The End Goal of Technology

Technology and business are both exciting and worrisome, but not for the reasons you may think.

In 1930, a great economist named John Maynard Keynes wrote an influential essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,’ whose ideas dominated economic policymaking at the time. In recent years, his work received a revival in interest most notably by his biographer, Robert Skidelsky, and his son Edward.

The Skidelskys revived Keynes’s case for leisure. The notion that time is free to use as we please, as opposed to mere idleness. The argument aligns with a tradition that goes back to the ancients, however, Keynes suggested something quite new: the idea that leisure could be an option for all, not merely for an aristocratic minority.

John Maynard Keynes

Writing during a period of economic depression, Keynes argued that technological progress offered the path to a bright future. He said that in the long run, humanity could solve the economic problem of scarcity and eliminate the need to work in order to live. That in turn implied that we would be free to discard “all kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital”[1].

Keynes was building on a long tradition but with a twist. The idea of a utopian golden age where abundance replaces scarcity and the world is no longer ruled by money. What was new in Keynes was the idea that technological progress might make that utopia a reality rather than just an idea.

Brief History

Hunter-gatherer society
Settlers ~12,000 years ago during the neolithic period

Human civilization started in widely dispersed bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. As the population started to multiply, people began to settle in one place. They would farm crops and cattle so that they didn’t have to travel far for nourishment.

Then villages appeared. Followed by towns, and eventually cities. Soon after, the first temples were erected. This induced the creation of elites and social hierarchies to provide order to these increasingly complex societies. Fast-forward thousands of years to today, and we’re nothing more than a continuation of this story of humanity.

Before we had organized societies, life was simple but difficult. Our greatest desire and worry was survival. Don’t die, pass on genetics. That was the purpose of life. So we spent most of our time and energy on surviving, which basically entailed gathering food and water.

Over the years we experienced massive changes, from societal structure to new technologies. But despite our newfound wealth, we still had to perform drudgery to survive. Just a hundred years ago, most families required the husband, wife, and kids to work grueling labor on a farm, mine, mill, or foundry just to make ends meet. They struggled, as do we, but their stakes were more often life-or-death[1].

The working class of the 1900s

Years later and societies have become far more complex and abundant. A lot more people now have the privilege of enjoying life and searching for a fulfilling purpose.

We really do take technology for granted. Just take a second to think about some of the life-changing tech we’ve attained in the past century alone. We can instantly communicate with anyone across the globe in real time. We’ve mostly eradicated polio and smallpox. The infant mortality rate dropped from 16.5% in 1900 to 0.5% today. In 1950, the life expectancy in the US was 45.5; today it is 73 years.

You can travel anywhere around the world quickly, safely, and comfortably via car, plane, train, etc. You don’t have to spend most of your days farming your own food. Heck, you don’t even need to leave your house to get any fresh meal delivered to your doorstep. You have access to practically any known information in this world in the palm of your hand. Our homes are climate controlled with heating and AC. Even simple technology like the shoes we wear is far better and more beneficial to our health than the thin rugged primitive leather shoes that used to blister our sweaty feet.

Best of all, each of these advancements provides compounding beneficial effects. For example, now that we have cars doesn’t just mean we can get to places faster. It also means that we spend far less time and energy traveling with less physical and emotional stress, can travel safer and transport more goods easier and can travel much farther distances at less cost. This affects all parts of society, from business to entertainment to productivity.

Looking back at history, the amount of progress we’ve made towards an easier life is phenomenal. But what if we look forward to a couple hundred years into the future. What will life look like then?

Looking Forward

The reason technology is so exciting is that every innovation is one step closer to the end goal. And I say end goal because perhaps we will eventually reach levels of abundance that will end the need for rapid technological advancement as we’ve been experiencing.

When envisioning the overarching mission of technological advancement, it looks like either a utopia or a dystopia depending on who you talk to. I imagine it will somewhat resemble the Disney film WALL-E, where technology becomes so advanced that we no longer have to do anything we don’t want to. All physical labor is delegated to robots. Any product we would ever want is just a click away. And, since the world has become so abundant, humans don’t even need to work to live a good life, just as Keynes imagined.

That part sounds mostly great, however, what do you think happens to a society where people have no responsibilities. No ambition or incentive to work, build, and create? What happens when life becomes too easy?

WALL-E does a good job of depicting the detriments of this ambiguous society. In the film, humans no longer have to walk. Why would you even want to? All tasks and responsibilities are taken care of by computers and robots, so all we’re left with is leisure. Everyone is perpetually entertained with an unimaginably high-resolution screen that can transport you into any environment through the metaverse, giving you any experience you could possibly want. Graphics are so crisp that our imperfect reality is inferior to virtual environments. A world where humans no longer walk might sound crazy, but the trend is already a reality. Humans have been gradually walking less as technology has increased[2].

On the hopeful side, maybe technology by then will be advanced enough to negate the health side-effects of our new sedentary lifestyles. Although it’s difficult to conjure a good argument for why walking may be overrated, let’s just imagine that we live perfectly fine without it. There are still other dystopian peculiarities that we seem to be trending towards. In a life of abundance and no responsibility, what percentage of the population will actually choose to do anything meaningful with their life?

Another way to look at this is if kids today didn’t have to go to school or get a job, what percentage of them will live out their days on social media, streaming sites, and gaming? And what percentage will actually build and create things out of sheer intrinsic motivation, and contribute to society—not because they need to, but because they want to?

A contemporary example of this can be observed with wealthy heirs. Unless instilled with a hard-working and utilitarian character, these people usually don’t do much with their lives other than consume. It is the great paradox of a privileged life. In the complete absence of struggle, adversity, and a drive to improve, you become a sitting duck.

Historical data has validated the reality of this trend. Daily screen time has been gradually increasing. Average working hours are decreasing. We’re becoming more efficient in producing goods.

In the case that no other existential threats end humanity and we continue to prosper for hundreds or thousands of years, human complacency worries me the most about the end goal of technology. Perhaps we are not yet ready for the massive responsibility of satiety, and perhaps the need to struggle and work (in fairness and moderation of course) is a healthy dose of medicine. But I do believe that if or when we do reach the end goal, human intuition will disrupt this dystopian trend before it gets out of hand. Then, ideally, abundance and human ingenuity can coexist.

A thousand years from now when society’s most significant issue becomes preventing complacency in the wake of much abundance, I think that will be a pretty good place to be. Every human being will be able to afford all necessities without much struggle. Work will become mostly optional for those who want more and for those who are intrinsically driven to build and create.

Having this belief in the end goal of technology is the reason I am an avid technophile and why I genuinely love business and entrepreneurship[3]. I get excited when we make progress because it all leads to this abundance that benefits us all.

[1] Our worries and struggles are just as valid as people living 100 years ago. Our still primitive minds and bodies are still trying to adapt to the monumental changes society has gone through. And we can see the effects bleed into society in many different ways such as the teenage depression epidemic, mental health illnesses, obesity and sedentary lifestyles, intensifying political, religious, and social values divisions, and in my personal opinion, increasing envy and hatred. The difference, however, is that people 100 years ago were mainly just worried about surviving, while we are a lot more convoluted and have other needs and wants.

[2] “The environments in which early humans evolved were often challenging, and thus their lifestyles were physically demanding. Male and female hunter-gatherers would typically take 16,000 and 17,000 steps (about eight miles) per day, respectively; and cardiovascular disease (CVD) was rare even among older individuals in the tribe. In contrast, the average adult in the United States today gets about 5000 steps per day, and CVD remains the leading cause of death.,in%20the%20tribe%20%5B29%5D.

[3] There is a caveat. For example, I struggle to see the value of tobacco companies that do produce things that people want but don’t progress humanity. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death which outweighs its benefits as a de-stressor and social actuator. Overall, it likely has a net regression toward abundance, especially if it doesn’t at least allocate its capital later on toward something beneficial that in the long-term outweighs its harm to humanity.