Last summer, economist and journalist Paul Mason shared a bold and futuristic statement on the pages of The Guardian. The piece, entitled ‘The end of capitalism has begun‘, claimed that the changes brought about by technological innovation are already paving the way for a new type of economic system, one founded on new ways of thinking about technology, ownership and work, and that offers an ‘escape route’ for a world of crises. Mason would expand on these themes in the book PostCapitalism: a guide to our future, contributing to an emerging debate on whether some of the key trends of our time – the sharing economy, automation, open source, digital fabrication and so on – are simply niche activities on the fringes of our economy, or are fundamentally rewriting the rules of the game.
Where does the circular economy fit? If we are moving towards a model that is new and different, we should ask what will be its guiding principles. Will it involve a new relationship with energy, resources and information? To what extent will digital technologies enable us to use things, rather than simply using them up? Will the future economy account for the whole system, ‘externalities’ and all?
On 7th December, Paul Mason will look more closely at these questions and more as part of the 2016 Disruptive Innovation Festival, an online event curated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Paul will be joined by tech evangelist Robert Scoble and social entrepreneur Nikki Silvestri for the DIF Live Launch, live streamed for free to celebrate the start of this year’s festival, which will see some 200 plus sessions take place around the world over three weeks. Circulate spoke with Paul to get a preview of some of the threads he’ll address on the day.
What does the term disruptive innovation mean to you?
Disruption now is quite old skool – I want the tech innovation cycle to get to a phase where the disruption has happened and the new model settles down into what wave-theorists call the “golden age” – where it becomes really obvious that by following best practice you make money. I think the big disruptive innovations of the past 15 years were broadband, wifi and 3G…and Twitter. The disruptive innovations that are coming will be the application of AI to labour intensive service jobs, like callcentres.
Is the digital revolution really a revolution?
Oh yes. At the age of 12 I sat in a well stocked town library determined to teach myself – to find answers to questions in my head. My tools were books between 5 and 50 years old, arranged in an order so that Dadaist poetry came after Dachshunds and before Dahlias. Now the whole of the world’s knowledge is stored, as Marx predicted, inside a “general intellect” – so that improvements by one person can be rolled out at 9am the next day to everyone on earth. Revolution is an understatement.
Which big trend – be it economic, social, technological or otherwise do you feel will be most disruptive in the coming 20 years?
The basic income. It’s rare that – for different reasons – you get libertarian entrepreneurs and grass roots socialists excited about the same thing at the same time. The basic income has to happen because it will be a one-off subsidy for rapid automation. Touch screens at McDonalds? Bring it on. Automating the kitchen next? Bring it on too. But we will need to pay the workers displaced something close to the minimum state pension, for starters, to make it happen – out of taxation.
A lot is written about what the current disruptive trends mean for businesses and governments, but what do you think the impacts will be on the majority of the population?
In a series of signal moments it will dawn on us: what can be imagined can be made. The inner Da Vinci will be unleashed in everyone. We will understand that information technology means mastery over nature. But we will become acutely aware of the ethical and governance dilemmas. For instance, it makes sense for citizens to take control of a city using an app. Right now, signing up so that the people you pay tax to can see your movements seems like a very intrusive idea. We’re going to have to solve that problem.
You’ve said that “capitalism is a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt”. So if you’re saying it’s too late to influence this system, where should we look for the new model?
Capitalism could survive in ways I cannot predict. But on current trend my fear is that it survives as a form of neofeudalism – low-paid people, in a tech driven race to the bottom, subservient to asset rich people who are able to “buy” the low-paid people several times over. You can experience what this might mean today even if you travel within Europe. So for the new model we must look to small-scale peer production of things and services, and the job of governments is to foster this sector as aggressively as in the past they fostered low skill/low pay exploitative businesses. These latter of course must be replaced.
What message or main idea would you want this audience to remember from your DIF talk?
It’s not “winter” that is coming; it’s the world without work; where utopias have to be built on something other than work, discipline, hierarchy and necessity – and that it’s going to be scary, but not zombie-fighing scary (i.e. we can actually win)!
Visit thinkdif.co to find out more about the Disruptive Innovation Festival. Don’t forget to create My DIF account to build your own schedule, get session recommendations based on your interests, and 30 days of bonus catch up time after the DIF has ended.