit in an office, walk in a manufacturing facility, or perform some other task, those of us who work are living examples basic economic theory. We are all playing our part in turning an input into an output. We could be making sales calls to increase demand for an output, driving a truck to deliver raw materials, or even developing software to make the process better. Whether our organisation produces goods or services, we are all being paid to perform our part somewhere along the value chain.

The economy of tomorrow, the time when teenagers of today have teenage grandchildren, is more than likely to be a fully digital economy. For we can see evidence of this transition already. The value chain of decades ago was all about atoms, all about making and using physical goods. Today it is a mix of atoms and bits, it is an economy where value is created in the digital sphere as well as the physical sphere. Tomorrow the value chain may well be dominated by that which is digital.

Consider primary industries. Aren’t mines and farms becoming more automated? What about the secondary industries of manufacturing and construction, isn’t automation taking hold there as well? Even for higher value sectors such as finance, health and professional services we are witnessing inroads being made by either automated or intelligence-laden digital processes.

Thus it can be argued that there will be less employment in industry sectors that create value out of atoms. Indeed, even though the value of these sectors is growing across the OECD, related employment is largely stagnant.

But where is value created in the digital economy and what part do workers play in it? Value in the digital economy is created in the manufacture of ICT hardware, in the creation of software and services that use software, and in the collecting, processing and disseminating of data and information.

Regarding the manufacture of ICT hardware, it is not too hard to see full automation in production and logistics. But in the research, development and design phases we humans will still be critical for success.

Regarding the creation of software and software-based services, is it not too far fetched to contemplate software writing software? Where designers set the input and output requirements for new software or a new service, and the computer creates and tests the complete set of algorithms and interfaces.

Finally, regarding the management of data and information. Apart from employees performing regulatory oversight, it is possible to imagine the only other scenario in which human involvement is necessary is where faulty data collection sensors need to be replaced.

So, in this fully digital economy will you still be needed to work in a factory or sit at a desk in the office?

The answer is a qualified yes. While there are many factors that should be taken into consideration the foundational truth is that an economy is there to serve the society. For we grow things, we produce things, we teach things, we regulate things and so on for our individual and collective benefit.

Even though you may accept the propositions that 1. we are moving to an economy that is dominated by bits and, 2. just like production involving atoms has become more automated so too will bits-based production. We will still be human. Thus, even though what we value and how we pay for it will more than likely change, there will still be economic production to serve the needs of the population.

So yes, the factory will still be around to produce physical goods, but the types of work that are open to humans are those that are less automated. And yes, the office-desk job will still be around, but it too will involve non-automated people and thinking skills.

Therefore, even though what will be available and how it is produced will be different from today, basic economic theory will still apply. No matter the industry sector, in a fully digital economy people will still have roles as productive links somewhere in the value chain.

Routine manual jobs are on the way out.

You might have picked up on the news that the nature of the job market is changing.

Blogpost - Factory

Now, while it is true that the economy has always changed over time (for example, do you remember that Australia used to ride on the “sheep’s back”?) it seems that the rate of change is increasing.

And you can put that down to the impact of computers.

The impact of computers on jobs over the coming years was highlighted by Frey and Osborne in their 2013 “Future of Employment” study and CEDA, in their 2015 “Australia’s future workforce” report, further developed this understanding. However, the real discovery was by an MIT Economics Professor (David Autor). Through an investigation into the amount of human labour used by USA companies for jobs dominated by manual tasks, he found that demand for this type of labour had declined by about 10% over the 50 years from 1960.

Now, while companies were still producing things that required manual tasks, they require fewer men and women to do that manual work.

The impact is that some entry level jobs are lost and that jobs for the lower skilled are harder to find. It means that career choices must be made with more consideration.

So, for the student in your life, a clear-eyed consideration of the changing job opportunities must be paramount.

 

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