The futurist Alvin Toffler divided human epochs into waves, each making prior existing cultures and societies obsolete. These waves came on the back of technological innovation. Now we are living in what he calls the “Third Wave,” or the post-industrial society. Our primary resource, he argued, will become knowledge. His prediction turned out true. With the revelation of the internet, human society has entered this “Third Wave” of which we call the Information Age. As we move farther away from the industrial era, which triggered urban migration all over the world, some theorize that this will lead to the demise of cities. Without giants of industry and manufacturing jobs, cities would be “leftover baggage.” However, the reality has been quite the opposite. Mass urbanization is occurring all over the world, and our technology is actually facilitating this migration. Urban centers produce massive quantities of data, or knowledge, which is more easily informed, accessed, and acted upon when the devices collecting this data are in closer proximity. Human activity is becoming more streamlined by this data, along with our machines and buildings. Cities are data factories. Living computers if you will. The working parts of this meta-machine are, you guessed it, people themselves. With knowledge as the most important resource in the modern world, and access to it the most valuable commodity, it is only natural for urban populations to swell.
The City of the Future, The Metropolis of Tomorrow! Beginning in the early 20th century, artists and thinkers alike fantasized about how technology would impact urban growth. Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Hugh Ferriss' Metropolis of Tomorrow depicted massive and seemingly endless urban landscapes. Italian and Russian futurists were obsessed with the city and the urban milieu. However, it was not just the aesthetics of cities that they were fascinated with, but the lifestyles that accompanied them. The Futurists were drawn to dynamism, speed and restlessness of modern life. Lang's Metropolis visited the urban sub-cultures, from the hyper-affluent to the seedy underbelly and the various hedonistic vices they all enjoyed. Throughout the 20th century, fascination with urbanity, modernity and what those will look like in the future has never really ceased, but as technology advanced the representations and visions of future-cities and society evolved.
Perhaps the most exemplary depiction of what the near future will look like, and one very well ahead of its time, is the 1982 movie Blade Runner, based off of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This movie, along with William Gibson's Neuromancer created a genre known as Cyberpunk. In both stories, we are presented with near-future cities that stretch a seemingly endless expanse, featuring advanced technology, such as A.I. and cyberspace in what's been deemed a “high-tech low life society.” While sharing themes and motifs with the proto-cyberpunk universe we see in Metropolis, Blade Runner and Neuromancer hit a little closer to home. Technology is the greatest catalyst to social transformation, so what Dick and Gibson are really doing in their literature is presenting us with an avalanche of heavy questions: What does it mean to be human? How will we love and relate to each other as technology evolves? They also look at how this will affect social hierarchy and contribute to social decay. These once far-out concepts have already arrived in the 21st century, and the beginnings of major societal shifts are already well underway.
Apart from some forward thinking individuals such as Isaac Asimov, Fritz Lang, and Philip K Dick machines were merely seen as simple tools. Those with foresight knew that was only the beginning of another era. They saw eventuality of automation of labor. Although not quite there yet, the next step in technological advancement may very well see humans and tools in a reversed role (the Matrix films are a cliché but poignaint example). Before the industrial revolution there was no concept of a forty-hour work week or minimum wage. With the advent of machinery, from the factory to the computer, every ounce of productivity contributed to the coffers. The quandary now presented to human work is that our machines, our tools, are becoming more productive in absentia to labor.
Two economists from M.I.T., Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have expanded upon this idea. They have coined the new era in which we are living as the “Second Machine Age.” While the first machine age would have began with the industrial revolution, which helped make human and machine labor complimentary, the second machine age is seeing the automation of cognitive tasks to the extent that humans and machines are interchangeable. The most common jobs on earth, such as salesperson, cashier, and office clerks, are highly susceptible to automation. This may seem like some farfetched idea from a sci-fi movie, but if you take a closer look at the rate technology is advancing it becomes quite real. A.I. brains already have a very active role in modern society, from factory production to medical diagnostics. Soon enough, drones will be delivering packages. Even our cars may be driving themselves. A completely automated workforce has been a foundation for Futurists and science-fiction writers alike. In place of toiling labor they imagine a life of leisure and almost complete personal freedom. One of the largest emerging problems a heavily-automated world could face: what will all of these people do all day?
Can we as modern humans actually lead fulfilling lives without devoting it to work? As Voltaire famously said, “Work saves us from three great evils: vice, boredom and need.” Entire socio-political philosophies have been crafted around the idea of people laboring in synchronicity; work is the foundation of a harmonious society. In fact, there is something aspirational of every person in their right place working towards a common goal. Cogs in a machine. Work is the simplest way for us to craft our own identities. Having no sense of identity can in turn lead us into a spiral of existential crisis. The only real way to stay sane is to work together with the machines we have created.
People are continuing to flock to cities at an astounding rate. By 2050 over 50% of the developing world and 70% of the developed world are expected to reside in urban centers. Technological improvements are increasing production capabilities so that we can expect more of everything from tangible goods to digital services at lower and lower prices, yet as a byproduct machines and computers are used as substitutes to human labor at a higher rate. So what will the future look like and what will being human mean then? Will we struggle to find identity or will we finally have time to figure out who we really are? These are questions that Liu Dao are asking themselves with Fanatic Automatic. It is a visual exploration of what life may look like in the near future. Will we be working for or working with the tools that we have created?