Tag Archives: future economics

Rethinking Jobs And Business: How Pandemics And Relief Benefits May Change Both

Help wanted? | Free | hometownsource.com

The world is always changing. That’s the only constant.

Sometimes, it changes more rapidly and chaotically than usual. That tends to happen a lot when major events transpire, such as a once-in-a-generation pandemic that infected millions and shut down entire countries. I hope I don’t have to belabor that to anyone with a news feed for the past year.

At the same time, these kinds of rapid upheavals can get us thinking harder about things we tend not to question. I’m not just talking about how much we take our health, our infrastructure, and our essential workers for granted. I’m referring to bigger concepts about how we approach life, society, and how we structure our lives.

One area that seems to be getting more scrutiny lately is how we approach jobs, work, and careers. I’ve certainly given it more thought, mostly in terms of the impacts of telework and how I used my stimulus check. I suspect many others have contemplated these topics in new ways in wake of recent events.

Now, as the pandemic nears its end, some of those concepts are already manifesting in the real world. One effect, in particular, has been especially jarring in America, mostly for reasons that other industrialized countries may find laughable. It has to do with people not wanting to work for a lousy, unlivable wage.

I know that shouldn’t be such a radical concept, but it is and as a proud American, I find it infuriating. There’s no getting around it. The ages for the average, non-CEO American have been stagnant for decades. It’s an issue that has been festering since long before the pandemic and even before I was born.

Before the pandemic swept in, there was an ongoing debate on whether the minimum wage should be increased to $15 nationally. I won’t get too heavily into the politics and talking points behind it, mostly because it ultimately descends into cycle of speculation and fallacies. I’ll just say that the pandemic has complicated that debate in unexpected ways.

During the height of the pandemic, the economy was basically shut down. Suddenly, millions were out of work and businesses had to shut down. Many still haven’t fully recovered. A big reason why many didn’t starve to death or end up on the streets was because of government relief packages, which included extended unemployment benefits.

While America’s relief package wasn’t nearly as generous as other countries, it was certainly better than nothing. I know plenty of people who genuinely needed that relief to stay afloat in terms of paying bills and feeding their families. It’s also not unreasonable to say that this was a critical measure in terms of preventing the pandemic from getting even worse.

However, this effort revealed something remarkable. According to a study done last year, the unemployment benefits that many workers received was actually better than their previous wages. It wasn’t an insignificant chunk of the work force, either. The benefits were greater for approximately 68 percent of American workers.

What does that say about the wages we’re paying our workers?

Moreover, what does that say about the system in general that workers can make more by not working than they would if they were?

Something about that doesn’t add up, literally and conceptually. I get that this was an unprecedented situation. At the same time, it reveal something about how we see work and workers. It’s something businesses are starting to realize too.

As the country and the world opens up, new job opportunities are arising. That’s good news for those who have been out of work. Unfortunately, those same businesses are having a hard time filling those positions.

The jobs are there.

The workers are there.

They just aren’t gravitating towards one another.

Here’s a brief rundown of the situation, courtesy of NPR. If you haven’t been working or are lucky enough to have kept your job during the pandemic, it should offer some insight and perspective.

NPR: Millions Are Out Of A Job. Yet Some Employers Wonder: Why Can’t I Find Workers?

At a time when millions of Americans are unemployed, businessman Bill Martin has a head-scratching problem: He’s got plenty of jobs but few people willing to take them.

“I keep hearing about all the unemployed people,” Martin says. “I certainly can’t find any of those folks.”

Martin helps run M.A. Industries, a plastics manufacturing company in Peachtree City, Ga. The company makes products used in the medical industry — specifically, in things like coronavirus tests and vaccine manufacturing and development.

But as he struggles to keep up with demand, Martin is finding it almost impossible to find new workers.

As someone who has worked his share of lousy, low-paying jobs, I can’t say I’m surprised by this. Don’t get me wrong. I still feel for the business owners who need workers to keep things going. I just can’t forget how arduous it was, working hard at a job that paid so little and left me so exhausted at the end of the day.

If the alternative is staying home and collecting unemployment, which ultimately pays more, then the choice is easy. That’s especially true for those who have kids or relatives they need to take care of. It’s not that they’re lazy, as some overpaid pundits love pointing out. It’s just that the nature of these jobs aren’t that appealing, especially when the pay is so low.

If anything, this situation has inspired us all to take a step back and look at how we approach work, jobs, careers, and business. When you think about it, it’s a little distressing that we build so much of our lives around work. It’s not just something we do out of obligation and responsibility. Many literally have to work in order to survive.

Is that right?

Is that just?

Is that healthy for society as a whole?

I say this as someone who has been lucky enough to have jobs that I’ve both loved and hated. I know what it’s like to work for a business that you hate. I also know what it’s like to have a job you find genuinely fulfilling. Not everyone is that lucky. In fact, I suspect the vast majority of the population, even in America, never experience that luck.

I get that there are economic reasons why some businesses can’t pay their employees high wages. I’ve worked in fast food restaurants. I know the profit margins aren’t exactly large. I also know that, even when I could make more than minimum wage, it was rarely enough to live on. That’s not even factoring the physical toll some of this work takes.

Despite that toll, there was still an undeniable stigma to those who didn’t work or those who simply avoided low paying jobs. In America, it’s a direct extension of that old protestant work ethic that equates moral worth with a willingness to do backbreaking labor for minimal pay. I’m not saying that work ethic is wrong, but I do think it needs to be re-evaluated.

The pandemic suddenly gave people an option on whether or not they wanted to do these kinds of low-paying jobs. Many understandably opt to just collect unemployment. They may not live luxuriously, but they will live. In some cases, they’re even better off.

It may be a sign of things to come. I already speculated on how the pandemic relief bills could be a precursor to a universal basic income. Now that people have experienced life in which their survival isn’t directly tied to having a low-paying job, I think it’ll be difficult to back.

I also think that’s a good thing. Regardless of how you feel about minimum wages, work ethic, or running a business, I think it’s generally a positive trend that we’re starting to decouple work with the right to survive. I think it’s a trend that has to happen, especially as automation does more and more of the low-skilled labor traditionally done by human workers.

It’s true. Some people are lazy and don’t like to work. Some people are just so driven and incapable of not working. Both still deserve to live without needed a job to keep them from starving to death or losing their home. As bad as this pandemic has been, I sincerely hopes it inspires us to rethink how we structure our society. There is a better way of doing things. We should always strive to do things better. Sometimes, that means rethinking everything we’ve come to believe about work, business, and life in general.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Events, health, human nature, politics

Why We Should Treat Our Data As (Valuable) Property

Many years ago, I created my first email address before logging into the internet. It was a simple AOL account. I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think I was creating anything valuable. At the time, the internet was limited to slow, clunky dial-up that had little to offer in terms of content. I doubt anyone saw what they were doing as creating something of great value.

I still have that email address today in case you’re wondering. I still regularly use it. I imagine a lot of people have an email address they created years ago for one of those early internet companies that used to dominate a very different digital world. They may not even see that address or those early internet experiences as valuable.

Times have changed and not just in terms of pandemics. In fact, times tends to change more rapidly in the digital world than it does in the real world. The data we created on the internet, even in those early days, became much more valuable over time. It served as the foundation on which multi-billion dollar companies were built.

As a result, the data an individual user imparts onto the internet has a great deal of value. You could even argue that the cumulative data of large volumes of internet users is among the most valuable data in the world.

Politicians, police, the military, big businesses, advertising agencies, marketing experts, economists, doctors, and researchers all have use for this data. Many go to great lengths to get it, sometimes through questionable means.

The growing value of this data raises some important questions.

Who exactly owns this data?

How do we go about treating it from a legal, fiscal, and logistical standpoint?

Is this data a form of tangible property, like land, money, or labor?

Is this something we can exchange, trade, or lease?

What is someone’s recourse if they want certain aspects of their data removed, changed, or deleted?

These are all difficult questions that don’t have easy answers. It’s getting to a point where ownership of data was an issue among candidates running for President of the United States. Chances are, as our collective data becomes more vital for major industries, the issue will only grow in importance.

At the moment, it’s difficult to determine how this issue will evolve. In the same way I had no idea how valuable that first email address would be, nobody can possibly know how the internet, society, the economy, and institutions who rely on that data will evolve. The best solution in the near term might not be the same as the best solution in the long term.

Personally, I believe that our data, which includes our email addresses, browsing habits, purchasing habits, and social media posts, should be treated as personal property. Like money, jewels, or land, it has tangible value. We should treat it as such and so should the companies that rely on it.

However, I also understand that there are complications associated with this approach. Unlike money, data isn’t something you can hold in your hand. You can’t easily hand it over to another person, nor can you claim complete ownership of it. To some extent, the data you create on the internet was done with the assistance of the sites you use and your internet service provider.

Those companies could claim some level of ownership of your data. It might even be written in the fine print of those user agreements that nobody ever reads. It’s hard to entirely argue against such a claim. After all, we couldn’t create any of this data without the aid of companies like Verizon, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. At the same time, these companies couldn’t function, let alone profit, without our data.

It’s a difficult question to resolve. It only gets more difficult when you consider laws like the “right to be forgotten.” Many joke that the internet never forgets, but it’s no laughing matter. Peoples’ lives can be ruined, sometimes through no fault of their own. Peoples’ private photos have been hacked and shared without their permission.

In that case, your data does not at all function like property. Even if it’s yours, you can’t always control it or what someone else does with it. You can try to take control of it, but it won’t always work. Even data that was hacked and distributed illegally is still out there and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Despite those complications, I still believe that our data is still the individual’s property to some extent, regardless of what the user agreements of tech companies claim. Those companies provide the tools, but we’re the ones who use them to build something. In the same way a company that makes hammers doesn’t own the buildings they’re used to make, these companies act as the catalyst and not the byproduct.

Protecting our data, both from theft and from exploitation, is every bit as critical as protecting our homes. An intruder into our homes can do a lot of damage. In our increasingly connected world, a nefarious hacker or an unscrupulous tech company can do plenty of damage as well.

However, there’s one more critical reason why I believe individuals need to take ownership of their data. It has less to do with legal jargon and more to do with trends in technology. At some point, we will interact with the internet in ways more intimate than a keyboard and mouse. The technology behind a brain/computer interface is still in its infancy, but it exists and not just on paper.

Between companies like Neuralink and the increasing popularity of augmented reality, the way we interact with technology is bound to get more intimate/invasive. Clicks and link sharing are valuable today. Tomorrow, it could be complex thoughts and feelings. Whoever owns that stands to have a more comprehensive knowledge of the user.

I know it’s common refrain to say that knowledge is power, but when the knowledge goes beyond just our browsing and shopping habits, it’s not an unreasonable statement. As we build more and more of our lives around digital activities, our identities will become more tied to that data. No matter how large or small that portion might be, we’ll want to own it as much as we can.

It only gets more critical if we get to a point where we can fully digitize our minds, as envisioned in shows like “Altered Carbon.” At some point, our bodies are going to break down. We cannot preserve it indefinitely for the same reason we can’t preserve a piece of pizza indefinitely. However, the data that makes up our minds could be salvaged, but that opens the door to many more implications.

While that kind of technology is a long way off, I worry that if we don’t take ownership of our data today, then it’ll only get harder to do so in the future. Even before the internet, information about who we are and what we do was valuable.

This information forms a big part of our identity. If we don’t own that, then what’s to stop someone else from owning us and exploiting that to the utmost? It’s a question that has mostly distressing answers. I still don’t know how we go about staking our claim on our data, but it’s an issue worth confronting. The longerwe put it off, the harder it will get.

Leave a comment

Filed under Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, Current Events, futurism, Neuralink, politics, technology

What Will The Currency Of The Future Be?

1000x667

Most people don’t think about what gives their money value. There’s just a general understanding that it’s vital for basic economic activity. Whether it involves simple bartering or complex cryptocurrencies, the assumptions are the same. Money is a measure of value and exchanging it is how we ascribe value to basic goods and services.

There are all sorts of economic and financial complexities that determine how money works. Rather than bemoan the issue, knowing I am not the least bit qualified to do so, I’d like to focus on the nature of money in the future. Having already given plenty of thought to advanced artificial intelligence, human enhancement, and intimacy, I think it makes sense to contemplate how it all affects our ideas about money.

By that, I’m not referring to current trends in digital currency and older trends within modern banking systems. I’m talking about what money will be in a future where people, resources, and our entire understanding of economics has rendered the existing system obsolete. If you don’t think that’ll ever happen, then I only request that you give some added scrutiny to the concept of money.

I often find myself scrutinizing it whenever I watch a bit too much sci-fi. Some of my favorite sci-fi movies and TV shows of all time don’t give much thought to money. In “Back To The Future II,” a world of flying cars and cheap fusion power still had money. Things were just exceedingly expensive due to inflation. A Pepsi cost around $50.

While inflation is a real force that was certainly present in the non-movie version 2015, it’s somewhat strange that it would get that excessive in a world where fusion power plants could fit into cars made in the mid-1980s. In the real world, advanced technology tends to counter inflation. Logistically, better technology means more efficiency. More efficiency means cheaper goods. Cheaper goods mean lower prices.

We can certainly forgive movies like “Back To The Future II” for failing to understand the economics of money. In addition, the technology of that world wasn’t so advanced that it undercut the foundations of society. However, the money systems in galaxy-spanning space operas can’t make those excuses.

Star Wars” still used some form of currency. It was necessary for Han Solo to pay his debts and for Luke to enlist his services to Alderaan. Other space-faring epics like “Mass Effect” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” have a form of currency that allows characters to be greedy and ruthless. Whether they’re called credits or units, the principles are the same.

There’s this vague concept of money. Everyone agrees that it has value, but there’s little information about why it has value. That’s not entirely flawed. It’s just no different than traditional fiat money, which nearly every modern society utilizes to some extent in the real world. The money isn’t backed by anything. People just collectively agree it’s worth what it says its worth.

Now, I’m not one of those conspiracy theorists who claim this form of money is part of a global conspiracy theory run by lizard people who may or may not have murdered John F. Kennedy. I don’t know enough about economics or finance to make sense of our current monetary system. All I know is that we have a system of money that works within the constraints of our current society.

Whatever you think of that system, there’s still a larger question worth asking. What will money look like in the future when some of those constraints disappear? To some extent, our current system requires that people be frail, products be flawed, and resources be scarce. Through certain advances, some of which may occur in the next 50 years, those limits may disappear.

What happens to money when we perfect advanced energy generation that makes electricity cheap, abundant, and clean?

What happens to money when people begin upgrading their bodies with advanced biotechnology and cybernetic implants?

What happens to money when nanotechnology advances to a point where the production and assembly of every conceivable good is dirt cheap?

What happens to money when advanced artificial intelligence gets to a point where it gets so intelligent that it can solve every conceivable problem and manage every conceivable issue perfectly?

What happens to money when our civilization gets to a point where we can just upload our minds into a perfect simulation where all our wants and needs are met on a whim? Regardless of whether you think we’re already in a simulation, the question surrounding money and what form it takes remains.

While it’s impossible to predict the cumulative impact of technology, especially the kind that subverts modern economic forces, I believe there will be some sort of currency in the future. Even if we perfect nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and teleportation, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that we’ll need some system for exchanging goods, services, and overall value.

I also don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that our current fiat money would work. Just putting images on paper and using it as a token may not be practical in a society of advanced AI and immortal humans. These days, most of our money exists only as code in a computer and not as piles of paper or gold. I think for any form of money to work in a society of such technology, it needs to be backed by something.

Some sci-fi stories explore that concept. The movie, “In Time,” wasn’t that good, but the idea was intriguing. In that world, everybody is immortal and never ages past 25, but the system is such that the currency is measured in time. In a sense, a dollar is backed by a year of life as a healthy 25-year-old. For most people, that has plenty of value.

The rest of the movie is awful and I don’t recommend it, but it presents a novel, albeit dystopian concept. For that economic system to work, there has to be some sort of tyrannical power structure that has the ability to snuff someone’s life out the second they can’t pay. Even corrupt insurance companies aren’t that bad.

Then, there’s the Netflix series, “Altered Carbon,” which I highly recommend. That world also has a problem with massive wealth disparity, but not in the sense that rich people horde money in giant vaults. In this world, technology has advanced to the point where people can transfer their consciousness to different bodies the same way most people transfer files between computers.

In that world, the most precious assets are the best bodies. Being able to live in the body of Brad Pitt is inherently more valuable than living in the body of Danny DeVito. Much of society, from prisoners to billionaires, is divided by who has access to those bodies. In the story, the super-rich Bancroft family have that access and that’s what makes them so rich.

That kind of wealth may not show up as numbers on a balance sheet, but the value is there. Being able to produce, inhabit, and live within strong, beautiful bodies provides a powerful basis for any currency. Talk to anyone who has dealt with the effects of aging, which is pretty much everyone over the age of 25. Most would gladly pay a premium to live in a stronger, fitter body.

While “Altered Carbon” doesn’t get into the specifics of that system, the principle holds true. In a future where people aren’t bound by the limitations of biology or the human body, the greatest asset they can possess is a medium with which to experience life. A better medium means better experiences. Some companies today are already seeking to provide those experiences. Technology will simply change the methods.

Whether we end up in a simulated utopia or not, the experiences a currency affords us is what will give it value. Even though worlds like that of “Star Trek” present a world where money doesn’t exist, there is still plenty of value ascribed to life experiences. You may not be able to print that on a piece of paper or send that in a wire transfer, but that is still recognized as valuable.

I could still be wrong. Remember, I’m not an expert in money, nor can I predict the trends that future advances in technology will incur. Whatever form it takes, though, I expect that the overall goal will still be the same. We use money to pursue better, more rewarding life experiences. However we go about pursuing is, and always has been to some extent, the only true universal currency.

Leave a comment

Filed under futurism, Sexy Future, technology

Why Capitalism Will Survive Technological Progress (To A Point)

01fe7ea1d6c34588143cdc434ad52e0d

There’s a popular perception among those who speculate about the future. It has less to do with the technology and progress that we’ll make, as a society, and more to do with what will be rendered obsolete. Like dial-up internet or VHS tapes, there will be many artifacts of our current society that are destined to become relics of a bygone era.

Near the top of the list of those things people can’t wait to get rid of is capitalism. When I say “capitalism,” though, I don’t necessarily mean everything from the concept of money to big corporations to having 500 different kinds of covers for your cell phone. I’m more referring to the kind of economic system that creates extreme income inequality, mass exploitation of workers, and price gouging.

While I can appreciate sentiments of people who feel that way about a system where the inequalities are well-documented, I have some good news and some bad news for those looking forward to that post-capitalist utopia.

Capitalism is NOT going to become obsolete, but it will take on a radically different form.

I say that as someone who has written plenty about the upheavals our society will face when technologies like artificial intelligence, human enhancement, and advanced robotics become more refined. The economic, social, and political system, as we know it today, will not be able to function in that environment.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will disappear like VHS tapes. That’s especially true of our current form of capitalism. It’s already changing before our eyes, but it’s set to change even more in the coming decades. It may get to a point where it’s hard to call it “capitalism” by our current definition, but it will still exist to a certain extent.

Whether you’re a hardcore libertarian or a self-proclaimed socialist, it’s hard to overlook the flaws in capitalism. This is a system that is prone to corruption, negatively impacts the environment, and will gladly eschew health concerns in the interests of profits. Basically, if you’ve ever dealt with a cable company, the tobacco lobby, or the banking industry, you’ve experienced those flaws first-hand.

Many of the flaws, however, are a byproduct of logistical limitations. Human beings are not wired to make sense of the plethora of economic forces that govern the cost, production, distribution, and marketing of goods. We’re barely wired to assemble IKEA furniture. The human race evolved to survive in the plains of the African Savanna, not the bustling streets of New York City.

Even with these limitations, humanity has managed to achieve a lot from this flawed system. Despite its shortcomings, it has been the catalyst for modern society. The cities, industries, and technological advancement that we’ve undergone over the past 200 years would not have been possible without capitalism. Say what you will about the profit motive. Apple would not be a trillion-dollar company without it.

It’s for that reason, along with the knowledge of capitalism’s many documented failures, that emerging trends in technology is more likely to smooth out the edges of the system rather than render it obsolete entirely. As someone who groans every time he sees his cable bill, I admit I’m eager for those refinements.

I still don’t blame others for hoping that the entire system is scraped. The thinking is that increasing efficiencies in automation, improvements in manufacturing at the nano-scale, and advances in artificial intelligence will undercut the key foundations of capitalism. Why would corporations, marketing gimmicks, or brand restrictions even exist in a world run by intelligent machines, enhanced humans, and 3D printers?

It’s not an entirely flawed notion. We’re already seeing plenty of disruptions in established systems due to technology. Landlines are disappearing, streaming media has destroyed brick-and-mortar rental stores like Blockbuster, and self-driving cars will likely end the taxi and trucking industry as we know it.

Further down the line, even more industries will break down when you scale up and expand these same technologies. A sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could manage the banking and financial industry without any middle men, who are going to be prone to corruption. That same intelligence won’t be prone to the same panics that have plagued capitalism for centuries.

Other technologies will render distressing institutions like sweatshops obsolete, thanks to advances in robotics and 3D printing. A lot of the exploitations surrounding capitalism, both in terms of people and the environment, come from labor and production costs. Mitigating or ending that exploitation can and likely will be done without undercutting capitalism, if only because it’s more efficient in the long run.

Then, there’s the prospect of human enhancement. That, more than anything, will change the nature of society and economics in ways nobody alive today can predict. Beyond undermining the multi-trillion dollar health care industry that exists today, changes to the human condition could fundamentally change the way the economy functions.

Even with all those changes, though, I believe a certain facet capitalism will survive. Even in a society full of enhanced humans equipped with brain implants, perfectly refined genes, and molecular assemblers that can build anything imaginable, there will be a market. There will be a form of currency. There will even be institutions, human and robotic, to manage it all.

That’s because, even in a society where hunger, disease, and poverty of all kinds has been eliminated, there’s still one market that will always exist. That market is escaping boredom. It doesn’t matter how healthy, content, or advanced you are. You’ll still want to avoid getting bored and this is where the future of capitalism truly lies.

I believe that boredom will be the only remaining plague in the future. I also believe that technology can only do so much manage our wants and needs. At some point, we’re still going to seek novel experiences. We’re still going to want to explore new feelings, whether that involves studying science or visiting a futuristic theme park like “Westworld.” The demand will be there and that’s where capitalism comes in.

It may end up being the case that those experiences will be the closest thing we have to a tangible currency. In a society where technology has made so many other resources accessible and abundant, it’s the only currency that has tangible and perceived value. There may still be other forms of money built around it, such as new crypto-currencies, but there will still be real market forces at work.

Some of those forces will have the same flaws we see now. Much of the current system depends on people working to produce goods and services, using the money they make to buy those goods and services, and participating in a vast network of investment, marketing, and distribution of resources. It’s a complex, chaotic, and inherently unmanageable system.

There will probably be failures, missteps, and conflicts in managing this new marketplace of experiences. Entire companies may emerge, possibly from some that exist today, that compete over who crafts those experiences and provides them to customers, either over the internet or directly into someone’s brain. That competition is likely to produce corruption and scandal, albeit in a very different form.

Having advanced artificial intelligence and humans that aren’t at the mercy of their caveman brains will help, but only to a point. As long as society is full of individuals seeking different wants and needs, there will be some form of capitalism necessary to meet them both. Trying to avoid or subvert that probably won’t lead to a better system, as the many failures of alternative systems have proven.

Like our current system of capitalism, there will be flaws. Even enhanced humans and artificial intelligence will have limits that need refinement over time. It’s those very shortcomings, though, that will help forge a better system overall. Again, it’s impossible to tell what forms they’ll take, but so long as there are markets, there will be capitalists seeking to profit from them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, philosophy, Sexy Future