Dr Peter Bloom speculates on how technology is transforming our world, and what this may mean for the future.
Not so long ago the future was imagined as a coming time of mass leisure and shared prosperity. According to this utopian vision, technology would free us from the daily drudgery of work – giving us more time to explore our interests and the world. However, today this future feels perhaps more distant than ever before. The present age is marked by longer working hours, declining wages, the threat of climate change and global terrorism.
Yet, emerging technologies and ideas have the potential to fundamentally transform how we work and live. Advancements in communication technology are “shrinking the world” while redistributed manufacturing can radically alter economic production as well as individual consumption. For many these changes point to the fact that we are on the exciting verge of creating an entire new social and economic system. Paul Mason, for instance, has popularized the notion of “post-capitalism”. He observes that
“We are in the middle of a revolution. Out of the very values and practices of free-market capitalism—individualism, choice, respect for human rights, the network, the flattened hierarchy—the masses have developed a new collective practice.”
In a similar spirit are those who envision a future of “automated luxury communism” where “machines do the heavy lifting and employment as we know it is a thing of the past”.
While these theories still may seem far fetched, current technological developments associated with “digital fabrication” are helping us come possibly closer to making them these dreams a reality. Inventions such as a 3d printer can dramatically change how individuals get and consume goods. According to the Technology Enterprise Group at the University of Cambridge – funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council –
“digital fabrication offers the prospects of on-demand, mass personalisation, with more localised, flexible and sustainable production. These technologies have the potential to disrupt the organisation of manufacturing and the ways in which companies…create and capture value.”
These changes to manufacturing can also have a broader collective impact – redesigning entire cities and communities. Bristol University has been awarded almost half a million pounds to study the use of such “re-distributed manufacturing” for creating the “resilient, sustainable city”. Their highlight how “new highly adaptable manufacturing processes and techniques capable of operating at small scales may allow a rebalancing of the manufacturing economy” for achieving environmental sustainable and resilient urban infrastructure.
Significantly, these innovations will revolutionize our very need for work and working. If one can make what they want, when they want and wherever they want at the press of a button – why should they have to be employed at all? Would it be possible to efficiently build cities that last longer with minimal environmental impact? Politically, this redistributed future could create a world of abundance where competition over power and resources are massively reduced and perhaps eliminated.