Beyond digital . . .

BT's futurologistIan Pearson reckons that, instead of making our lives simpler, technology will actu

The huge technological changes we're going to see over the next few years will not only move the goalposts, but also change the whole nature of the game. And don't think it is going to make the world simpler: the future socio-economic structure will be even more complex than today's. We're going to see two parallel trends: one is to a stronger local community and the other is to increased globalisation.

The internet allows us to move beyond traditional geographic boundaries and encourages huge network-based communities to spring up. Some will be communities of shared cultural identity, religion, political persuasion, business ethics or perhaps social values. Many will be small and have little effect, but others will have economic and political power. These network communities could become more powerful than traditional geographic communities.

Here is a good example of the collective power that the internet could have: suppose, in a decade from now, hundreds of millions of individuals are on the internet who have, at some point, supported an environmental campaign. Groups of this size would be irresistible to politically minded people. We might see the vast, combined economic power of hundreds of millions of people used to wield sanctions against countries that damage the environment, forcing them to change. There can be no defence or retaliation against these sanctions, because the members of this protest group are scattered worldwide.

In the business world, we will see the growth of the global and dynamic virtual company. These companies will link people and computers together, regardless of location, and they'll make money from all over the world. In these virtual companies, people can be brought together for a single project, or part of a project cycle, and then disbanded. The internet allows virtual companies to be formed using people and information resources from anywhere in the world, and provides the communications spaces for these people to work together as a team as closely as if they inhabited the same office. These companies could be made up of the best people available worldwide for the task in hand; businesses will no longer be stuck with the same staff all the time, regardless of their expertise.

With global companies comes the need to introduce global taxation and some kind of global regulation. Many other issues will have to be addressed globally, too: telecommunications standards are already set globally and, increasingly, anything to do with business is decided on a global level. There are various global bodies already in existence. In the future, we could see existing organisations being strengthened or, alternatively, the creation of more bodies to regulate individual components of global interaction.

Paradoxically, information technology is also likely to lead to the development of stronger local geographic communities. As the internet spreads, community networks are springing up everywhere, allowing people actively to participate in their local community. And as technology gradually automates much of the mechanistic and even intellectual side of work, so community activity will become more important. People may begin to form their sense of identity from their place and relationships in the community, rather than from their job.

In fact, as local decision-making becomes possible, we may well see many functions of today's national government migrate to local authorities. With a global regulatory environment and micro-local government, there could be little left for regional or national level institutions to do.

What is conspicuously missing today is the ability for people directly to take part in decision-making outside their own country. Network communities will capitalise on this vacuum informally, but there may soon be global voting on some issues. It's already obvious that it doesn't make sense for individual governments to make decisions on certain issues. As a British citizen, I have no direct influence over the US government's environmental policy, although it affects the quality of the air I breathe, the water I drink and the food I eat. In the future, I would expect there to be more pressure on governments to allow the views of external communities to have a say.

Industrialisation made physical labour more efficient. Later advances in machinery displaced more humans from physical jobs. Further advances in robotics will see another wave of automation in physical jobs, replacing people outright in some, while increasing productivity in others.

However, the most significant wave of automation that we are witnessing is the automation of mental work. Software has already made it easy for managers to do their own admin, and artificial intelligence promises to take over tasks much further up the value chain, eventually replacing large numbers of managerial and professional jobs while deskilling many others. Productivity will increase enormously, so we will be much wealthier, but large numbers of humans won't be needed to operate the productive side of the economy.

If we're not doing physical or mental jobs, the only thing left is the care economy. We will value the human as a human, not as a cog in a machine. It will be the human skills - the inter- personal, caring skills - that we will pay for. For everything else, we will use a machine.

Eventually, the information economy will draw to a close and be replaced by the care economy. This will begin in earnest between 2015 and 2020, as artificial intelligence broadly approaches human levels of intelligence.

Ian Pearson is BT's futurologist in C2G, BT's new Communications Consultancy Group

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit