How technology is changing commerce & society’s fabric

Emerging tech, if used right (and by the right people) has the ability to alter how we all live and work, for generations to come.
7 March 2018

Can technology be a force for equality and a rebirth in our concepts of community? Source: Shutterstock

The possibilities which technology presents to us are both exciting and potentially profitable. But what if technology had the power to completely alter the make-up of society, the economy, and eventually the way we live our lives?

These types of questions are posed by Charles Radclyffe, a public commentator, and expert on the future of business and technology, artificial intelligence and peer-ing technologies.

I met him after a recent talk in the UK in order to explore some of these issues.But first, I had to ask Charles about his dismissal by an (unnamed) online news organization that he is a mere “techno communist”.

“Time will tell,” he says, “but what’s certain is that if we let the markets develop of their own accord, they and technology will take us to a very perverse place.”

It is of course in the nature of neo-liberal economics to skew the application of technology so it increases the wealth that’s in the hands of very few people, disproportionately.

Radclyffe recently left a role at Deutsche Bank Labs as Head of Technology and is therefore aware that, for instance, large financial institutions will happily use technology to replace staff, cutting costs in the medium term; despite the increasing burden on the state to support those workers laid off.

But ironically, he says that the Friedman-espousing big financial institutions’ use of predictive technologies, analysis, and artificial intelligence will create what effectively becomes a planned economy.

As tech becomes ubiquitous across the sector, it ends up chasing smaller and smaller gains as the unpredictable becomes risk-managed out of decisions by learning algorithms.

But in Radclyffe’s mind, it’s not the financial sector that needs automation. Instead, we should be investing in technology’s deployment in essential industries: water, food, power, transport, and communications.

“Hovis*, not Foxconn**,” he says.

* large manufacturer of baked goods in the UK – think Sara Lee

** Chinese manufacturing group behind Apple and other well-known tech brands

Should we be incentivizing utilities and core industries – such as power – to use technology more? Source: Shutterstock

By employing intelligent tech into essential industries, everyone benefits from cheap goods, and eventually, all “lowly” labor (such as that required to ensure we have power, food, water, and Internet connectivity), will be done by intelligent machines.

Radclyffe is also scathing about the so-called sharing economy: “Calling it sharing is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!” He states, “Uber, as an example, isn’t a sharing economy, it’s the most concentrated form of capitalism yet devised. All the power and money flow upwards.”

“But,” he adds, “it is incredibly fragile.”

He postulates that if a group of citizens (with the technical chops) could overcome the liquidity problem – that is, monetize themselves – they’d easily be able to create an “alternative Uber”. If such an app and supporting tech infrastructure were as easy to use and seamless as the original, then Uber would be out of business in a second.

If the “alternative Uber”‘s model were to give all the fare money to drivers, which would we prefer to use?

According to Radclyffe, the power of technology is its potential egalitarianism.

The future, as he sees it, will have the seeds of change growing in the local movement: community banking, community-run concerns and co-operatives.

By extending the local model to a global community (and there is no reason why a community cannot be spread over the globe) and empowering it with equality-bringing technology, there will, for instance, be no need for the large banks we currently rely on.

Nascent versions of Radclyffe’s vision already exist: Funding Circle in the US, for instance – loans, housing, infrastructure and the means of production all funded on a community basis: but a community now spread out over the world, connected by the Internet. Transglobal and local communities are developing: communities of “peers”, involved in peer-to-peer (P2P) transactions.

The mention of banks and finance provided the conversation with a segue into cryptocurrencies and blockchain, and thence to ICOs.

But time was too short for us to head down the rabbit hole that cryptocurrency and blockchain-based business transactions represented. Instead, we had to wrap up with just a few conclusions-come-pointers:

  • We should incentivize the deployment of new tech to essential services (water, power, food etc.).
  • At the same time, de-incentivize the use of tech to providers of non-essential luxuries: “Say goodbye to your new iPhone, for now!” says Radclyffe.
  • We need to work at a “community” level to bridge the transition to a tech future we all have a stake in.

Radclyffe, it should be said, is not an idle dreamer. He’s started, managed and sold on several successful technology companies and has been consulted professionally by organizations such as the BBC, L39 Technology Accelerator and The Royal Society. He is currently an associate partner at Elixirr, the darling tech consultancy of Silicon Valley and the world’s tech powerhouses.

His ideas are rooted in technological knowledge and experience, and his opinions are therefore to be taken seriously. Whether or not we act accordingly, however, is quite another matter.