The Big Shift
Changes we can’t stop are coming. What can we control?
My great-grandmother was born in 1875, ninety-nine years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As a child, we would visit her house, the house my mother grew up in. It was always an adventure. We would pump the kitchen water pump to get water because there was no running water. We used the outhouse next to the millpond. My mother would tell us how on cold Michigan winter mornings, she would grab all of her clothes and run to the basement to get dressed next to the warmth of the boiler to get ready to go to her one-room schoolhouse. My mother grew up in my great-grandmother’s house without electricity.
My Great-grandmother died at 99-years-old, just shy of 100, in 1975. She was born one year before America’s Centennial and died one year before its Bicentennial. In 1975, she had lived for half of the existence of America. The Civil War had ended just ten years before she was born. She watched America recover from that devastation. She witnessed the introduction of the automobile, the Wright brother’s first powered flight, electricity, the radio, and television. Most spectacularly, in her lifetime, humanity shifted technologically from an almost unimaginable time without electricity, cars, or powered flight, to putting a man on the moon. During her life, we moved from a human rights stance with the fresh ink of the Emancipation Proclamation stating we could no longer own another human being, through Jim Crow and the race riots, through civil rights, blacks getting the right to vote, women getting the right to vote, and the acknowledgment that love is love.
She saw an amazing shift in humanity and technology, but what’s coming next will be more amazing. The world we know in 2021 will sound just as unimaginable as living without electricity in a very short time. What my great-grandmother witnessed over the one hundred years of her life will be dwarfed by this next shift and it won’t take one hundred years. The thing is, we won’t really even notice. We’re so accustomed to drastic changes now that we take fast change as normal.
I was teaching school in 1994. My school had a computer lab, but no one really knew why or what the benefit was. Very few people even had computers at home. There was talk about this thing called “The Internet” with a science fiction capability. To get a feeling for how fantastic it sounded at the time, just watch these 1993 AT&T commercials talking about what was to come. (commercial 1, commercial 2) I watched those commercials when they came out and they sounded unimaginable, stuff from science fiction. Now, when I watch them, they come across as almost comically trivial. In less than thirty years, science fiction became science fact, and fully normal. In just five years, from 1994 to 1999, while I was working on a master’s in computer science, the internet went from an abstract conceptual novelty to an absolute necessity. Change comes so fast, and so normal, we’ve grown to expect it. The first fifty years of my great-grandmother’s life saw very little change. She was thirty-three when the first Model T came out. Electricity didn’t come to her town until she was in her fifties. The first part of her life and the tens of thousands of years before that, technological growth moved slow.
If 2020 has shown us anything, it is how fast we can change and adapt. Within months America and much of the world went from having a daily commute to work to working from home. We shifted from shopping in physical stores to shopping more online. Restaurants shifted to take-out. Doctor visits became virtual. Schools became virtual. During that time, we got a good look at what is important, what is vital, and what we can do without. Most people I know have no desire to get back to commuting. I’ve spent more money in my community than I ever have, and I love that. My local community is important, and my commute is not.
Twenty-Twenty has prepared us for a shift like humanity has never seen. We have some technologies that are maturing fast and will transform everything. We have all seen the videos of the dancing robots. While they are entertaining and impressive, we’ve all watched them with the same thought. Jobs. We can see a near future with robots stocking shelves, fixing food at fast food places, building houses, delivering mail. Tesla has shown us that self-driving cars are coming soon. What does that mean for truck drivers, taxi drivers, Uber, or Lyft drivers?
Yes, we have all watched the robots with the thoughts of robot overlords enslaving humanity or just killing us off, but this article is looking at a future where humanity thrives. We are at a critical point where we have to decide what the future of humanity is. I will propose one where we grow into something magnificent.
We are already seeing some of the magnificence coming into our world just in some concepts that are taking hold. We have businesses that are embracing Conscious Capitalism over the outdated greed-based capitalism where personal gain is achieved and at any cost. We are seeing the start of a transition from a scarcity mindset to a post-scarcity mindset, and we have technologies that will thrust that into the forefront of our thinking.
My college-age son just bought a used 3D printer for $85. This technology is just in its infancy but may skip the toddler and awkward adolescent stages and move right into the career-orienting new college graduate phase ready to show the world it is here to change it. There are talks of printing human organs, circuit boards, and even houses. What happens to our world when we can print forks, dishes, toys, car parts, clothing, at home instead of going to the store or ordering online? This technology can catapult us from a scarcity mindset to a post-scarcity mindset and humankind will have no option but to move in a completely different direction. The ideas and norms that have driven them for tens of thousands of years will no longer function in that world.
Robots, AI, 3D printing, quantum mechanics, and other emerging technologies will not allow humanity to stay the same. We will have no choice but to change and that change will be fast. This is the next big shift, and it will transform how we think, how we work, how we act, what we value, and almost every other aspect of who we are. When we look back to videos from 2020, they will be comically absurd as we wonder how we used to have such a childish and limited perspective.
Through machine learning and artificial intelligence, we are currently at the state of synthesizing videos that cannot be distinguished from real videos. How long will it take before movies and TV shows are synthetic? Why pay actors who have physical limits and time limits when you can just program actors who have no physical limits and no time limits? Why hire technical support staff when you can have an AI program that sounds fully human to answer the phone and solve the problems? We already get spam calls from robots that sound somewhat human, so we have a glimpse of this possibility.
As robotics, AI, machine learning, quantum computing, and other technologies mature, what does our job market look like? There has always been the fear of technology replacing jobs. We have the legend of John Henry’s race against the steam-powered rock drilling machine miners feared would take their jobs. But, for the most part, for every job taken by technology, instead of putting people out of work, it has increased our ability and scope and created more jobs. Think back to how banking was done before computers. Rooms of people tallied, calculated, recorded information, and sent stacks of paper with that information to central locations where rooms of people tallied, calculated, and recorded that information. Then the computer came along, and the rooms of people vanished. But what happened to banking? It grew exponentially and hired more people than before but in a different capacity. Will that trend continue? AI and robotics are advancing enough that they could replace most jobs currently done by humans. Will new types of jobs emerge that only humans can do, or will we have a massive population of unemployed people? Poor people are not quality consumers. Capitalism needs active consumers with money to sustain itself. Something must shift.
On top of humanity facing the unprecedented prospect of technology actually taking jobs instead of creating them, humanity is also facing another unprecedented transition. For the first time in human history, we have the true prospect of a declining population. China has just implemented a three-child policy in an attempt to circumvent the issue they now have. The majority of their population is old. When they start dying, their population will decline quickly. In some other countries, the birth rate is below zero, meaning more people are dying than being born. The model of capitalism the world has always known has depended on increasing the market. Two of the major ways of doing that are through expanding trading markets, and population growth. New babies equal new consumers. We now have a global economy, so expanding into new markets is going to become increasingly hard. What happens to capitalism when two of its major driving forces are gone?
Civilizations have thrived and then collapsed throughout history. What is different now is that we have a global economy. Our global economy has been thriving for centuries and the interdependence between the economies of the individual nations is very tightly coupled. If the economy of one major nation collapses, there’s a strong possibility of a global collapse.
The pillars that have held up our world model are about to collapse. Twenty-Twenty has shown us that we can adapt and recover. Old mindsets will have to die away and be replaced with new ones. When we look back, the old world will seem as unimaginable as using a card catalog to find books in a library and scouring the index of countless books to write a research paper.
There is a very good chance technology will replace many jobs and we will have to put the age-old question “What are you going to be when you grow up?” to rest or at least change it. We will have to get comfortable with the concept of people not having jobs and still having homes, cars, clothing, taking vacations, and living the lives normally associated with hard work. Imagine a world where musicians, poets, writers, actors, painters, or other creative people are no longer starving artists, splitting their time between struggling to ‘earn a living’ and doing what they love.
Humanity is also at the point of major changes in medical and genetics. Many of these will have some serious ethical issues. Knee and hip replacements have become commonplace. Implants to correct hearing and sight issues are also common. These medical procedures that have drastically improved the quality of life for so many people were medical marvels just a short time ago. Now, with the mapping of the human genome, we’re starting to unlock the mystery of genetic conditions and the term ‘designer babies’ has entered our lexicon. Many advances in technology also bring a moral issue. We may be entering the period where we not only eliminate diseases that have genetic components, but also manipulate an embryo to be taller, smarter, faster, have the right skin tone or eye color, and almost every other aspect of a child instead of accepting the random pattern of DNA from an egg and sperm.
Three of the world’s richest men are pushing space exploration. Nations with the capability are talking about colonizing the moon and Mars. At some point in the next few decades, there will be a news headline about the first human born on another planet. At that point, the psyche of humanity will transform. We will see ourselves as a space-faring species and just as history told us how Europeans transformed into a seafaring species due to the hopes for the riches the “The New World” would bring them, we will look outside of our thin atmosphere for what riches may be there for the taking.
Humanity is changing and the change is going to come fast. For us to truly capitalize on the full potential, we, as a species, have to evolve. We have to move out of our primitive greed-based scarcity mindset into an abundance mindset. We currently have the technology, the natural resources, and the means to end poverty, starvation, most illnesses, homelessness, and many of the other ills that plague our world, we just don’t have the will to do it due to an outdated idea of what wealth is. If humanity does not redefine what wealth is, and stays with the age-old version of wealth as hoarding money and resources, we have a plethora of dystopian books and movies to show us the only possible outcome. Our next big shift is moving into a new belief system with a new definition of wealth. The transformational technology is coming. We cannot stop that. The only thing we can control is how we use the technology to build a future that works for all.