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MIT scientist Says Consumer Desire Is Shifting Towards Intangible Goods

If you’re ever stuck for an interesting dinner conversation, ask your guests: ‘what have been the most important developments in human history?’ According to MIT research scientist, Andrew McAfee, you’ll find that everyone in the room will never agree. What you will find, however, is that nothing quite bent the curve as much as the industrial revolution did.

During McAfee’s presentation at Web Summit in Lisbon today, he pointed towards the invention and improvement of a handful of technologies that have let humankind overcome the limitation of muscle power. And from that moment, “human history changed drastically and changed forever.”

While there’s no denying the many positive implications technology has had, the toll on planet has been very real. McAfee attributes this to our “bottomless thirst for resources” and that “as we grew in number, we wanted more stuff.” When resources were scarce we were forced to innovate (necessity truly is the mother of invention) but with the accumulation of innovation something really odd started to happen.

Year by year we are using less stuff; we have never ever been here before,” explained McAfee. “If you’re concerned about the state of the planet, this is the best possible news.”

But why is this happening?

Simply, our thirst for stuff is being replaced with the intangible. “We are substituting data and code for atoms in the physical world,” he added. “When I think about what’s different in this era we’re creating, we’re fundamentally transforming our relationship with the world that we live on.”

It’s not all rainbow and sunshine though, as McAfee highlighted two remaining challenges: climate change is heating up the planet (the first six months of 2016 have been the warmest half-year on record) and good, old-fashioned human labour is being replaced by technology.

What we need to do is let the innovators do what they do best – dream up new companies and new activities to put people to work,” suggested McAfee. “That is our best foot forward.”

Like this? Follow Sarah for live updates from Web Summit on Twitter here.

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