Designing the future

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD

The first modern wave of rapid human development, also known as the first industrial revolution, began in the middle of the 18th century. The development of devices that could be used to magnify a human’s capabilities immediately changed the face of the planet, impacting everything from agriculture to warfare. The ability to create machines that performed tasks previously only possible with great effort on a large scale opened society up and empowered the expansion of the middle class and individual entrepreneurship.

This revolution did not come easily, and our language expresses one aspect of that history in the terms “sabotage” and the Luddites who performed it. Workers displaced by these new technologies fought against the devices created to replace them and the businesses that implemented them for that purpose.

As technology continued to develop through the second industrial revolution in the 19th century, electricity was commercialized. The taming of lightning lead to a quantum leap in not only the sophistication and functionality of machines, but also in the creation of long-distance communications unbound by physical media. The radio and the telegraph opened up the world and paved the way for the information society we live in today.

This revolution also had its casualties, as workers became mere cogs in an industrial machine that could easily replace unskilled laborers. The Gilded Age became known for the imbalances in society created by the sudden shift to large-scale manufacturing and the accumulation of resources in monopolistic organizations. Again workers rose up and protested, and this period is where most of our labor regulation originated.

In the third industrial revolution of the mid twentieth century, digital technology built upon the electronic infrastructures of the previous revolution to create a world where information and data could be more valuable than any of the hardware involved. The ability to digitize information, store it, and transmit it seamlessly anywhere empowers both the machine and the person using it.

Yet again, stresses in society created by the new capabilities of manufacturers to organize and distribute both labor and logistics in ways previously impossible echo the issues in the previous revolutions. The major difference in this revolution is the democratization of technology that enables an individual to effectively compete with a larger organization in an information-dominated marketplace.

We are in the next phase of the digital revolution, where every aspect of society can now be virtualized and digitally controlled. The major difference in this revolution over the previous two is that now the larger entities are feeling those pressures as intensely as the individual worker. Entire industries have been rendered obsolete and many businesses have no idea how their market landscape will change in the next few years.

The electronic design industry has a heavy load to bear in this as the vanguard of human progress. As lofty and prideful as that statement sounds, it is the literal truth. What we do in this wave of development will impact human society for generations.