All that is solid melts into air

It was good to attend The Highland Fling web conference in Edinburgh last week. I've been taking a bit of time out from web design lately and have been somewhat reclusive, so I enjoyed the opportunity to listen in on the sessions, and catch up with fellow designers and developers.

Especial thanks to all who devoted their time to organising and speaking: I'm glad that the intention is to hold another one before too long. The Central Hall in Tollcross was an impressive venue too, the sunlight streaming through the high windows allowing us to appreciate it at its best.

I appreciated all of the sessions, but was particulary intrigued by Stephanie Rieger's presentation 'Letting Go', available, together with the other sessions, on the conference's Huffduffer page.

Stephanie's talk ranged widely, but the essential theme was humility: designers shouldn't seek to anticipate and manage every aspect of the way in which customers will use their products but recognise that an increasingly technologically sophisiticated audience will want to adapt them to their individual purposes. Closed systems such as those controlled by Apple are the exceptions. More often users prefer open ended, flexible, adaptable standards-based technologies that can be connected together to form self constructed systems.

As Martin Thomas' book Loose, quoted by Stephanie, puts it:

Issuing your customers with something that is rough, incomplete, and possibly even substandard seems counterintuitive but there is growing evidence that people don't necessarily want the perfect product … they prefer to deal with something ragged around the edges that they can adapt or improve.

This interdependency actually makes it even more important that we develop reliable, robust designs that will work as expected when relied upon as components in bespoke systems beyond our control: 'each design, meme, pattern, metaphor and API' becomes part of a future we cannot see.

The oceanic market on which our designs set sail, with its complex interdependencies, has expanded exponentially over the past 20 years or so, its rapid development facilitated by the globalisation of world markets and the intense information exchange enabled by the web.

Groundbreaking new technologies creating the space for new markets and industries now achieve mass market penetration much more quickly than ever before. It took the radio 40 years to reach 50 million customers, TV and personal computers a couple of decades, smartphones just a few years, and Google+ a few months. The periods of relative calm between the emergence of disruptive new technological intrastrucures are much shorter than before.

This part of the presentation moved into speculative territory I've been thinking about a lot lately: the implications of runaway technological change not just for web designers and developers, not just for the tech industry, but for everyone, everyone trying to earn a living and find security within the vortex of today's whirlwind economy, which raises up, consumes then destroys entire industries with unprecedented speed, displacing populations as demand for new skills rises and falls. One doesn't have to pine for the rebuilding of the Berlin Wall to see that Karl Marx got it right at the start of the capitalist era:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.

It's tempting perhaps for those who work at the frontiers of technology, those closest to change, to see this state of perpetual flux exclusively in terms of opportunity. Designers and developers relish the new tools, new coding techniques and new devices as offering fresh opportunities for discovery, for ever more efficient and ingenious technological solutions. For tech entrepreneurs change offers the prospect for the seeding of new markets, of new opportunities for profitable investment.

But for millions outside the tech bubble perpetual innovation doesn't hold the promise of exciting new opportunities for invention or profit. Rather, change means anxiety: the looming redundancy of hard won skills, the need to uproot families and move to new cities to find work, a shift from secure employment to the uncertain freedoms of consultancy work, the unwanted prospect of forced early retirement.

Unsurprisingly the swirl of hope and anxiety generated by the rapid pace of change has created one new industry that is doing rather well: techno-futurism, the dubious art of discerning the future path of technological innovation and its economic implications. A growing crowd of latter-day soothsayers attempt to forecast the skills new markets will demand and those that will be rendered redundant, the global regions that will rise and fall, the challenges that will face governments seeking to design economic and political frameworks that will attempt to sustain social order by managing the impact of change.

It's a vast literature. Of those I've had time to read there seems a measure of agreement regarding the kinds of change technological revolution is effecting, but rather less as to whether it can be managed to our mutual advantage.

The zero marginal cost economy

Jeremy Rifkin is one of the more interesting optimists. In his latest book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society he argues that a particularly dramatic effect of technological progress, the reduction of the 'marginal cost' of producing goods and services, offers opportunities for breaking through to a more equitable and creative system of economic exchange.

Web technologies, Rifkin notes, have allowed 'prosumers' to produce and share information, such as news and educational courses, for little or no cost. Information networks are making it much easier to bypass conventional markets for the sharing of things like cars, homes, clothes and tools. Now the 'internet-of-things' is making it easier to produce and distribute physical goods:

Siemens, IBM, Cisco and General Electric are among the firms erecting an internet-of-things infrastructure, connecting the world in a global neural network. There are now 11 billion sensors connecting devices to the internet of things. By 2030, 100 trillion sensors will be attached to natural resources, production lines, warehouses, transportation networks, the electricity grid and recycling flows, and be implanted in homes, offices, stores, and vehicles – continually sending big data to the communications, energy and logistics internets. Anyone will be able to access the internet of things and use big data and analytics to develop predictive algorithms that can speed efficiency, dramatically increase productivity and lower the marginal cost of producing and distributing physical things, including energy, products and services, to near zero, just as we now do with information goods.

In summary, shrinking marginal costs of production are making it harder to monetise a widening range of goods and services, allowing customers to bypass the marketplace altogether. This hollowing out of opportunities for profitable exchange might seem catastrophic from an orthodox economic perspective: if there are no profits to be made, how are incomes to be earned?

Rifkin's analysis of these converging economic trends is impressive, but his rather facile optimism as to how we'll manage them is somewhat less convincing. When over the next few decades, he maintains, we find that the classic system of market exchange is no longer sustainable, we will calmly move to a post-capitalist system founded on the principle of the 'collaborative commons': the free exchange of freely produced goods and services, distributed according to need.

That supposition seems to owe more to the sunny Californian utopianism to which so many of the techno-futurists are prone than to sober assessment of how such destablising trends will actually be managed. For what it's worth, I find Rifkin's vision of a generous, well organised post-capitalist society rather appealing. But market capitalism isn't simply going to transition gracefully to a succeeding system. Capitalism has proved remarkably adept thus far at discovering new ways of identifying potential sources of value that can be marketed and sold for profit, and one would expect that to continue for the foreseeable future. And owners of capital stand to lose too much from a breakdown of the current system to accept a move to a new framework that will drain their sources of wealth: expect them to want to hang on to what they've accumulated for some time to come.

The new feudalism

Jaron Lanier's analysis, in his recent Who Owns the Future, overlaps with Rifkin's in certain respects, but is much more tough-minded about the kind of concrete action that needed to safeguard livelihoods threatened by the networked economy.

Lanier is intrigued and alarmed by the curious economics of social networks: huge profits have been trawled by a handful of corporations from the willingness of billions to donate lucrative personal information as the price of 'free' access to online communities. In exchange for entry to Facebook et al we provide exhaustive details of our interests, consumer choices and demographic constituencies, furnishing network gatekeepers with priceless banks of consumer data that generate billions in advertising revenues.

For Lanier this is a new feudalism, the information produced by the multitudes generating vast profits for a few extraordinarily wealthy overlords. Content creators such as writers, artists and musicians find themselves competing with the sea of resources available on the world's YouTubes and Facebooks, and obliged to post at least some of their original material there to ensure continued visibility to their audiences. To be sure, social networks open opportunities for promotion, but they make it harder to secure renumeration for original work.

Lanier argues that everyone contributing content to a network should be proportionally compensated for the use corporations make of the online data they accumulate. It would be possible to develop a nanopayments system capable of tracing and calculating the value of our respective contributions to online data archives. These micropayments would go some way towards securing a measure of 'economic dignity' for the content creators who facilitate the vast profits that accruing to network providers.

Machine intelligence

Tyler Cowen, in Average is Over, seems to me to offer a no-nonsense, bleak and downright commonsense assessment of where we're headed. Cowen highlights the rapid development of 'machine intelligence', the proliferation of ever more ingenious machines and software running sophisticated algorithyms able to perform tasks that previously required human oversight.

The creeping mechanisation of work is of course a long term phenomenon, certainly since the Luddites started smashing spinning jennies and power looms during the early 19th century. Repetitive manual labour has always been susceptible to computerisation. But now, Cowen notes, machines are moving into the former strongholds of skilled white collar, middle class professions. Your job is secure if it guides or complements the work of intelligent machines, if it is work that a computer cannot do. If a machine might be able to do it one day, watch out: that day will come sooner than you think.

John McDermott, in Is technology set to steal your job?, a Prospect Magazine article referencing Cowen's work, quotes the findings of a paper by the economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, The Future of Employment, which lists the kinds of jobs that are likely to survive, and those which probably will not:

Frey and Osborne say that 47% of jobs in the US are at 'high risk' of computerisation in the next two decades. Jobs classified as 'high risk' include: credit analysts, cooks, geological technicians, crane operators, chauffeurs, cartographers, real estate agents, baggage porters and, ironically, semiconductor processors.

Even hitherto well paid legal and financial work is susceptible to replacement by emerging artificial intelligence:

Lawyers, for example, are threatened by cheap notary software and by algorithms that can read thousands of pages much quicker than a clerk. Thousands of jobs in the City of London are susceptible to technology that makes irrelevant their middlemen functions or shows up their maths skills.

'Cognitive' work requiring 'creative' and 'social' intelligence, employment that depends on the generation of novel ideas or empathy, will be spared:

Jobs at low risk include: psychologists. curators, personal trainers, archaeologists, marketers, public relations, most engineers, surgeons and fashion designers.

Cowen reckons that within the next few decades only 15 to 20% of the workforce will make a good living: the rest of the employment market will offer relatively poorly paid jobs in a partial state of automation, requiring only vestigial human input. And he doesn't hold out much hope of a political solution to help the underemployed majority:

We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given an OK standard of living to one in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now.

A blunt and bleak assessment, perhaps, but I admire Cowen's honesty: it's merely the entrenchment of our contemporary age of austerity, in which welfare support is slashed even as opportunities for meaningful and renumerative employment decline.

Cowen's techno-pessimism sounds severe because we tend to associate technological progress with progress tout court: with greater comfort, higher living standards, and the prospect of more leisure. But there's nothing inevitable about any of that. Dystopian outcomes seem at least as likely: more insecurity and anxiety, demeaning work or no work at all for the majority, the concentration of the wealth generated from technological advance in relatively few hands.

What is to be done?

Something like the shining hi-tech future of the popular imagination will only be realised through concerted political effort to ensure that the gains of technological advance are widely distributed. Possible action might include:

  • Education programmes designed to promote technical literacy to help as many people as possible to develop the skills necessary to harness rather than serve intelligent machines.
  • State supported job creation schemes. If the private sector is unable to generate decent, meaningful work for all - and as we have seen it may be even less likely to do so in the future than it is now - then we need public jobs programmes to allow everyone who so wishes an opportunity for meaningful economic participation.
  • To provide further economic security we might consider replacing our expensive, labyrinthine, increasingly cruel means tested welfare state with a flat, guaranteed basic income: a modest flat social wage paid to everyone as right of citizenship. This would free people from the exploitative conditions of employment that - as we see today - prevail when jobs are scarce and employers hold the upper hand.
  • Jobs programmes and a basic income could be funded through the abolition of byzantine welfare systems and wealth and land taxes on the super wealthy. To a certain extent it would fund itself by giving people the confidence to spend more and thus stimulate economic growth.

These measures might seem radical, but I see no other means of ensuring that everyone, not just a small minority, benefits from technological advance.

And one might hope that the tech sector might show an especial concern to support the political solutions necessary to make sure that technical innovation helps us all.

Because the tech industry at its best exhibits a certain liberality, a generous, non-utilitarian sense of the joy of discovery and creativity for its own sake, a spirit that - to some extent - still animates it. That idealism is certainly evident within the web design and development community, where an extraordinary range of knowledge and resources is pooled without renumeration for the sake of collective benefit.

In an outstanding piece for the New Statesman a couple of weeks back, political commentator and self-confessed geek Laurie Penny travelled to San Francisco, the troubled heartland of tech start-up culture, to report on a city that already serves as a living example of the kind of world we might be in the process of creating.

The Bay Area is a confusion of extraordinary wealth and desperate poverty: venture capitalists, start-up kids and cossetted Google employees mix with impoverished bohemians and America's largest homeless population. It's still home to tech idealists - Penny visits the Noisebridge hackerspace in the city's increasingly gentrified Mission area, whose members seek to live out the original hacker ethic of eccentricity and unconditioned discovery. But, increasingly, they are crowded out of the city by corporate employees or start-ups looking to cash-in and get out. Penny notes that the Californian tech scene is becoming ever more like the financial sector in its frank pursuit of riches:

If today's tech industry is what yesterday's financial sector was, there is one important difference. In finance, making money is the ideology, as well as the effect of that ideology. By contrast, much of the tech sector is driven by an ethos that is liberal, or at least progressively libertarian - it's supposed to be about making things, breaking things, challenging conventional power and its monopoly over information. It's about disruption.

It's easy to assume that technology always changes the world for the better. That assumption is wrong. I hope the tech sector retains enough of that disruptive, idealistic spirit to help ensure that the economy of the future, the future it has played a major role in determining, will work for the benefit of all, not the few.