Paul Tero a member of our Emerging Fellows program thinks that in a fully digital economy we won’t be needing the same things as today, but we will be needing the same types of things. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
We produce goods and services and we trade in those goods and services because we either want them or need them. There is a market for them. But in the decades ahead, in a market of bits rather than of atoms, will we still be using the same things we do today? From a final consumer perspective, will the digital economy of the future be unrecognizable compared to today's economy?
Consider the retail sector. Where it’s all about the creation and trade in products for the home, for our relaxation, for our sustenance. Or the business sector, where that same dynamic of creation and exchange can be used to drive innovation, to improve operational efficiency, or to maintain a market profile. Or even the public and the not-for-profit sectors, where those same market mechanics apply. That is, in order to provide services, products are purchased. And where nascent product creators are supported.
Reflect too on the structure of this global production and trade system. At over $80trillion dollars, the global economy is broadly comprised of agriculture (primary activity) at 3%, industry (secondary) at 30%, and services (tertiary) at 60%. An important factor in all of this are the sources of government taxation. A third of government revenue is from income, profits and capital gains and a third from taxes on goods and services.
Assuming ceteris paribus, in the coming decades you and I will still have need for shelter, for food, for companionship and relaxation. The same argument can be made for business, for government and the third sector comparing the needs of today and tomorrow. Of note, however, is the form through which the need is satisfied. We no longer desire, for example, to take our family in a horse drawn buggy on a holiday to the sea-side, or to join with family and others to around a wireless set listening to the latest play. Nor do businesses require a typing pool for the efficient production of company memos and customer missives.
Nowadays digital channels of communication are usurping long establishing temporal forms of connections. Nowadays, micro-targeting of marketing messages is more effective at driving trade in goods and services than legacy mass media. Nowadays, there is a greater level of involvement and transparency with those that are served by the public and third sectors compared to times past.
And tomorrow? Through a utopian lens we could see life being further enhanced by digital technology. It could be argued that just like today, where a life stage for an adolescent is marked by receiving a smartphone, that same transition for a teenager in 2050 could be celebrated by receiving their own life-enriching wearable AI tech. A world, for this teenager, where the uncanny valley is no longer a limitation in media and entertainment channels. A world, as teenagers look at the career paths of their parents, that is dominated by the output of firms that have put a high priority on employees with first rate people skills and thinking skills.
Likewise, through a dystopian lens, life for that teenager in 2050 could be one that is further controlled by digital technology. AI implants mark the adolescent life transition. Options for entertainment and other daily choices are slanted toward optimal social outcomes. Beckoning career paths are with firms that are aligned with forms of surveillance capitalism.
The threads that are common to both scenarios are the changes in social structure and the innate desire to make things easier for ourselves. Over time our social institutions change and the people to which we ascribe status. It could be argued that in recent history major sport clubs and/or political parties have supplanted religious groups as our common social institutions. It could be that the realm of the AI and quantum computing scientist and engineer becomes the new sanctum. A new standard of social acceptance that leads to the erasure of the barrier to all forms personalised AI tech.
Regarding the desire for making things easier, the so-called “efficient transaction hypothesis”, witness the smartphone. We embraced it because it made complex or time-consuming tasks (personal transactions) more efficient. It made communication easier, information gathering easier and entertaining easier. A significant factor of human nature that will drive the future acceptance of technologies that we perceive today as pervasive and distasteful.
In a fully digital economy we won’t be needing the same things as today, but we will be needing the same types of things. The world of atoms meets our needs today; the world of bits will meet our needs tomorrow.
© Paul Tero 2019