How will technology affect society in the future?

It’s reasonable to assume that as technology continues to accelerate, we can expect dramatic changes in the years and decades ahead. Most of us have come to take rapid technological improvement in the products and services we use for granted. But when technology has a broader impact on society and on the economy, the changes are generally much harder to accept, and there tends to be a great deal of resistance and denial.

My purpose in starting this blog is to explore some of these broader issues. In particular, I want to focus on how advancing technology will impact the future economy. There is much discussion elsewhere of advanced technology itself and of the direct impacts it may have on society. This ranges from dystopian concerns about gray goo and intelligent machine  overlords raised by Bill Joy and others, to the far more optimistic views of Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey—who are both looking forward to technologically enabled immortality.

So far, I have not seen a great deal of deep thought given to how the future economy will work. Most people—and nearly all economists—make the obvious assumption about that: they assume the economy will essentially work the way it has always worked. The basic principles that govern the economy are seen as being relatively fixed and reliable. Economists look to history and find evidence that the free market economy has always adjusted to impacts from advancing technology and from resource and environmental constraints, and they assume that the same will always occur in the future. Crises and setbacks are temporary in nature: in the long run, the economy will rebalance itself and put us back on the path to prosperity.

Is it possible that that assumption is incorrect? In his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, Jared Diamond tells the story of farming in Australia. When Australia was first colonized, the new arrivals found a relatively lush, green landscape. They invested heavily in developing farms on this seemingly fertile land. Within decade or two, however, reality struck. The farmers found that the overall climate was actually far more arid than they were initially led to believe. They had simply had the good fortune (or misfortune) to arrive during a climactic “sweet spot” — a period when there was far more rain than is normally the case. Today in Australia, you can find abandoned farm houses in the middle of what is essentially a desert.

As a result of the current crisis, macroeconomics is in disarray. The various schools of economic thought (and their accompanying mathematical models) have all been built upon observations and analyses that have occurred over a relatively short period of time—at a maximum, the 230 years since Adam Smith, but as a practical matter, a much more recent period. Is it possible that economists, like the farmers in Australia, have built their models based on observations that have been made during an economic sweet spot? Perhaps the historical observations that underly much of economic theory have taken place during a period when we have had enough technology—but not too much. What if we are now advancing out of that economic sweet spot and encountering a new reality in which different economic principles will apply?

That is obviously a radical view that I expect to be widely criticized or, more likely, ignored. Nonetheless, I think it is very possible, and I think that the major factor underlying the transition is a change in the relationship between workers and machines. Historically, machines have been tools used by workers. Over time, machines have advanced to become better and better tools that have increased the productivity, and therefore the value (and wages), of workers. Now however, we are entering an age when machines, on average, will begin to approach autonomy, and as a result, the value that the average worker adds may begin to decline dramatically. That, I think, has the potential the change the basic operating principles of the future economy.

47 thoughts on “How will technology affect society in the future?

    1. A welfare state has proved not to be sustainable and is one of the main reasons for financial bubbles and industrial capitalism. An expensive system governed from a central unit of administration will easily become like one bird feeding many nests. Someone will lose although they payed tax in order to avoid losing.

      I believe the answer is to move the responsibility for welfare into the local communities without any monetary support ,and simeoultaneously get rid of the whole monetary system. Like in Venus project. You’ll then have to fulfill your tasks for the community to get shelter and some extra needs. Of course this must happen in a world of technology and science in order to make the society efficient.

  1. Marx had plenty to see about this 150 years ago; i.e. variable capital and constant capital, and the increase in the latter over time. But the reason automation increases is because labor gets more expensive as workers begin to ask for more. If labor is dirt cheap there is no need to invest in automation.

    (It should be noted that bringing China into the capitalist world-system increased variable capital on a large scale for the first time since at least WW2, as it opened up a large pool of cheap labor- cheap for a while at least)

  2. I read your book when it first came out. Very good thoughts, I have recommended it to others. It is still the only attempt at the economics of the singularity I have seen.
    It is the transition phase I am worried about. You can see ABB’s robot “FRIDA”, on YouTube. A row of these robots will be able to make a row of these robots. They will stock the shelves. IBM’s “Watson” will answer the phone. Millions of out of work people will have time to think of new things to do, like kill robots and politicians.
    The world economy is in a very weak condition. Debt & War is on the rise. I am hoping advanced technology will dig us out; if it doesn’t bury us first. I’m optimistic but concerned.
    I know some politicians knows about this. Kurzweil testified in front Congress. Executives go to the Singularity University. There are movies out on it for God’s sake. I should think there would be more discussions on the economics of this!

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  6. Well said…my thoughts exactly!! We are definatey on a path to becoming a society were machines are taking the work away from humans. I personally believe that there should be balance between the two. HOW is another 2 paragraphs..so I wont go there. I will say, to much technology WILL be devastating to MAN.

  7. Technology is already having an Impact so much so that our financial System appears to be teetering on the brink. Before, fund Managers sent their ‘foot soliders’ into companies to look for hidden dangers that could affect the yield on money invested in a Company’s stock, however with super Computers trading in New Jersey in nano seconds how can anyone in the financial System know if a stock purchase is good or bad; thus a gamble on a pump and dump System?

    The Judicial System is an example of a huge disconnect. How can Society be expected to pay for legislation made by lawyers for lawyers when People, many already on dirt cheap wages cannot afford to pay the huge hourly rates imposed by lawyers many of whom use Technology such as email yet Charge for postage! Email tends to be a method of communication which can depending on terms of user agreements results in personal Information becoming public Content.

    Political Systems also appear to be relying heavily on using Technology which can potentially have consequences that results in monitoring and thus easy ways to weed out those who tend to be critical thinkers and thus potential “Troublemakers” simply because such People are more likely to ask serious questions about the fundamental effects on Society generally especially when it becomes much too dependant on Technology generally.

    Intelligent Machines add further concerns since an individual’s ability to control their personal life appears to be more and more a Major issue.,

  8. If it is true that technology will outplace workers, then my assumption is that there will be increased unemployment and correspondingly more socialistic programs to keep the unemployed and underemployed from revolution. What say you all?

  9. I liked your blog, really good ideias you have here.

    Martin, i think we are going to a new era of basic income society, of course you as a renowed author has heared about such a thing, but right now goverments and people involved in this scenario are trying to figure out how exactly this works?

    One thing i have for sure, it will only come to realization many, if not almost all of the countries of the developing, developed and important sub developed world come together as one in implementing this on a timeline.

    This is a short sum of my thought about this future economic scenario.

    But about how technology will affect society in the future, we can discuss even more things, like, what a Virtual Reality would do, i wrote an article about this in my blog, you can check it out here:

    https://blackusxy.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/what-could-be-the-consequences-of-having-it-all-thoughts-about-future-possibilities/

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