The case against the future

futuristic patterns

Ken under a Creative Commons Licence

Buying a new phone to load with the latest, greatest apps is like buying into a vision of the future in which every interaction is personalized via technology. Eventually, following this appealing vision, each of us will live in a hyper-individualized, virtually enhanced bubble. Our devices – in a cybernetic loop with a totality of internet-connected-things – will know what we want before we do.

To get to this future, we have first to go through what’s become known as disruption. ‘The 19th century had evolution,’ wrote Jill Lepore in The New Yorker. ‘The 20th century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption.’1 But this disruption is couched in the realm of emerging possibility. We are drawn to it; possibility projects us into a future in which all our problems – from the mundane to the mortal – are swept away. So we accept that disruption is an inevitable, if occasionally concerning, consequence of the arrival of the perfect future. As Jeff Bezos once put it: ‘Amazon is not happening to book selling. The future is happening to book selling.’2

The future – digitization, virtualization, ultra-personalization – happened to book selling and then it happened, is still happening, to us. But the details are blurry, shrouded in the mystique of technology. Sometimes it gets hard to see who or what is being disrupted.

The sacrificed

In the course of researching the rise of this new future, I met with a group of warehouse workers living in the southern California region known as the Inland Empire. Only 12 hours’ drive from Silicon Valley, these mostly Mexican migrants do the heavy lifting of getting your devices from the Asian factories where they are assembled to the glittering stores where, it seems, our destiny awaits. I spoke to 37-year-old Juana Ibanez, originally from Oaxaca, who was working in a giant warehouse unpacking and repacking boxes and getting paid $8 an hour, 40 hours a week. She told me that ‘it’s a good job’ though it’s tiring and many co-workers have been injured. She didn’t mention that, despite working full time at a backbreaking pace, there isn’t enough money to lift herself and her daughters out of poverty.

Juana seems like a holdover from another era, lured to the big city only to find herself chained to a sewing machine. But, in fact, Juana is as much on the cusp of our new future as a venture capitalist barking orders from his Bluetooth headset and surfing the web via Google Glass. Juana’s work is increasingly controlled by software systems that apply the same logic of optimizing one’s life via self-actualizing, perpetual data collection, except in this case from the perspective of the employer. An entire array of scheduling, tracking and monitoring applications is being brought to bear on how to get the maximum out of each Juana, whether she’s working in a warehouse, a Walmart or a Starbucks. Fed into the algorithms designed to maximize productivity, the system tells a worker like Juana via headset which boxes to unload, while warning her if she falls behind her timeframe for performance of the task. If she falls behind too much, she’ll be replaced by another Juana. Juana, who has no smartphone or home internet access, is becoming virtualized, turned into a data set. When the final future arrives, her job will be handed over to a robot.

We live in a glittering era of ubiquitous connectivity that, the ideology goes, empowers each and every one of us to create the future we want

Okay, so migrant workers with no education are being abused by the system. That’s nothing new, is it? Restated in the blunt terms of global (i)commerce, an Apple executive puts it this way: ‘You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards.’3 Juana and her counterparts in Chinese factories are sacrificial lambs, unfortunate but necessary victims of the urgent need to get to the future we want as fast as possible.

Juana tells me that her main hope for the future is that her daughters will go to college and one day join the middle classes who, having enthusiastically embraced the personalized digital future, await their rewards. But even for the well-educated middle classes of the Global North, the future is closing in. In a 2014 paper called ‘Inequality in the future: the declining fortunes of the young since 2000’, Canadian economists Paul Beaudry, David A Green and Ben Sand show that in the US from 1980 to 2000, skilled university graduates were in steady and increasing demand. But starting in 2000, a decline set in, and every year since there have been fewer jobs for that same set of graduates.

In another paper – ‘The great reversal in the demand for skill and cognitive tasks’– they conclude that information technology (IT) went through two decades of massive growth in the 1980s and 1990s, with increased hiring of people with the skills to manage complex new systems. But then, at the start of the millennial period, the IT revolution reached a ‘maturity stage’. Now ‘the new capital’ was in place and ‘cognitive task workers’ were ‘only needed to maintain the new capital’.4 At this point the demand for skilled labour begins to decline, good jobs start drying up. Information technology, which increases productivity through parsing billions of pieces of data including data around the efficiency of workers, is in place.

Age of anxiety

Even as we urgently tweet from the line-up to own an Apple Watch, the personalized digitalized future we have enthusiastically embraced is being employed at a corporate level as a means to reduce wages and hire fewer people. In this context, is it all that surprising that the 21st century, the age of disruption, is also the age of crippling anxiety and depression? Global gains in public health over the past 100 years mean that people are now living longer and healthier lives than at any time before. Yet there are few countries that aren’t grappling with some form of mental-health crisis. Here, too, the pace accelerates around the time society rolls out its first iteration of our looming future. Consider, for instance, that the number of adults on disability in the US due to mental disorders ‘increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007 – from 1 in 184 Americans to 1 in 76’.5

In India, a country dogged by grinding poverty, the leading cause of death is suicide. But the highest rates of suicide aren’t found in its poorest states. The highest suicide rates in India ‘are found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the two states with the highest development indicators. The lowest is in Bihar, the state that finishes last in every measure of progress and development.’ How to explain this anomaly? Dr Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine led the India suicide study. Commenting on its findings, he says: ‘It has to point to the social environment young people are growing up in – there must be something toxic in the social environment in the rapidly developing states of India, which is not there in less developing states.’ He goes on to note that ‘the most obvious explanation’ is that people have a sense of expectation that life just can’t match. ‘Your aspirations,’ he says, ‘have been built up by opportunities that in reality don’t exist.’6

We live in a glittering era of ubiquitous connectivity that, the ideology goes, empowers each and every one of us to create the future we want. Our role models today are those who have used these new tools to disrupt the established order and stake claim to future-now. And yet many of us, from Juana on up the socio-economic ladder, are finding that these opportunities are more chimera than reality. What’s wrong with us? we ask. Everyone’s getting rich, but we – working harder for fewer gains – are being left behind. Each time we try to grasp the proffered tomorrow, it melts away in our hands. The future is right in front of us, but we can’t seem to get to it.

Toronto-based Hal Niedzviecki writes about the intersection of individuality, society and technology. His latest book is Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future (Seven Stories Press).

  1. Jill Lepore, ‘The Disruption Machine’, The New Yorker, 23 June 2014.

  2. Steve Coll, ‘Citizen Bezos’, The New York Review of Books, 10 July 2014.

  3. Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, ‘Apple’s iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China’, The New York Times, 25 January 2012.

  4. Paul Beaudry, David A Green, and Benjamin M. Sand, ‘The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks’, Working Paper, National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2013.

  5. Marcia Angell, ‘The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?’, The New York Review of Books, 23 June 2011.

  6. Stephanie Nolan, ‘Suicide among India’s Young Adults at “crisis” Levels’, The Globe and Mail, 21 June 2012.