Is upside all there is as the Digital Economy unfolds?
History can indeed unfold along one of several paths. As you reflect upon significant events over the last few decades, consider also the potential for dystopian future outcomes.
Those in their retirement years today have witnessed so much change since their teenage years. As 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? Among them, consider geopolitical tensions pushing history to unfold in uncertain directions (the Cuban missile crisis); consider scientific developments ushering in both hope (penicillin) and despair (nuclear fission); and consider popular music performers swaying the life choices of fans across the globe (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix).
We now know how all of these 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.
What could be?
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.
It is relatively easy to imagine one scenario – the business as usual path. Based on what we now know, it is conceivable that in 50 years consumer purchases to all be cashless and to involve automated delivery technology. It is easy to imagine company-wide artificial intelligence algorithms driving block-chain-based goods and services production.
But what about other scenarios? Will the history of the digital economy only unfold as a positive for your life, your job and your community? A utopia where machines undertake the work we don’t want to do and facilitate the richness of human potential? What about other possibilities? Perhaps a scenario where everything is restricted, or one where anarchy rules.
First, contemplate the likelihood of the restriction scenario. 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. Similarly, with my shopping history. What is recorded on my loyalty cards is unique to me, as are the offers I receive. Why not then, in the time ahead, only seeing on my screens 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 across our globe. 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 quite dissimilar across the many enclaves, in which tension is a common theme.
Therefore, with business as usual, life retains its complexity; with restriction it is hollow; with anarchy it is wearying. For the easily conceivable scenario, an AI-rich digital economy that supports quality of life is a likely outcome. For the restriction scenario boundaries are implied: consumer experience is limited to a uniquely tailored set of goods and services; business success is bounded by this unique tailoring. Where prospects for innovation are limited by the scope of these personalising algorithms.
Finally, the dystopian scenario. Some enclaves may well have the resources to realise a business as usual outcome, but most are likely to be unrecognisable societies by today’s standards. For these, through resource scarcity, lack of trust, and the application of digital capabilities built up over decades, local oligopolies may well reign supreme. Where societies become marked by deep surveillance and intense social stratification.
So, 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.