Sunday, 19 February 2012

Where does this post industrial world end?

Disclaimer, this is a stream of consciousness piece, not an article per se. If you like that sort of thing, read on.

I don't like a great many big businesses, publishers of all stripes in particular. They exist largely because at a certain point in history it was hard to make lots of copies of things and get people to pay for those things. That's literally all they're for. Once upon a time in order to read my collected thoughts I would have had to have gone and found a publisher, convinced him I wasn't a nut (harder than you might think) and then hope he didn't change too much of what I wanted to say in order to make it consumer friendly.

But, with publishing dying in favour of electronic distribution which connects artist to public directly (Spotify, or the Pirate Bay's new experiment in music promotion), or services which cut down the distribution cost to almost zero (Amazon Kindle), I'm increasingly curious as to what happens next. Now we can get our books, music and film (I say 'can' only because in principle we should be able to, the market is still adjusting to the digital reality, and it may be many years before it fully shifts), so that's the entire creative arts publishing business dead and shuffling along zombie like til it falls.

I had my first serious discussion with my parents about 3D printing the other day. My dad is an engineer and had been to an expo in which someone had printed him a salt shaker in front of him as a piece of merchandise. It was a bit rough and ready, but there's no getting around the fact its a salt shaker. So, 3D printing will cover off all your kids plastic toys (Disney will make a 3D printer one day, as Cory Doctorow predicted), most of your kitchenware, and a lot of other things you use day to day. I think you'll also see the emergence of "finishing kits", so you'll print the parts, and someone will send you some electronics, or specialist bits, which make it all clip together.

Now, there'll still be plenty of manufacture, but are you going to hire lots of people to 'make stuff' when you can just buy sophisticated 3D printers and the technicians to run them? Probably not. So, the manufacturing industry is about to head into a period where it hires far less people, and is increasingly distributed. You'll see the emergence of a 'designer' class of people, who will seem a lot more like artists, creating clever things to be printed, particularly at home. The race will then be one of efficiency, who can make the 3D printed object which does the best job, for the lowest material cost?

But its okay, the service industry is still out there. Unfortunately, that's on the cusp of a big change too. Take the banking industry, lots of potential there, certainly lots of money. But sadly, there's more money in creating clever software that can do what humans do at microsecond speed. Of course, there's a slight risk there of destroying the entire financial system, but thats a problem for 0.06 seconds from now, and humans have already taken a valiant swing at that without AI help. So no big deal.

I keep hearing a word at work, it's "automation". Wouldnt it be great if we could automate this boring task. Hell yes it would, but of course when all the boring tasks are automated, less boring stuff will be automated. It'll happen to the back room staff first, but in time, I'll have to justify why I should get to sit in a heated building when software can do the job that most of my team do.

And its not just true of my industry, its true of pretty much the entire service sector. Why have phone banks if smart software can understand what the user is saying and sort you out that way? Any data processing job can be automated, you just need a software engineer to sort it out for you.

And what does this lead to? Well, the total collapse of some industries (publishing) and many more becoming employee free zones, apart from the few software fixers who roam the building making sure all the machines are doing their jobs, and the minimum possible number of client facing people to actually "talk" to clients, so they can feed back to the software guys to get the outputs they need.

In the end, we end up with a few company owners who make large profits now all those pesky employees are gone. We get hordes of 'artists' of various stripes, all competing for smaller slices of the pie. There'll be some smart artists who create new types of pie, but then the swarm will descend as all those unemployed people seek a bit of the new pie.

Its going to be glorious. Decide for yourselves if I mean that sarcastically or not.

1 comment:

  1. As is often the case with future gazing, lots of interesting possibilities.

    In particular, 3D printing seems destined to have a major impact on manufacturing, allowing far more opportunity for individuality, adaptation and small-scale innovation. As you say, perhaps this can herald a new age of artisans (much as we've seen with app designers).

    Re the prospects of future job creation, I wouldn't be so pessimistic, just remember that the Luddites and Swing Rioters once believed new technology would destroy the need for human labour. Innovation often creates unforeseen new types of employment and these may prove far more rewarding jobs, even if the future ain't what it used to be.