Applying "Tattoos and T-Shirts" to the future

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2016


Tattoos and T-Shirts is my description of how an older technology gets displaced by a newer one which does the same task faster, better and cheaper. (full essay here) This can be used to forecast how human activities will change as automation gets more widespread.

Quick Review

When a newer technology displaces an older one it will disappear... unless there is a lot of personal expression wrapped up in the older technology. If there is, the older technology will evolve, not disappear. And it will evolve in predictable ways. (Tattoos and T-Shirts was the "Ah-Hah!" example that put me on to this concept.)

T-Shirts are high technology tattoos in the sense that both decorate the human body. T-Shirts do the decorating a lot faster, better and cheaper than tattoos. But surprisingly, tattoos have not disappeared. Instead they have become more elaborate. Why? Because there is so much personal expression wrapped up in using the technology. Instead of disappearing tattoos have become even fancier and more elaborate. (The converse, a technology which disappears, is computer data storing technology, such as floppy disks. No personal expression here, so they are now gone with the wind.)

How can this concept be applied to human endeavors? Let's start with some Stone Age applications.

Hunting and Gathering

Primitive mankind (what I call Neolithic Village Age mankind) lives by hunting and gathering. Getting enough food to eat is the commodity use of hunting and gathering for people living in this lifestyle.

Then agriculture was invented, and in those cultures that adopt Agricultural Age technologies farming and herding become the commodity ways to get people enough food to eat. Likewise, as Industrial Age technologies are invented and embraced, the getting-enough-food-to-eat transforms from labor-intensive farming into a highly mechanized style.

After these transitions happen does hunting and gathering disappear?


On the hunting side we now have Hunting Seasons, safaris and trophy hunting. All of these activities are conducted by a few people with lots of enthusiasm, expense and elaborate rituals. This is an example of the commodity hunting activity being transformed into something else --something which has lots of personal expression.

On the gathering side we have artisanal vegetable raising and mushroom hunting expeditions into forests. As with hunting, this is gathering transformed into something with lots of expense, lots of rituals and lots of personal expression.

In the same way many Agricultural Age activities have also been transformed. One example of this is writing. This was invented to be used as a high tech accounting system for its day. Now that accounting use has been taken over by calculators and computers, but the personal expression side... Wow! Another example is cosplay: where people imitate kings, queens, princes and knights in shining armor doing heroic deeds. These are examples of the personal expression side transforming Agricultural Age activities.

As automation is spreading Industrial Age activities are now undergoing the same kinds of transformations. And this transformation is happening in some surprising places. One of these is child raising.

Child raising

Child raising is another activity that has been transformed in a Tattoos and T-Shirts way.

In the Neolithic Village lifestyle living is a hazardous occupation -- lots of people die young. As a result many more children are started than those who reach adulthood and get into child raising themselves. This means a whole lot of children must be started and raised by every group that does form a family. This means that child raising starts early in life and is carried on constantly until late in life.

Enter the risk-reducing revolutions of the Industrial Age such as better sanitation and housing, a steady food supply and effective health care. These mean that child raising is being transformed from a commodity activity into a personal expression activity. Families start later, have fewer children, and those that are created are created because the adults involved really, really want to have them.

It is a Tattoos and T-Shirts transformation, and as a result the adults lavish a lot more time, expense, attention and ritual on the children that are created. This is personal expression in action.

What comes next?

Even more automation is coming. This means that even more commodity work that humans now do is going to be replaced by automation. In addition to moving people out of factories and service jobs, the automation is going to move people out of the driver's seats in driverless cars.

The result of this will be people spending even more time on those activities that involve lots of personal expression. And it will mean that activities that people want to do, such as driving, will be done with lots more personal expression -- lots of enthusiasm, expense and rituals -- race car driving comes to mind as a contemporary example of this happening.

What other examples like race car driving will we see?

I give these other versions the name Top 40 Jobs. (Inspired by the Top 40 music lists that are the staple of music radio stations.) These will be jobs that people stay enthusiastic about doing because they have a lot of personal expression involved.

One vivid example is entertainment -- humans will stay deeply involved in that. And what the humans do will get even more beautiful, expensive and ritual-filled.

Another is caring for other people. This will show up in many ways ranging from health care to being first responders at disasters. Likewise, what people will be doing in these activities will be even more beautiful, expensive and ritual-filled.


The Tattoos and T-Shirts phenomenon can be used to forecast which technologies will die out when they are replaced by newer technologies which are faster, better and cheaper.

Those which survive that displacement will do so because they have a lot of personal expression mixed in with their use.

The surviving technologies will lose their commodity functions, and as they do they will become prettier, more elaborate, much more expensive and much more ritualized -- but the enthusiasts will really enjoy doing them. This enthusiasm is why they survive.



--The End--