A simple reflection.
Obviously, there are a variety of possible futures, but future outcomes depend entirely upon contextual factors. Technology often develops in unexpected ways, but it always develops within a complex, interactive environmental context. What happens in politics, law, society and other non-technological areas of life impact the future as much as technological innovation.
It remains true that necessity is the mother of invention. It’s also true that one change can drive a ripple effect.
The collective decision, for instance, that certain kinds of labor are inhumane may drive technological solutions, but only if context (i.e., other factors taken together) allows. For instance, at this writing, mine workers are striking in South Africa. After many were killed in conflicts with police this past week, they persist in their strike for higher wages; they are even facing the loss of their jobs, which will happen if they do not go back to work tomorrow. At present, the striking workers have presumably determined that current wages are so low that they would risk their lives and livelihood for improved compensation. Lonmin, the mining company in question, has presumably determined that the higher wages are sufficiently costly that they would risk negative global press and a loss of productivity in order to break the strike.
In such a traditional labor impasse, many familiar economic and social models are at play. The workers are embedded in the model that their survival depends on trading their labor for wages, and that striking is an effective method to renegotiate wage rates. The mining company is embedded in the model of trading currency for labor, at a certain rate, and under certain conditions that they themselves control. In such a situation, an obvious or “model” conclusion might be the resolution of the labor dispute through a capitulation of one side or another.
But is that the only possible outcome?
A not-so-obvious outcome is a change in the model. The workers might adopt, if available to them, a different livelihood, one in which they do not trade their labor to a corporation in exchange for currency. They might even determine that no amount of currency is worth such labor as mining. They may do something else, or nothing. The company, similarly, may adopt a model which does not include human beings for the extraction of value from the earth, i.e., automation. Or they too may do nothing, and close the mine.
Whether or not an alternative conclusion is found depends entirely upon surrounding circumstances; economic, social, technological factors influence alternatives. There are many opportunities to subvert the current dynamic. For instance, a manufacturer might step in to provide the local population an alternative employment option. The government might also intervene. The people might move, if they can. A robotics company might step in to offer an automation alternative to the company.
Any impasse like this opens the doors to possible futures. And context is everything.
Will the inhumanity of mining drive a technological solution? It depends.
In order to build the future, then, one must bridge from the challenges of today, but one must also understand the contextual complexity around these challenges. The cross-currents of context can point to innovation opportunities. Similarly, if one seeks a particular future, one must be prepared not only to shape technology but to shape the overall context as well.
This is a note to governments, businesses and people in general: are you doing enough to understand context?