With everybody by now sick to the back teeth of the ‘virus and its associated lockdown, future gazers are turning their thoughts to how the future might look for us all. For, to be sure, life will change in ways both subtle and not so subtle. In particular, two threads seem to be emerging which may, or may not, be complementary to one another.
The one, which predates the pandemic, is the notion that we are in, or entering, the fourth industrial revolution, with the exhortation that if we in South Africa don’t take urgent action we will be left behind the rest of the world.
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) refers, of course, to the enhanced use of artificial intelligence (computers, to you and me) in the way humans live their lives. This, in turn, refers to working remotely, virtual reality, using artificial intelligence for predictive modelling, robotics and many other aspects of modern life.
4IR will have us interacting with computers rather than humans for many of the repetitive, and some not so repetitive, tasks of daily living.
In turn, 4IR will require the average person to be much more computer literate, and connected, and will, for its development, require huge numbers of software developers, programmers and technicians etc.
What this model seems to play down, if not miss entirely, is that it does very little, if not nothing at all, to level the playing fields between rich and poor, rural and urban, advantaged and disadvantaged.
Certainly, in a country such as ours, the enthusiastic adoption of 4IR will not narrow the inequality gap between rich and poor. If anything it will widen it. This is, after all, a country where children still drown in pit latrines at school, and where education and healthcare at the most marginalised end of society is woeful, to say the least. Let alone the provision of affordable high-speed data links to rural communities.
It also seems to ignore the fact that people will still need to eat, clothe themselves and have houses to live in, however 4IR-savvy they may be.
The second thread, that has emerged directly from the worldwide lockdown in the face of the pandemic, is more economic in nature and has been punted by a group of eminent international social scientists centred on the World Economic Forum at Davos, and is being dubbed the Global Economy “Great Reset”.
The basic thread to this argument is that we now, thanks to the pandemic and its aftermath, have an ideal opportunity to reprogramme the world’s activities on to a more sustainable, equitable path.
The argument acknowledges that we cannot continue on our present trajectory, consuming non-renewable resources with happy and ever-increasing abandon, while allowing emissions and pollution to overwhelm us.
But with the world in economic turmoil and with its peoples asking where we go from here the scientists argue now is the right time to seek out new philosophies for living and implement policies and practices that are sustainable and better for the planet.
In so doing, the Great Reset argues that inequality, hunger and poverty are the big issues that the nations of the world will have to tackle.
And here it gets interesting. Rather, they say, than attempting to uplift the poor and marginalised to the economic levels of the middle classes ~ which would inevitably require increasing the damaging exploitation of those aforementioned non-renewable resources ~ the standards of living and levels of consumption of the middle classes will have to diminish, so that equality is achieved by the downward trajectory of the middle classes towards the poorer elements of society.
That notion, of course, flies in the face of just about every economic principle of the modern age, except perhaps for those of discredited Communists and the Left. Which is where the arguments embodied in 4IR and the Great Reset would seem to collide.
For, as the middle classes become less wealthy, as they are inevitably doing thanks to the pandemic, there will be greater emphasis on the need to secure the basics of life. Food, shelter, warmth etc. And at that stage whether anybody other than the very rich will in fact give a fiddler’s toss about computers, intelligence and all the other paraphernalia of the connected life is open to debate.
For smallholders, whose connectivity is often doubtful anyway, the situation is perhaps simplified. Because with a bit of work and application on our plots we have, if nothing else, the ability and wherewithal to keep ourselves fed, sheltered and warm.