Opinionista Ravindra Mistri 20 August 2013

The end of the world as we know it

As the population continues to grow, so does its adoption of new technologies. Are these advancement residual elements of scientific progress, or are we seeing a revolution underway? The world, as we know it, is changing, the question remains – how much?

The 18th century’s industrial revolution witnessed a seismic shift from hand to mechanised production methods, changing industries and economies globally. From the 1500s to the mid-18th century, the global population remained relatively constant at approximately 500-million people. The infrastructural and consumer driven consumption initiated by the revolution led to socio-economic change that resulted in a hockey stick shaped curve of growth in GDP per capita. In just 200 years, the global population quadrupled to 2-billion people, prompting Robert Lucas Jr. (Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, 1995) to note: “For the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth … Nothing remotely like this economic behaviour has happened before.” It was the end of the world as we knew it.

REM’s apocalyptic lyrics from the 1980s, although more likely about earthquakes and bad hairstyles than a premonition on advancements in technology, gain further credence for me in our increasingly wired world. Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction novelist, described, with astounding accuracy some 40 years ago the adoption and use of computers and technology as we see it across society today. At the time he was labelled a dreamer caught in the myth of fiction. Yet the radical developments witnessed since have outstripped even his wildest imagination. As citizens of the new world we must question whether such advancements in technology are mere residual elements of mankind’s progress in science and industry, or a defining characteristic of the 21st century and the revolution underway.

To do so there are two questions we must ask. First, has technology permeated every aspect of society? It is hard to argue against this, with abundant examples of children learning how to spell and write on tablets, teenagers and adults instantly communicating and sharing content and news via social media networks, developing nations using mobile phones to transfer money through the likes of M-Pesa and rural farmers in India and across Africa understanding changes in weather patterns and commodity prices using SMS technology.

The answer is thus a resounding yes. But despite the frightening, yet amusing, scene of watching a two-year-old child try to pinch and swipe the images on a television screen, the integration of these evolving touch points of technology into our lives, although nifty and convenient, still have not fundamentally changed society or the social constructs therein.

So on to the second question. Has technology entered the murky revolutionary water where it starts to challenge some of the foundations upon which developed and developing societies are built? And no, this is not a reference to “Keeping up with the Kardashians” or self-serve frozen yogurt.

The two disruptive rookies on the tech revolution all-star team to look out for: 3D printers and robotics. An article written in July of this year in Business News Daily listed 15 odd and unusual items that can be 3D printed, among them bespoke prosthetics, meat, houses and human body parts. Although still very much consigned to “no way, really?” type conversations, the reality is this technological advancement could very well exponentially outstripping our predictions, both in terms of speed of development as well as rate of adoption. If the economics of robotics and 3D printing start to equal those of manual and semi-automated methods of production, arbitrage opportunities found within the disparities of foreign labour and material purchasing powers could be eradicated through computer code and raw elements, not to mention the imminent tug-of-war between the lower middle class and the advancements in automated robotics. Entire supplementary industries may be rendered obsolete. How will society cope with these potentially seismic changes?

The dynamics of this altered system, though untested, may still provide some respite. Putting any religious debates aside, the cost of living is dramatically reduced when, for example, one is able to 3D print a steak for a tenth of the price, if not less, of one found in the butcher shop. Feel like takeaway? Download your local restaurant’s one-time voucher to 3D print a juicy rack of ribs in their famous basting! The consequence? The consumer price index would change and its correlation to salaries and domestic budgets would be completely upended. In a future of reduced formal employment, countered by drastic decreases in the cost of living, could one potentially sustain a comfortable existence off an income grant? Or would the burden of a 10-billion person global economy simply be too much for any economic system to bear, be it capitalist, socialist or some hybrid of the two?

Ultimately, this is a highly fantastical view of what could one day resemble life. One of many. And while these are isolated, extreme examples of what could possibly be norms in the future, they do remind us of the necessity to think outside of today’s existence, to look through the eyes of tomorrow. A good friend of mine once reminded me to watch out for those that dream with open eyes for they are the dangerous ones who can change the world. As we move further towards customer-centric technologies, it is gradually becoming very important to understand not only the individual and the related technology, but also the world in which he or she, or their children, will one day exist. DM