The empowerment era
The 21st century has been called the “empowerment era”. Values such as work-life balance and flexible employment are now firmly part of the mainstream. Yet these advances have been offset by the loss of labour power linked to the decline of trade unions and the emergence of the “gig economy”. Indeed, these empowering desires are up against it and, according to some, even ironically reinforce an often disempowering free-market reality.
These concerns were only exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis and its now decade-long aftermath. The near global crash followed by a recovery that appeared to serve the few rather than the many, challenged sacred assumptions about the capitalist and increasingly even liberalist democracy. In its place has emerged an anti-establishment politics that combines justified critiques of the status quo with more dangerous xenophobic appeals to nationalism and racism.
On the horizon looms, however, the potential for even more radical social and economic transformation. Robotics, artificial intelligence, and computers threaten to completely upend the current order in the very near future. Referred to as the coming “fourth industrial revolution” or “industry 4.0”, it promises to dramatically “disrupt” the contemporary ways we live and work.
Indeed, the result of this revolution will be profound. Employees in a range of different professions and fields could be largely replaced by automation. Recent evidence also suggests that the algorithms that are increasingly shaping our existence are reproducing destructive human prejudices around race and gender. This would further exacerbate the cultural divisions and the growing inequality caused by present-day globalisation.
Nevertheless, they also have the potential to foster entirely new and exciting forms of empowerment. It could create "smarter" societies that substantially increase human capabilities. Continued advances in virtual reality could catalyze personal creativity in fresh and interesting ways. Moreover, it could give people more time to devote to leisure and wellbeing.
A key question of the present then, is are we heading toward an empowering post-work future? Recently there has emerged new theories of “post-capitalism”. These highlight the potential for a different type of economic system. One where work will feature much less prominently. By contrast technology could be deployed to create more connected communities where individuals can develop themselves free from the pressures of career and job. According to author, Paul Mason, this new order will be marked by “Collaborative production, using network technology to produce goods and services that work only when they are free, or shared, defines the route beyond the market system”.
Yet if recent history is any indication, then issues of empowerment cannot be ignored. Principles of diversity, engagement and wellness must also be considered and included. These are not secondary concerns for the fourth industrial revolution. Instead, they must be formative to the shaping of this new order, if we are to avoid the present political and economic crisis that have plagued contemporary economic shifts. It must be asked by policymakers, business leaders and citizens, how we can make a more inclusive tolerant and democratic post-work society. Otherwise it risks evolving into a system where age-old problems of racism, sexism and classism persist and grow.
Innovative policies are already being crafted to address these concerns. The national basic income for instance provides citizens with a sense of material security that is not linked to work. The so-called agile economy is allowing people greater freedom to use bartering and individual transactions in order to work only when they need too. At present, these measures are not widespread but they do point to the possible evolution of empowerment. The goal must be to find ways to make such innovations equally available to us and beneficial to the global majority. Can such freedom from work become a shared international right rather than a privilege for the selected few?
This coming evolution thus also creates new potential opportunities for expanding empowerment. The emphasis on personal fulfilment and collective well-being will still be relevant, perhaps even more so, in a more technologically driven economy and society. Much of the current optimism for this coming era is concentrated on the possibility of producing “smart” lives and communities. Yet it is just as important to consider how to make this future not only smarter but also more empowering.
This documentary explores the future of empowerment today. It will expose viewers to the exciting opportunities this hi-tech tomorrow could hold for everyone. To this end, it will interview leading thinkers around ideas of “trans-humanism” and systems theory, as well as travel to emerging workplaces that point the way to how technology can radically change and improve our lives.