A binary choice. It seems appropriate when discussing a technology-powered future.

On the one hand, a more equal society where want is reduced and the biggest challenge is engaging peoples’ time in useful pursuits. On the other, the hourglass economy taken to its natural conclusions: a handful of wealthy individuals, their capabilities augmented by technology, sit at the top. The many – unemployed or under-employed – are locked permanently out of the upper echelons.

These are not utopian or dystopian visions from science fiction. But a practical extrapolation from current trends that suggest where we might be headed, devolution or no devolution. The workforce is being increasingly automated at every tier: from robots on the factory floor, to digital kiosks on the high street, to powerful software in businesses, banks, accountancy and law firms. Fewer people can achieve more because their abilities are augmented by technology.

Rise of the robots

The impact of this trend can be witnessed today. Go into any bank and you will see much fewer staff. Most music and video is now bought online in digital formats, where companies with just a handful of employees can deliver what HMV used to with more than 3,000. The last tube strikes were around the replacement of people with ticket machines. Small businesses operate with software that replace the bookkeeper and the accountant. 7.2% of the workforce is unemployed but nearly 11% is under-employed, collectively seeking tens of millions more hours of work each week than they can find.

Power to the People

These trends are not going unnoticed. At the SXSW technology conference in Austin, Texas this month one brave soul re-floated the idea of a ‘negative income tax’, guaranteeing everyone a minimum income – heresy in the home of capitalism.

An editorial leader in online magazine Quartz warns of a new age of drone technology enabling the retreat of the wealthy from society, now that power can be remotely exercised without people.

A technology-driven future clearly presents us with challenges, but it also presents opportunities. I’ll address those in my next post.