Tuesday, December 6, 2022
HomeOpinionA future with bitcoin, block-chain & digitisation looks dystopian, but there’s a...

A future with bitcoin, block-chain & digitisation looks dystopian, but there’s a positive too

New rules will be needed for this emerging world, but who will write them? How should personal data be used and not used? Can the digital divide be bridged?

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Imagine currency going crypto (meaning secret), involving mining (of what?) and block-chain technology (more stuff to figure out). If you don’t understand any of that, or why Tesla is buying billions of bitcoins, how will you cope with the world being born? Or understand why China thinks its e-yuan can help settle bad debts?

In the early 1970s, Alvin Toffler wrote a massive bestseller, Future Shock. He focused on people’s inability to cope with too much change in too short a time. The “futurist” expanded on his thought in subsequent books whose themes resonate today as we scan the horizons of a world that is transforming at speed. The premature arrival of the future, as Toffler put it.

If you already struggle with the periodic emails that ask you to upgrade some software that you happen to be using, think that self-driven cars too will have their software periodically upgraded, by remote control. Wars will be (are being) fought by armies of hackers employed to penetrate the networks of a modern economy, like the electricity grid. How vulnerable does that make you feel?

Almost no business will remain unaffected by the waves of change. Energy is shifting from fossils to renewables (consider what that might mean for geo-politics). Batteries will displace internal combustion engines as the latter once displaced horse-drawn carriages. In aviation, Airbus is looking at hydrogen as fuel, while Boeing may target bio-fuels. Even the steel industry, with its heat-intensive processes, is looking at achieving zero net emissions. Banks will need to re-invent themselves for the digital age, as their existing business models get challenged. New-age businesses will create enormous wealth through unicorns and other vehicles, and much existing wealth will get destroyed in the churn. Aggregators will win, producers will lose.

Also read: Like it or not, future of Indian economy will have to be built on services, not manufacturing

And yet, as the economist Robert Gordon argued a few years ago, today’s technological breakthroughs mean less for productivity than those of the 19th century (such as electricity, elevators and running water, or the germ theory). So where Toffler saw “waves of ever accelerating speed and unprecedented impact”, Gordon sees a productivity slowdown! But productivity may be the wrong metric to measure disruptive change. Billions of dollars must be invested to re-invent existing businesses. Climate change is causing wildfires in California and persuading people in Silicon Valley to head for Texas. Before growth, you have to undo the damage.

Toffler focused in one of his books on knowledge, wealth, and power, all of which are getting concentrated in the same hands and prompting new questions. Winner-take-all platform businesses can reduce their essential companion, the gig economy, to a loaded dice game. Ask the Uber or Ola drivers who want the rights of industrial workers, like minimum pay, without having to put in 14 hours on the road. Centralised power is by definition more remote, so 30 million people could become non-persons for the purposes of a ration card if they don’t have an Aadhaar number. Or non-citizens. Or bankrupt, because of the all-too-frequent misdemeanours of those managing Big Finance. And, with the spread and use of Big Data, what price privacy and autonomy?

New rules will be needed for this emerging world, but who will write them? How should personal data be used and not used? What about the dis-intermediated media that has teamed up with Big Tech to re-invent politics by spreading post-truth and hate mail? Or, how incapacitated would you be if your internet connection were switched off, as governments sometimes do? The Supreme Court has declared that access to the internet should be a fundamental right. It should be, but the digital divide remains real.

The great white hope of digitisation has therefore acquired dystopian hues that need to be painted out. But there’s still a positive side: Technology enables even if it can disempower. The office commute won’t be a daily drudge. The pay-per-use, or sharing, economy may grow. And if zero net emissions become reality, even if only by 2050 (which would still be an achievement), we would finally begin to undo some of the depredations that have marked our anthropocene age. Good or bad, it will be a different world.

Also read: Indian unicorns are coming of age. This is what it means for big business & retail investors


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  1. Useless junk. It takes real effort to make an opinion or atleast shed light to pros and cons in a structured way.

    No facts or analysis only a bunch of questions that you hear everyone talk. However if you notice the headline , it’s a clear opinion. But when you read the article it signals author is ignorant or lazy or both.

    • You call the author ignorant? Here is the information about the author: “T.N. Ninan is the Chairman of Business Standard Ltd. During a quarter century at the helm of different publications, he has been the editor of Business Standard (where he was also the publisher from 1996), the Economic Times, and Business World. He was also the executive editor at India Today. From January 2010, he moved into non-executive roles. He has been President of the Editors Guild of India, Chairman of the Media Committee of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Chairman of the Society for Environmental Communication (which publishes ‘Down to Earth’ magazine), and a member of the Board of Trade. He has served on the Board of the Shri Ram School, and is a member of the Indo-German Consultative Group as well as a Trustee of Aspen Institute India. He is a recipient of many awards including the B.D. Goenka award for excellence in journalism. The Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund awarded him a Nehru Fellowship for 2013 and 2014. He has received his M.A. in economics from the University of Madras in 1972. “. Now about the article. It is not written for thePrint. His articles get published in the Business Standard as Saturday editorials under the column ‘Weekend Ruminations”. They get published in the Print under a mutual arrangement between Mr. Shekhar Gupta and TNN. Shekharji’s article reciprocally gets published in the BS every Saturday. BS standard for journalism is somewhat higher than the usual stuff. While you are entitled to have your views, please think twice before you write in an abusive tone. It belittles only you not others. Before commenting atleast you should have read the monumental book “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler. My suggestion to you is to read the book at least now and buy and read BS every day. It will enhance your knowledge.

  2. A sane assessment. But the effects of such progress are more far reaching and not always good.
    Who will write the new rules? More importantly, for who? Television was a normal feature in the US in the 1960s. It took another couple od decades for it to reach some homes in India. The rate of change has accelerated since. These days technology comes to India as it reaches other parts of the world.
    In the second book , The third wave, originally intended as part of a trilogy (he ended publishing more books in the series), he describes the waves thus.
    • The First Wave is the settled agricultural society which prevailed in much of the world after the Neolithic revolution which replaced hunter gatherer culture cultures.
    • The Second Wave is industrial age society. Key aspects of Second Wave society are the nuclear family , a factory-type education system and the corporation Toffler writes that the second wave gave birth to mass action, standardization and bureaucracy.
    • The Third Wave is the post industrial society. He coined many words to describe it and mentions names invented by others, such as the Information age.

    Yuva Noah Harari in his book Homo Sapiens, says that ten thousand years ago wheat was wild grass. Farming gave rise to settlements close to farm lands, which in turn forced people to live in close proximity giving rise to unhygienic conditions in the settlements (villages?). Accordingly with each wave of Toffler we can discern also the destruction which it brings along.
    For one, since the progress, the brain power of homo sapiens improved while his physical prowess, including more deceases, illness etc., decreased in geometric proportions. We breathe foul air and drink contaminated water. These days children play games digitally rather than in the open fields and while we live and work in an ever-changing virtual world. Bitcoin is a fallout of the virtual world.
    But like the TV sets in the 1960s it is an unequal progress. For people who have not held a thousand rupees at a time, bit coin is and will be fantasy for a long, long time. All this will only give rise to a different type of class system while we are still battling to emerge from another one. It may be better for humanity to slow down the progress and not write the new rules as yet.

  3. I salute T.N.Ninan , the most respected business journalist and the founder of the Business Standard, for this brilliant piece. Sadly, not many from the readership of thePrint have taken cognizance of this article, though the consequence of this future shock could be momentous for we Indians too. How India with its bulging population copes with these sweeping changes is matter that requires serious debate, Unfortunately, our views are quite often short term and we are mostly blind to the forces of disruptive nature that can impact the destiny of our nation.

  4. What is the point of this article? It seems more like an arduous effort to fill a weekly column. Meaningless gibberish should not appear in such a forum. What a waste of time!

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