Peering into the future

I was very struck by this piece by Zachary M. Seward in my Quartz Weekend Briefing.

(En passant, Quartz has been one of the great discoveries of 2013.)

Half a century ago, author Isaac Asimov peered into the future: “What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?” he wrote in the New York Times. “I don’t know, but I can guess.”

With the exception of assuming the World’s Fair would still be around, Asimov was remarkably prescient. His essay forecast everything from self-driving cars (“Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with ‘Robot-brains’”) to Keurig machines (“Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare ‘automeals,’ heating water and converting it to coffee”) to photochromic lenses (“The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it”).

But Asimov’s most impressive prophecy had less to do with gadgets than perceiving what that progress would mean for society. ”The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being,” he wrote. Later, he added, ”The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.”

Heading into 2014, the so-called disruptive technologies we write about frequently at Quartz—from robotics to 3D printing to drones—are magical, yes, and inevitable, too. They also carry with them a specter of loss. Lost jobs, mostly, but also a sense of being lost. Where do we go from here? What is society’s replacement for factory work, clerical work, retail work? The honest answer is that we have none, at least for now.

The US may never return to full employment. Ravaged economies in Europe are putting an entire generation of youth at risk. China can’t put its college graduates to work. Jobs simply aren’t materializing.

Predictions are a fool’s errand. (Asimov assumed we would have moon colonies.) But if we had to make just one forecast, it would be that, in 2014, the reality of this loss of work will hit the world hard. The bright side is that we may finally start to confront the issue and start working on a new economy with jobs to spare.