Society and technology

You and I live in a society of human beings that is bound by a given geography, common set of rules and some common goals. Any group of people living together in a more or less ordered community is considered a society. The size of society changes as we zoom in from a country to a state to a city to your local community. And as we zoom out our society becomes Planet Earth, the Solar System and ultimately the Universe.

So, I like to think of and refer to society as the aggregate of all human beings in the Universe. In this context society includes all of humanity with the added layer of common rules for coexistence and collaboration aimed at achieving some common goals.

As members of society you and I have a purpose. We ought to play our part in moving humanity forward and advancing human potential. At a fundamental level, as individuals and as part of an organization, we have just four roles to play. At any given time we act as either creators, consumers, connectors or controllers.

The four players in society.

Creators

Creators are the fuel that drives the innovation engine and moves us forward. They are scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who discover, create and commercialize new things. They are builders who produce the tools we use and the goods we consume. This is the hardest, yet most important and rewarding role we can play in our community, company and society. But creators are also part consumers because they can’t do it all and need to rely on things that someone else created.

Consumers

We all play a role as consumers. After all this is why we have come up with the concepts of trade and economy. But I think of consumers as individuals or organizations that consume more value than they create for society. They have a positive consumer balance.

Connectors

These are the people who help connect the dots. They connect creators to consumers, or resources to consumers, and vice versa. Connectors are the service providers of our society.

Controllers

They set the rules that control the interactions between creators, consumers, connectors and resources of a society. They also help govern those rules.

Here are some examples of how I see the roles certain individuals, business functions and organizations play in our society today.

  Creators Connectors Consumers Controllers
Individuals Scientists, Engineers, Writers, Designers, Artists Sales Reps, Consultants, Doctors, Repairmen, Operators Full-Time: Gamers, Travelers, Retired, Unemployed Managers, Lawyers, Politicians, Inspectors, Policemen
Business Functions Research and Development, Design, Product Management and Marketing Sales, Customer Service, Finance, Human Resources, Corporate Communications No function has a primary role to be a consumer Quality Assurance, Accounting, Legal, Compliance
Organizations Universities, Manufacturing, Entertainment, Energy, Pharmaceuticals Schools, Distributors, Transportation, Media, Services No organization has a primary role to be a consumer, except maybe Fan Clubs Auditors, Regulators, Rating Agencies, Government

But why does all this matter? If we assume that these are the four fundamental roles that individuals and organizations play in society, then it is easier to predict what impact technology will have on society, economy and the distribution of wealth in the long term.

The technology advancements that fueled the start of the industrial revolution in the late 18th and through the 19th and 20th century were all about increasing the output of creators thanks to new manufacturing tools and processes. As creators were able to produce more with less, fewer individuals were needed in this role and the skills required to create net-new things became harder to learn and master. So, the majority of players in our society shifted from a creator to connector and controller roles establishing today's service-based, connection economy. For example according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics[1] 80% or 121M people of the workforce in 2014 were employed in a services-providing role, with the State and Local Government sector leading the way with 16% or 19M people of those 80%.

So, what’s next for our society? We are at a tipping point where the information revolution that started with the Internet is about to converge with an automation revolution driven by advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and 3D printing. We may also experience a quantum, energy and genetics revolution all before the end of this century. Technology is about to disrupt the role connectors and controllers play in society and we already see that a single organization like Facebook can connect 1.18 billion people on daily basis with less than 16,000 employees. Also, soon to come are fully autonomous cars and trucks that will eliminate the need for millions of people to work in transportation and that’s awesome, because this will free up time and open up the opportunity for these members of society to shift to a different role. Though, here lies the biggest question we need to answer.

How does each and every one of us continue to play their part in moving humanity forward and advancing human potential when the current advancements in technology and economic system lead to high concentration of wealth, and consequently access to resources, and the only remaining role that players can shift to seems to be a consumer?

Perhaps the answer lies in education and further technological innovation that will make it easier for more individuals to shift to a creator’s role instead of becoming consumers. Instead of introducing a universal basic income, we should use technology to solve the problem of limited resources to create abundance and drive the price to zero. What do you think?

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[1] Source: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_201.htm

Thanks to Joanna Jamontt for reviewing a draft of this article.