The power of networks, algorithms, robotics, and Big Data are transforming our everyday tasks at a fast speed, disrupting established norms and industries. What is the future of design? Could it be next?

Tonight I had the opportunity of attending a lecture by Jaron Lanier, and as always, found him very stimulating intellectually. He shared ideas present in his upcoming book Who Owns the Future, specifically on the unintended consequences of how information and many services on the Internet are free, and how an unsustainable scenario it will become in the future.

Some current examples of the unintended consequences of information wants to be free is how Facebook’s revenue relies on the free content its users provide. Or how many middle jobs prevalent in the music industry before the Internet have slowly but surely been eliminated as record companies lost revenue. Or in newspapers, magazines, etc.

In the future, things can get worse.

Imagine fifty more years of Google Translate. The secret to Google Translate is not software that replicates human brains when they translate, but the ability to analyze vast amounts of already translated documents (by humans) and find best matches. While the service is currently not without its flaws, it’s not crazy to think it will render translation as a profession obsolete in decades to come.

Now think of driverless cars, another system (currently in an experimental phase) made viable by pooling vast amounts of information. Give it enough time and its impact on all transportation jobs will be catastrophic to its workers.

As designers, we should be worried as well. In decades to come, what jobs will 3D printing eliminate? Certainly many in manufacturing. But it could even swallow industrial designers as well. Is it hard to imagine a future in which algorithms, with the help of vast knowledge accumulated in Big Data, automate design creation?

As I heard Jaron speak, I envisioned a spooky future for graphic design as well. With every image we upload online, link, or “like” on social media, vast databases of preferences are being established. We are doing this as users for free, since we get to use the services for free. At the moment the software we use to create the content is not cloud-based, but Adobe or others will probably move us in that direction. Illustrator and Photoshop could even become free online, then information be gathered on every single design decision we make, and simultaneously rated by others through “likes” or other popularity-measuring techniques.

Over time, could algorithms could become sophisticated enough to create designs (art even?) from “scratch” by using as a starting point the vast pools of information gathered in Big Data with every upload or “like” we contribute to for free every day?

Netflix knew their recent show House of Cards would be a success before production even got started, thanks to viewer preferences they had accumulated. While automating the creation of a TV series or movie may be difficult, the creation of successful logos or other designs through self-generating algorithms doesn’t seem as far-fetched.

I can’t help but feel Big Data is akin to atomic energy, full of potential as well as perils. Everyone will have a hard time arguing against free. People enjoy using services like Facebook, and they are even free to use. And the companies receive data for free, which they can monetize. It’s a win-win, right? May seem that way today, but tell that to translators as they lose their jobs, taxi or bus drivers, factory workers, maybe even designers in the future as well.

Jaron Lanier’s proposition for solving this is intriguing. Information should not be free. Facebook, Google, the government, any entity that makes use of information created by you, should pay you. It would certainly make things fairer.

However, I find it difficult to see how those on power who currently get the data for free (companies and governments) will accept paying for it instead, considering the doomsday scenario is not happening tomorrow but over decades to come. Will it be like global warming, when by the time we realize there’s a problem it could be too late? If society has not been able to force change there, how will it force change on a system where everyone is getting everything for free? Will everyone have to lose their jobs first?

Fortunately, the idea of information not being free online is no longer as far-fetched. In Europe for example, lawsuits are forcing Google to pay publishers for the use of their content (in France, and possibly across the whole continent). Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend that could ultimately consider all of us content or information creators because of every click we make online.