Emerging technologies promise to empower communities, enhance human capacities, improve working conditions, and prevent or annihilate inequalities in the workplace. But, in communities where automation has been implemented, technologies have ironically replaced human labour with machines purely for the productivity of the industries themselves.
Socio-technology: realising the social potential of emerging technologies ↓
These technologies are opaquely built by private companies which favour the machine to human labour as they avoid taxes related to workers’ pensions. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and other automated tools are currently not conceived for social benefit and are mystified at a level where we cannot understand their real impact on society.
The future of work is already disrupted by automation. According to a former Google executive ‘AI will replace 40 percent of the jobs in the next 15 years’ . If this future happens within our current socio-economic system, it would mean that almost half of our society will live off wages whilst the other half will live off benefits. We should not take ’live’ as a given considering that it would mostly become a matter of ’surviving’ with only £400 a month. However, some see this race for automation as key to building socio-economic plans. The economist and writer Nick Srnicek would agree that the future economy could serve the social cause, if the purpose of a fully automated system was redirected to initiate the real Universal Basic Income model. This model is a form of social security that guarantees a certain amount of money to every citizen within a given governed population, without having to pass a test or fulfill a work requirement, therefore preventing poverty and social inequalities.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
Following this traction, technologies, in building a post-work society, could also reshape our future self and redefine our relationship to objects. ‘Some scientists and futurists believe that our world might be a simulation, a virtual environment, created by a superior entity. Richie Terrile  affirms that even if we are not living in a simulation now, we will be able to create one of that complexity in a few decades . This opens a scenario of complete dematerialisation where our material world does not exist anymore’.
AI personalises our interactions with our electronic devices making sure that the algorithm knows we prefer Italian rather than Chinese food, for example. Behind this AI is a private industry which collects our data to use and even inform political choices on our behalf. Our freedom is in the ’hands’ of a black box made by developers responding to their employer’s instructions.
GABRIELE LORUSSO, MA MATERIAL FUTURES
Antonio Damasio  explained that we make decisions and evaluate our surroundings by creating mind projections similar to memories, almost as if our future is a projected memory. These ‘future memories’ are based on an evaluation of things that have happened in the past. From experience, we know that stronger memories are developed through multi-sensory meaning and therefore sensory limited objects, like our electronic devices, will potentially narrow our understanding of the world. In this scenario, objects will be stripped of all their function apart from their cultural-existential function  and materiality might be the last anchor to reality for us to understand that we exist and are not ‘virtual’. It is important to engage in this conversation as ‘when everything is moving quickly except us the consequence is a social, cultural, and economical whiplash’ . Technologies have the potential to disrupt our future in many ways. Melvin Kranzberg said ‘technology is neither good, nor bad, nor is neutral’ . Indeed, technologies are tools which can be used for both social good and / or for the benefit of industries. At present we are facing a future where more than half of our jobs are going to be replaced by machines. However, as a techno-optimist, I believe that we can make the best of these tools and we have to collectively repurpose these technologies for social benefit. It is the time to understand and communicate what automated technologies are and how they can positively impact our future society.
Rorbitzski, D. . AI Will Replace 40 Percent of Jobs in 15 Years.
Director of the Centre for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Makuch, B. . Whoa, Dude, Are We Inside a Computer Right Now?
Ligo, L. L. . The Concept of Function in Twentieth Century Architectural Criticism. US: UMI Research Press. pp. 220.
Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab cited by Keen, A. . How to Fix the Future: Staying Human in the Digital Age. Atlantic Books.
Kranzberg, M. . Technology and History: “Kranzberg’s Laws”. Technology and Culture, 27 , pp. 544-560.
We have the power to refuse this controlling technology and reprocess it to support the many not the few. Designers need to adapt their tools to awake public consciousness, demystify technology before democratising it and marking the end of the zero-sum game; a game where the gains made by the wealthy owners of these systems represent losses to our communities. Material Futures aims to engage with stakeholders already impacted by such technologies so we can collectively discuss what we want our future to look like. We believe that tomorrow’s technologies have to be taken seriously and case studies, scenarios and experimentation have their role to redefine this future.