A Platform Society

I have been studying various treatises on our platform economy – how Alphabet (Google), Amazon, and Apple, as well as Facebook and perhaps Microsoft, have become so central in our economy.  These companies provide platforms on which many other services are delivered.  Of course, the Internet enables almost all of this.  It is a platform for platforms.

How did we function before this?  On Friday afternoons we went to the bank to get some cash for the weekend.  On Saturdays we visited various retail stores to meet our needs.  I moved to Washington, DC last year.  I secured my lease, insurance, and utilities, and ordered all my furniture, without ever leaving my easy chair.  Everything showed up when needed.

Might our platform economy become a platform society?  In the extreme, there will be just one online store that provides everything.  For things that you want to try on, they show you how its fits your avatar, which is updated every day from the body scanner associated with your bathroom scales.  The platform knows your daily weight, what you eat, the inventory in your pantry, and just about everything.

Almost all of your life happens through large screen displays or head mounted displays.  You sit or stand in front of these displays, working at your stand up desk, walking on treadmills, riding bikes, or climbing ellipticals.  I recently saw an ad for a head mounted system that enables you and you friends to ride bikes together anywhere in the world.  If you look right or left, one of your friends is riding next to you, despite the fact that you are all quite distant from each other.

All social interactions will happen this way, whether visiting with friends or taking vacations. Your whole, extended family can be together for Thanksgiving dinner without anyone traveling.  Food is delivered to each person at the virtual table such that everyone gets exactly what they like.  Food and all other needs are met by robot-enabled deliveries, perhaps by drones if they have access to your front porch or balcony.

It is easy to imagine business meetings happening this way.  You will never actually physically meet your colleagues.  When you watch a sporting event, your friends are sitting next to you, unless of course you take off your head-mounted display to fetch a snack from the kitchen.  If you don’t want to miss any of the game, you can send your robot butler to get the chips and dip.  It is better at mixing guacamole than you are.

Perhaps unfortunately, some services may be difficult to provide in this manner.  It will take some time for grooming services to be automated, but it is imaginable.  Much of healthcare, such as chronic disease management, could be managed through your displays.  Cancer, cardiac, and orthopedic surgery would be difficult to perform in your home, not to mention enormously risky.

Emotional and intimate relationships could be a real challenge.  Robotic sex dolls are getting more realistic and responsive, but procreation in this manner is a long, long way off.  However, the platform society outlined above has many, much more subtle limitations.  How can the feeling of being a human animal in the physical world be simulated?

For example, how will the platform provide the feeling of sunshine on one’s face in an early spring day, the smell of freshly cut grass in the park, or the feeling of fluffy snowflakes on one’s face at Christmas?  How about the feeling of hugging a friend you have not seen in a long time?  Or, the joy of a young child at your middling magic trick?

Being fully human involves a lot more than performing tasks, as well as buying and consuming stuff.  For a wealth of reasons, a platform society seems increasingly possible but far from likely.

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