Esmee Wilcox publishes her fifth blog post in our Emerging Fellows program. She investigates the possibility of applying technology to socially beneficial production and consumption. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
I have a stack of letters beautifully written and illustrated in a box at home, that represent a different world of communicating through my teenage years. With the technologies I have to hand today, the breadth of my network is vast. I can easily access individuals to work with, to share ideas, to tackle problems together. But the polarisation of views from vast echo-chambers is undeniable. These are the issues of trust we face by connecting more virtually. By 2050 we’ll have entered another paradigm shift from now in how and who we connect with and what technologies we use for this. So what can we do now to ensure that the technologies we design help us connect and organise in socially beneficial ways? What patterns of consumption and production would start to emerge if we did this? Why is this important?
Communities have always self-organised around the problems they notice. Whether child-rearing, food distribution, flooding or fracking. The intractable social and environmental problems of our time are also forcing state hierarchies to look more to community networks as better routes to tackling them. Social media ‘influencers’ are ahead in capitalising on technology enabled networks to commodify their personal social capital. Their skill is in making you feel personally connected whilst accessing vast networks. State actors are starting to look to their community equivalents, individuals who use social media to connect younger, apolitical audiences. Access to community grants is no longer dependent on institutionally biased, lagging processes, but the social capital that these influencers have accrued persuading funders of the local impact.
By 2050 we may be much more dependent on our ability to consume and produce locally with the environmental economics of long supply chains having long been unviable. We can imagine having to produce technology that we can degrade locally without poisoning the land we rely on for food. We can imagine the expansion of communities that are designed to enable consumption and production of food to connect people in socially beneficial ways.
But how might our ‘socially beneficial influencers’ design and make use of new technologies that make these patterns of consumption and production all pervasive? Influencers can readily participate in thematic and place-based communities, keeping the boundaries porous to access and welcome in new ideas. It’s not exclusively the proviso of the elites to have access to a range of networks. It’s not just the cities where the scale and movement of people brings in new ideas. Our influencers might look to technologies that can track and display the impact of communities’ collective behaviour to make it easier and more rewarding to see progress towards different social norms. That also make it easy for everyone to participate, countering the social gradient.
The more expansive social networks of local technology-enabled influencers should make it easier to readily connect our needs to produce with our needs to consume.
Co-housing developments and intergenerational living schemes are already in existence. These provide connectivity in place of privacy that help us produce and consume efficiently. We might not want to live that closely with each other but influencers can open up our private networks and build trust by proxy to put in and take out without high transaction costs. So the network that we utilise in creating closed-loop systems is expansive. We’re re-imagining closed-loop systems with technology that enables us to splice together as specialised units of consumption and production.
This is, of course, dependent on access to technologies that are being created by corporations and governments. To what extent will it remain in the interests of corporations to encourage over-consumption, and trust in our fellow citizens to be eroded by trust in the ‘brand’?
This is where social entrepreneurs have an interesting locus. They already successfully harness the technology of our day to create policy changes as well as changes in consumer behaviour. In what ways might social entrepreneurs persuade corporations that create technologies to move production and consumption into the hands of communities? Can our ‘socially beneficial influencers’ trade their social capital with corporations? Why would corporations be interested?
The potential is there for technologies to enable communities to self-organise systems of consumption and production that are no longer dependent on the arbitrary assets that they find within their local boundaries. We can imagine a shift in motivation to do so as we look ahead to 2050. We can imagine social entrepreneurs having a role in helping communities align their assets. We need to think further about the relationship between those who create the technologies and the communities themselves.
© Esmee Wilcox 2019