The Shifting Sands of Society

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A Guest Post for Curious Meerkat by Leon Vanstone.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Comp-Sci.

Imagine you were alive thousands of years ago. Technology is primitive. Food is scarce. Life is tough. Wi-Fi signal is terrible. You spend most of your time foraging for food and what little spare time you have when the sun goes down is spent essentially doing science. Now this isn’t very advanced science, I’m talking about bashing rocks together, discovering fire, making spears, but nonetheless this is science and progress is slow.

Go forward a few thousand years; you are now a peasant, along with almost everyone else. You spend most of your time growing enough food so that a few very privileged people don’t have to farm at all. Still, life is a little easier and society as a whole has a little more free time to invent and discover. Progress is faster but not that fast. Life for the peasants still sucks. Wi-Fi signal is still terrible.

Now you are you. You are either part of the 3% of society* that does all the farming for everyone else or you’re part of the 97% that does other things. Either way your life probably doesn’t suck, WiFi coverage is much better and you essentially live like royalty (at least in comparison to the other two version of you). So what changed?

Famers were replaced by machinery and became manufacturers. Manufacturers were replaced by automated assembly lines and they went on to become computer engineers. The more people in a society you can free to think, to do things that don’t involve sustaining that society (like farming) the more people you have to be artists and scientists and entrepreneurs. This leads to more discoveries, which in turn frees more people to think, and so on. Humanity has been doing this since before we were humans.

But for hundreds of thousands of years this process has been slow. Society needs time to adjust to the change in required skill sets. In truth few farmers really re-train as manufacturers and few manufacturers go on to become computer engineers. It is much more likely that it will be the next generation that trains into the new skill set required by society, the famers’ children go on to be manufacturers and the manufacturer’s children become computer scientists. But at some point you expect the rate of change to happen quicker than children take to grow up. At some point the manufacturer has to re-train as a computer engineer.

In fact we have already passed that point, it occurred somewhere between the end of World War II and today, when the manufacturing industry moved to automated manufacturing. Large parts of once prosperous countries are now poor simply because the industry there collapsed relatively quickly.

Imagine it is 1950, for the northern United States the manufacturing industry is booming, cities growing and life for many is good. Nowhere is this truer than in Detroit, a city that grew from a population of 300 thousand in 1900 to almost two million in 1950.

Now fast forward to today, most of those factories are gone or simply abandoned — left to rust. With those factories went the jobs, but while the jobs left, many of the people did not. That whole region is now known as the rust belt, it suffered a massive recession, decreased standards of living, increased poverty and high unemployment. A lack of available work and decreased standards of living left many turning to crime; in 2012 Detroit was crowned murder capital of the USA, and in 2013 it filed for bankruptcy. Life was no longer so good.
Yet this change in manufacturing happened relatively slowly, it took decades and yet the effects are pronounced. But currently we find ourselves at a new technological precipice: drones.

When you say drone, people’s minds often skip to quadcopters or military hardware. But a drone is just a relatively autonomous device that you can give commands to without having to worry about how it does it. Driverless cars are drones, simply give them a task (taking you somewhere) and they figure the rest out.

So here we stand on the verge of implementing an entire system of transportation that manages itself, reduces traffic, accidents, emissions and all for a lower cost. But the implications of driverless cars are huge, because the transportation industry is huge, employing millions of people.

Suddenly you don’t need drivers for taxis, buses, trucks, you name it. Not just cars either– boats, planes, anything that moves could soon be completely automated. Once this process begins it is likely to happen very quickly. Once most personal cars drive themselves and people realize the benefits, how long before people are not just comfortable with computers driving them but they prefer it? A drone car can know where all the traffic is around it, not just in the city but also at the junction ahead. You don’t have to stop at a junction if you know there’s no traffic approaching it. Suddenly you can drive everywhere at 70 miles an hour; journey times drop; traffic jams evaporate.

Plastic-free, stainless steel lunch boxes and cotton bags.

But what happens to the people that drove those vehicles before, who performed a vital task in society, a valuable service? What happens when (literally) millions of people find themselves unemployed with a skill set society no longer needs, inside of a generation? How do we, as a society, deal with that?

From a social viewpoint, having millions more people free to do more complex tasks is good. It leaves more people to be artists and scientists and entrepreneurs in much the same way reducing the number of famers and manufacturers did.

But for the millions of people who have suddenly lost their job, this is very bad. As a society we are not good at helping them to retrain, instead we leave them to rust. Should we as a society pay to retrain them or do we just get used to living in Detroit?

I think these questions are very important and I think we need to be talking about them now. The transportation industry could be the first to collapse so quickly but it won’t be the last. There are already computer programs that can write other computer programs. How long before we have to retrain the computer scientists and what will their children want to be?

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    By: Leon Vanstone

    Leon has been doing science communication for about as long as he has been doing science. He believes science communication is almost as important as the science, after all what use is a discovery if no one ever finds out about it?

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