The Expanse is a wonderful piece of hard sci-fi that presents us all with a warning: without societal change, technology will amplify inequalities.
The SyFy/Netflix series is based on the novels of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, writing together under the name James S.A. Corey. Set 200 years in the future, they tell of a solar system divided. Mars is independent, wealthy and ambitious. A neglected working class toils in the asteroid fields at the edge of the system, mining and shipping minerals under the control of Earth, technologically advanced but socially stagnant under the global control of the UN.
The gap between rich and poor in this system-wide society is financially and geographically vast: perhaps this is the expanse the authors refer to. ‘The Belters’ have barely any control of their lives, bound as they are into service, and limited in their opportunities to travel by the effect of zero gravity on their bones and musculature.
In my professional work I don’t try to look 200 years out. But I see a microcosm of this expanse building in the next 20.
I’ve written a lot about automation and its likely effects. In short, it is hard to see how we create jobs of a volume to replace those that are likely to be destroyed by robots of various forms. But this is only part of the story.
In parallel with this, we are likely to see the remaining jobs for humans change. Firstly, it seems likely that engagements between employer and employee will continue to shorten. Not because people are bouncing between roles to get a pay boost. But because the increasingly cyclical nature of success will define periods in which some skills are needed and others in which they are not. Will you need all of the marketing, finance, legal, HR skills all year round? Or will you acquire them as needed — perhaps adding and dropping the same person to and from the workforce multiple times. Not freelancing exactly but multiple shorter duration stints.
Secondly, we are moving towards a situation where a person is only as effective as the technology they bring with them. The ‘Bring Your Own Device’ trend seems innocuous and even fun at first: the reversal of companies and consumers having the best tech. But really it makes a lot of sense for the companies involved: lower capital outlay, and workers equipped with technology on which they are already trained.
We are so close to our devices now that they are an extension of ourselves — again as I have written and spoken about extensively. At what point does the technology we bring with us become part of the recruitment process? Would a company (legitimately) want to select a candidate whose purely human characteristics are poorer than another’s, because their technological enhancements take them way beyond? Probably.
The haves and the have-nots
What does this do to the divide between the haves and have nots? It’s not positive. Legislation may try to prevent such discrimination based so closely on wealth. But I’m not sure what success it would have. Those who manage to get onto the bottom rung early will advance, others will not, as the gap widens over time.
Technology is often painted as the villain in this piece. But technology has no agency. It simply presents a lens to the issues we have today and amplifies them. Long-range futurism and science-fiction is a wonderful way of demonstrating what might happen if we don’t address these issues today.