Monday, 21 January 2013

The future's so bright I've got to wear VR goggles which help me empathise.

If your kids already spend eight hours a day online, the future depicted in Pareg and Ayesha Khanna's Hybrid Reality might ring true for you. Others may be harder to persuade.
Hybrid Reality is the short monograph which I suppose serves as flagship publication Pareg and Ayesha’s Hybrid Reality Institute, an organisation whose raison d’etre seems to be the pursuit of unfettered wishful thinking about the potential of technology. Good luck to them: dreaming up whacky visions of the future does sound like fun, and while it’s hard to see any practical application for the Fortune 500 companies the authors claim as their clients, if they’ve managed to persuade these conglomerates otherwise, happy days. Especially if in the future, everything is going to be crowd-sourced and free.

Hybrid Reality is thus an attempt to sketch out a future based on extrapolating current trends of technological development: a (thankfully slimmer) companion-piece to Ray Kurzweill’s The Singularity Is Near.

In fairness, Hybrid Reality quickly moves beyond stock platitudes about crowdsourcing, but where it does it does so without much credibility. The text is plastered with buzzwords borrowed from other disciplines and deployed with carefree abandon: 

accelerated evolution creates what we might call a Heisenbergian or quantum society: we are particles whose position, momentum and impact on others, and the impact of others on us, are perpetually uncertain due to constant technological disruptions.

Okayyy. Amongst the rhubarb there is a point to be made about rapidly disrupting technologies, but that’s not it. To the contrary, the rate of change is so fast that genuinely novel technologies and businesses have little chance to establish themselves, and that those which get a foothold do so as by fiat as sober business development, and then proceed to hammer everyone else into the ground. In such a nasty, brutish and short environment conditions favour not elegance and sophistication in design but the lowest common denominator. 

Breath-taking technologies of the sort which overflow this book, on the other hand, assume a sophistication which needs a warm and safe environment in which to incubate. Increasingly, new technologies never get the chance to be smart. It isn’t accelerated evolution that’s going on, but accelerated extinction.

In such a nasty, brutish and short environment conditions favour not elegance and sophistication in design but the lowest common denominator. 

I suppose you might expect a degree of credulity from faculty members of the “Singularity University” but, still, their vision owes as much to science fiction as it does to academic analysis and nothing at all to the traditional discipline of economics. Perhaps the dismal science, too, will succumb to the information revolution: cavalierly, Samuel Huntingdon’s maxim is reformulated so that it is not economics but technology that is “the most important source of power and wellbeing”. Older hands will recall hearing that kind of talk before, and it didn’t work out so well in 2003 when hundreds of “new economy” business models folded when it turned out they did need to generate revenue after all.

It’s easy to be a naysayer, of course, but all the same my hunch is that the Khannas’ monologue has little value for anything but excitable kite flying. Many of their assertions strongly suggest this pair really, literally, need to get out more. “Of the eight hours a day children today spend online, 1.5 involve using avatars…” they say, as if that initial premise may be taken as a given. Eight hours a day online? Which children are these, exactly? “Robots are incontestably becoming more ubiquitous, intelligent and social” and “represent an entirely new type of ‘other’ that we interact with in our social lives”. Elsewhere, “Technik”, as they put it, seems to have the power to change the laws of nature, and in the short term: “The average British citizen will likely live to be 100 years old”, they predict. Technik is so clever it can even grant us powers which we already have: In the future there will be virtual reality goggles, we are told, which can “sense other people’s stress levels”. Just imagine being able to do that.

Many of their assertions strongly suggest this pair really, literally, need to get out more. 

You can, in any case, read your fill here of all the ways the internet of things will provide an untold wealth of cool free stuff, but note the lack of any financial analysis: All this cool stuff requires effort: not just to design and conceptualise, but to manufacture, distribute, house, power, maintain and (to extent it can’t be fully computerised) operate. And effort, generally, requires money. Previous generations of technological development have shifted the labour demand curve upwards: automation has taken out repetitive, low value tasks but created more complex ones designing, building and maintaining the machinery to carry out these tasks: as a result we have grown busier with each development, not more idle - though our occupations have been more complex, challenging and rewarding. The Khannas’ brave new world would, by implication, flip that on its head.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the robots can fully take over, perform our manual labour, wipe bottoms, cure diseases and revolutionise production across all industries and agricultures so that human intervention is not required at all. Hard to see, but let’s say. Is a permanent state of situation of blissful, but chronic, total global unemployment a feasible basis for an economy?

As far as I know, man cannot live by Facebook likes alone. Last time I checked, rent wasn’t free. Nor was power, food, nor raw materials. As we go on, they’re getting harder (and costlier) to extract. So who will finance these lives of leisure? With what? Why? Who would provide services, when there was no-one to pay for them? Is it perhaps the case that personal labour, rather than being an unfortunate by-product of the “old economy” way of doing things, is in fact an immutable in the calculus of value?

Dreaming about amazing technologies which might be coming down the pike is the job of a science fiction writer. The academic question is less glamorous and more fundamental: how, within the new parameters of digital commons and in a post-growth world, can anyone devise a business model able to deliver them? These, it seems to me, are the really challenging questions, and you won’t find them addressed in this book.

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