Future Shock Reloaded

When I was a lad I would sneak into my father’s den and ransack his library. This was the early 1970s and I discovered all sorts of treasures, many of which I could barely comprehend, including The Godfather and even The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But the one book my pre-teen brain could parse was Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. I didn’t read the whole thing, too many pages! But I got the gist: “too much change in too short a period of time” is bad for us.

Toffler argued that human beings and culture just can’t keep up with the accelerating rate of modern technological change. For thousands of years we were farmers; for hundreds of years we were crafters; for decades we were factory workers, and now, what are we?

  • Last week we were web developers worried about search engine results.
  • This week we are gig-economy drivers living on apps for pickups.
  • Next week we’ll be data analysts mining Bitcoins on behalf of AIs.

Indeed, we’re getting those accelerating returns that Ray Kurzweil promised. Every week there is new technological anxiety adding to our already overwrought imaginations. Future Shock is back!

At home, at work, and on the road, I run into people worried about the impact of technology disruption on their careers, their health, and their spirits. And people have questions. Urgent questions that are difficult to answer but critical to understand in our Future Shocked world…

  • “Should I buy Bitcoin?”
  • “Will Robots steal my job?”
  • “Should I plug in an Alexa and allow it to spy on me?”

These are all great questions. And I don’t really have the definitive answers. But I have some ideas. The future is hard to predict but there are trends that we can look for and some basic laws of human behavior that we can count on. I’m going to share my answers below. I’m probably wrong but these answers are the best advice I can give.

Should I buy Bitcoin?

If you have to ask the question then the answer is probably “No.”

Buying or mining any cryptocurrency was a fun hobby in 2009. Today, Bitcoin and its friends Litecoin, Ripple, Dogecoin, Ethereum, et al. are basically a modern form of gambling and money laundering. If you have money you can afford to lose, and you’re not already in Las Vegas, go ahead, gamble on Bitcoin.

What we should buy as in buy into is Blockchain. It’s the future of how we’re going to contract with each other. There is a great book entitled Debt by David Graeber which explains that money is a social debt or obligation contracted between two parties. And these social contracts existed long before dollar bills, bills of sale, and other formal written contracts. Blockchain is the modern incarnation of social contracts as software. Blockchain is decentralized and open and part of a larger trend of “software eating the world.”

I bet in a decade or two almost every thing of value, including the labor of people like you and me, will be tracked and traded via blockchain-enabled smart contracts. Partnerships, concert tours, college educations, and even cute little human babies will hold ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) and we’ll all invest in each other such that the rising or lowering tide of value we collectively earn (or mine) will be used to pay our debts.

Blockchain will make the value we create for society as individuals *fungible*. I’ll be able to buy a block of your creativity and you’ll be able to buy a block of my coding skill.

Will robots steal my job?

Yes… but it’s ok, you’ll get another job (if you become T-Shaped).

There is no industry, vocation, or advocation that will not be impacted by automation and machine learning. In only a few more years RPA, Robot Process Automation, will automate entry level and managerial tasks. Everything from buying toilet paper to approving expense reports will be automated by a narrowly smart bot—not a physical robot like R2D2. Telemarketing, accounting, retail, sales, driving, and even acting and singing will be automated so that the labor is cheaper, cleaner, quicker, and more reliable.

And we want this world of smart, unbiased robots, lowering costs and improving service.

My favorite example is the Amazon Go Store. No cashiers, no money, no lines, no rudeness, and no shoplifting. Sooner than we think the major retail stores will be crewed only by a store manager or two while cameras and sensors do all the other jobs. Not only cashiers but security guards, cleaners, stockers, and customer service jobs will be automated away or performed remotely.

Luckily, in the world of software engineering, we have a great deal of experience with automation-driven employment disruption. When I started coding in the 1980s I used low-level programming languages like Assembly and C, but most of the work was the *housekeeping* required to build, test, and deploy software. Today, while I’m still programming, the real innovation is in DevOps and Cloud Computing and all the ways they automate the software development process.

Software engineers like me have learned to continuously learn! We’ve also learned to stretch and try new types of jobs every few years so we remain relevant and employable. In the software world we call this being T-shaped. This means we know a lot about a lot of things in our general domain but we also have a specialization or two where we have expertise and experience.

No matter what kind of expertise or experience that you have now, that enables your employment, it will probably be automated away in a decade or two. However, your domain will remain and new areas of specialization requiring new expertise and experience will open up, creating new jobs and new opportunities.

Should I plug in an Alexa and allow it to spy on me?

Absolutely.

Choose a voice assistant, Alexa, Google, Siri, and learn how to take advantage of it as it learns how to take advantage of you.

You’re worried about your privacy and security. Me too! But ignoring or unplugging technology won’t protect us from corporate snooping or hacking. The best defense of our privacy and data is strong engagement with and deep understanding of the technology that surrounds us.

Decades ago, I lived in a world where we had to type at a computer to get it to do anything. Today, I mostly touch screens to get stuff done. But typing and touching isn’t any more secure than a Home Pod that listens for and responds to my voice. And these smart speakers aren’t mind readers. We have to learn how to talk to a computer as it has to learn how to understand us. Both get better with practice!

What about privacy? Personally, I don’t think we have privacy anymore. That ship has sailed away in a sea of cameras and microphones built into everything. But we do have anonymity. For the most part, unless a shadowy government agency is out to get you, your personal data is lost in the noise of trillions of packets of data bouncing around the Internet.

Can we trust big capitalist enterprises like Amazon, Google, and Apple? Well, they are big enough to be held legally accountable and regulated. They are interested in our money, not our souls. So trust.. but verify!

How I learned to stop worrying and love Future Shock

The world works by each of us influencing each other. The whole history of computer-enabled communication is just the most recent installment of the ancient arts of oratory and rhetoric. “Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears” is the invocation of a conversation. Just like Amazon, Google, and Apple, Shakespeare is trying to influence you. Shakespeare had an agenda. Shakespeare was selling something but he was also listening for what you had to say.

I know that this is sometimes hard to believe, but the overall trend in the USA is that people are healthier, living longer, and generally wealthier, even when we consider all the conflicts, violence, and greed in the world. In the Neolithic Era we lived to 25 and died in the jaws of a tiger. In the Middle Ages we lived to 35 and died at the end of a lance. In the 21st century we live well into our 80s and have the Netflix Skip Intro Button. That button alone gives me hope!

It is technology that is making the difference: all that technology that we are anxious about; all that technology creating Future Shock.

An electrical shock only happens when you make initial contact with a charged wire. Don’t wait for the charge to build up. And once you make contact, one you embrace the future, stay connected so you can influence and own the future.