Relocating Humanity

Creative Destruction Part 03

We know we placed it somewhere, but somehow we seem to be losing our humanity in the accelerating quest for digitization and automation. You see this loss in a lot of places — 3D printing replacing mold makers and machinists, fully robotic factories, self-driving trucks replacing truck drivers, and cars replacing taxi and delivery people, automated design systems to replace aspects of the design process, cognitive computing analyzing x-rays, self-checkouts at CVS and even contemporary digital artists who can’t identify a Rembrandt print. This has been a long time in coming. 

To give you a sense of how pervasive this is, I was recently at the Future of Storytelling conference, which is a two-day summit that brings together marketing executives, creative talents, performers and technologists to explore how storytelling is changing the future in the digital age. One session I attended was on IBM’s cognitive computing platform, Watson. After the IBM’s presentation, the moderator asked the attendees how they would use Watson in creative storytelling. But right out of the gate, the first question was “shouldn’t we be scared sh**less that this technology is taking over our jobs?” Even though Watson is really more augmented intelligence than artificial intelligence, the impact of these intelligent platforms and  machines will foster some of the greatest challenges facing our economy—a massive amount of blue and white collars jobs will disappear with the evolving Second Economy.

In the past, technologies increased the value of human effort by replacing muscle with machines. This drove rapid economic progress and. although it displaced human workers, it also created new jobs at a faster rate. This time it is different because instead of replacing human muscle, contemporary technologies are starting to replace human senses and brains.  As technologies like the Internet of Things and cognitive computing take the human factor out of so many transactions and decisions, the process of how and what we create will change, and what future job opportunities there will be in this century will look really different than they do now. 

I call this trend Relocating Humanity, which speaks to not only the massive changes brought about by accelerating increases in technology and the attendant social shifts, but the need to re-establish and relocate our humanity in the process. It is like the slow food movement of technology.  Economist Brian Arthur called this the “Second Economy” (the part of the economy in which computers transact business with only other computers).

There are some helpful statistics. In the 2014 Pew Research Center’s 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing, about “Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers” while “the other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025.” And Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer that makes many of Apple and other firms' products, is installing Foxbots robots at a rate of 30,000 per year. Terry Gou, Foxconn’s CEO, said,  “We have over one million workers. In the future, we will add one million robotic workers.”

To give you a sense of the potential impact in the United States alone, the economist Brian Arthur speculates that in 2025, this Second Economy may be as large as the “first” economy was in 1995—about $7.6 trillion. That means out of the current 146 million workers, 100 million will be replaced. The bright side is that 10 years ago, there were dozens of jobs that didn't exist and businesses that no one could even imagine. Five years from now, there will be whole industries that haven’t yet been created and are unimaginable today.

For designers, this is of interest because—due to the powerful digital tools that we now have to develop and present designs—there is a tendency to overlook the vast resource of what came before and to further alienate us from the human qualities that make for great design. 

Contemporary digital media, as in large-scale outdoor screens, art installations and building lighting systems, tend to utilize high-key high-intensity color. To a certain extent, this is understandable in places like Times Square, where there is intense competition for attention. However, more isolated installations lack subtlety, subtlety you can see in the work of the grand masters of art and design of previous generations. 

We have decades, if not centuries, worth of artists and designers who have spent their minds, passions and souls creating expressions of our relationship to each other, to grand themes of the universe and God, and everything in between. This humanistic connection is often lacking in media designs that are extremely clever.

As we are living in one of the most exciting periods of human history, we can use design to shape our destiny in a way that is attuned to the requirements of our advanced machine age. As designers, builders and thinkers, it is important to look for every possible way to reinstate humanistic qualities in our creations to ensure that we, as people, are not lost in the shuffle and that our bodies of work resonate with the better qualities of what constitutes being a human being.

Gill Scott Heron in his song “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised,” was only half right, as the revolution will be digitized.


- Eli Kuslansky, Unified Field


Further Reading and Sources:




Creative Destruction Series: Introduction

Creative Destruction Series Part 01: Palpitations on the Slopes of Technology

Creative Destruction Series Part 02: Designing for Plurals, the Evolving Audience

About Eli Kuslanskyand Unified Field

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