The past few years have witnessed astounding developments in technology, blurring lines between science fiction and reality. The hover board, the smartwatch, power-laced sneakers, robotic restaurant waiters, fingerprint door locks, virtual windows, video phone calls, smartglasses and voice activation were only imaginative speculations in the 1989 movie Back to the Future II, yet they all exist today. And the mass surveillance scandal of 2013 suggests that the Thought Police of George Orwell’s novel 1984 was not so far-fetched after all.
It is getting more challenging to keep up with technology, but there is a very good reason for that. Ray Kurzweil renowned futurist and computer scientist explains the quickening pace of innovation with the Law of Accelerating Returns (LOAR), which says that “fundamental measures of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories.” The emphasis is on “exponential.” Tech blogger of waitbutwhy.com Tim Urban writes that because of LOAR “by 2000, the rate of progress was five times faster than the average rate of progress during the 20th century.” Urban conjectures that an entire 20th century’s worth of progress took place between 2000 and 2014!
As yesterday’s fiction has become reality, technology has made our lives noticeably easier. In 2017, MX3D, a state-of-the-art 3D printing device will print a bridge underneath itself as it crosses a canal in Amsterdam. The bendable mobile phone is well underway, an edible packaging material just won an EU sustainability award, Microsoft recently unveiled HoloLens, a holographic augmented reality software system, and scientists just managed to program drones to build a rope bridge that can bear the weight of humans. The list of new inventions is endless, and they are nothing short of magical. As fiction writer Arthur C. Clark’s third law of prediction says, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
With all this wizardry taking place, we can expect the 40-hour workweek to quickly recede into the past. Political economist Robert Reich explains in his 2013 documentary Inequality for All that technology has radically reduced the need for manual labor. He explains that Amazon employs about 60,000 people, but if it were run by average business people, with average technology, it would need between 600,000 and a million workers. So with all this technology replacing manpower, why are we still working so hard?
Instead of passing our chores on to intelligent robots and reaping the benefits of a leisurely life, we actually seem to be working more. Tim Wu wrote in The New Yorker this August that despite a growing labor force and more productivity, we work longer hours because our economy has generated jobs that serve no real purpose and “[serve] almost no one.” But if we manage to tackle economic anomalies like this, maybe we could begin to enjoy the advantages of our own technological ingenuity.