Choose your future

Last night I went and saw the latest Mad Max movie with my son. I’ll leave a review of the film and its merits up to other people – there was a lot of action and a very motivated flaming guitarist and the usual tropes of tragic/action genre.

In any case it’s the post-apocalyptic story line that we all have been hammered with over the years. Contrast this potential (fictional) future with the one that Star Trek has given us – a future of human achievement, cooperation (yes, and conflict cause that makes better movies) – but in general a kind of optimistic, confident world of individual expression and achievement. In one episode of the Next Generation that I recall the Enterprise and its crew retrieve a wandering spaceship with a crew in suspended hibernation. After reviving them, it turns out the spaceship is crewed by a kind of ambitious, venture-capitalist group from the early 21st century who decided to use the laws of relativity and compound interest in a “get rich” scheme whereby they made investments in trust accounts, blasted off into space and anticipated that after a few centuries of hibernation they would return to vast accumulated wealth.

Interestingly, the crew of the Enterprise is totally baffled by this – explaining that there really isn’t such a thing (or a need) for personal wealth and accumulation anymore but that the height of human endeavour is now focused on exploration, individual development and experiences (I’m paraphrasing – someone on the interwebs will, of course, correct me). The revived crew is, at first, crushed but by the end of the episode they begin to understand the limitless possibilities of a life free of economic necessity.

So we have two worlds – one where the survivors kill each other for scraps and another where the human race expands and grows into the galaxy. Which would you choose?

The question isn’t hypothetical any longer – we are about to be at a crossroads – and likely already are – where will we have to choose. A phenomenon of our present times is the accelerating pace of technological change that we all live with. Moore’s law, human innovation and the basic laws of memetics are at work. In a recent article in Esquire magazine about a new artificial intelligence startup called Viv (viv.ai) there was the following – (here’s the full article)

“Will smart machines replace humans like the internal combustion engine replaced horses? If so, can putting people out of work, or at least out of good work, also put the economy out of business?”

Sachs’s answer? An unqualified yes. His study “firmly predicts” a long-run decline in labor’s share of the national income so severe it could crash the economy. “Absent appropriate fiscal policy that redistributes from winners to losers,” he concludes, “smart machines can mean long-term misery for all.

Even the libertarians of Silicon Valley are starting to worry. “As much as it pains me to say so,” says Jaron Lanier, the polymath behind virtual reality, “we can survive if we only destroy the middle classes of musicians, journalists, and photographers. What is not survivable is the additional destruction of the middle classes in transportation, manufacturing, energy, office work, education, and heath care.” Martin Ford cites a recent jobs summit he attended with about fifty tech-company CEOs. “Here in Silicon Valley, there’s a remarkable consensus about this. Every single person agreed we’re on the leading edge of a disruption, and we’re going to have to move to a guaranteed basic income. There was overwhelming support for that.

Take a look at this reeeeaaallly closely – we are getting VERY close, if not already there to the point where we start looking at a worldwide phenomenon – the end of employment (not the end of work – there’s plenty of interesting “work” that humans can do if they have the freedom to pursue it). Shortly – decades? We will be at a time when our purpose as we define it now will be completely superseded by technology.

The internet has already flattened the playing field drastically – even as it has created millions of new jobs and opportunities it has destroyed countless careers, industries and constructs in a short 15 years or so. We can also see the aggregating qualities of this flat world – social networks like facebook work best when there is really only one and everyone is on it. Your iphone is better than other phones because it plays nicely with all the other iphones and apple tools on the planet. Uber – though it has created opportunity for many people is also neatly eliminating all of the people who previously provided transportation services and I am sure the business model on the white board at Uber headquarters is full of flow charts about how much more money they will make once auto-driving cars hit the roads and make drivers obsolete and dangerous. In this flattening, of course, we see all the money we are spending on these services flowing to a very, very narrow group of people and corporations at the top of the pyramid. There is only one Amazon, one Ebay, one Twitter, one Apple – because it is to OUR advantage that there is only one – it’s more efficient.

This article was the first time I really saw the idea of “a basic guaranteed income”. How far are we – politically – from even considering this idea in the United States. It smacks of communism or socialism – ideas that this country has fought tooth and nail for a century or more. We are a country of bootstrappers and entrepreneurs where the fittest thrive and fly in private jets and the less able (or lucky) get food stamps – and we discuss seriously cutting those out as well to motivate people. It used to be there was a fat middle section between these two extremes but as we all know it’s shifting – there’s the 1% and the other 99% fighting for scraps. Did you see this article the other day? “Top hedge fund managers make more than all kindergarten teachers combined”. That’s 25 individuals making more money than 158,000 others combined.

The shift is already happening. So now we need to start, fast, changing the way we think as a society locally and globally. There is zero time to waste. Technology is self-evolving at this point – nothing is going to stop this change and we need to start evolving our ideas about what society means, what life means, what wealth means, what resources mean and we need to do it NOW. Like climate change this is happening whether we like it or not. Unlike climate change we haven’t even scratched the surface of this discussion.

I don’t want to scrounge for scraps in the desert. I want to live a fulfilling, involved, creative life among my friends and family. I want to grow, explore and evolve. If “work” in my future is less about “earning a living” and more about bringing joy and curiousity and experience to my fellow man, I’m all for it. Where do I sign up?

I’m interested in your thoughts about this and how you think we should move forward.

Some links:
http://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a34630/viv-artificial-intelligence-0515/
http://viv.ai/
http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/05/the-humanists-paradox/391622/

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Nils Levine says:

    With your permission, I’ll turn to literary references. I have a gut feeling that our future will be less like Animal Farm or 1984, and have more in common with Player Piano.

  • Jason Toews says:

    Nicely written and thought-provoking. I wager that most/all of us would prefer the Star Trek future. The salient question is whether such an outcome is likely, given the continuing accumulation of capital and power to the elite-est of the elite. Power concedes nothing without a fight, and I wonder how many of us would be willing to put our lives (or our “freedom”, or our livelihood, or the safety of our families) at risk to change the future. I’ve been reading a biography of Bayard Rustin, a prime mover in the non-violent civil rights movement here in the U.S., and it left me simultaneously amazed at the determination of the people in that fight, and discouraged for the future. To shift the needle even a little bit, people had to die. They quite literally had to be willing to be beaten to death in the streets. That’s what it took to change America’s mind and shame us into making *incremental* change. I don’t see that happening again any time soon, and without it, I fear we are headed for the Mad Max future. I hope I’m wrong…

  • ksprague says:

    I don’t know player piano – but I have google – yup – Vonnegut! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Player_Piano_(novel)
    Thanks – will have to read it.

  • ksprague says:

    Just saw this and I’m afraid you are right.

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