Saturday, March 14, 2015

The World in the 21st Century: Facing a Singularity

It seems possible to discern four major trends that will determine the future of humanity in the 21st Century. They suggest a world approaching a multifaceted singularity that will mark an unprecedented change in everything and characterized most fundamentally by a loss of even the gloss of human agency.

The Economist of March 14 (2015) covers one of these trends in suggesting the likely continued success of “Factory Asia” – China plus its manufacturing chain of the currently even lower wage countries of Southeast Asia. This already accounts for almost half of all manufactured goods produced on the planet. China's advantages – financial and technological plus low cost labor and the very large domestic market – will allow it to continue to dominate manufacturing. But the real story here is that – as The Economist points out – this dominance will make it very difficult for other developing countries to progress to growth and prosperity through making things. The paper suggests services and agriculture as alternatives. But the basic problem is deeper and has been visible for much longer: looking at it globally, there may not be enough work to do to supply meaningful paid jobs to everyone who needs or wants one.

This highlights the second trend – the rising tide of computer-driven automation and the subject of “How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over” by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of April 2 (2015). In reviewing a book by Nicholas Carr (The Glass Cage: Automation and Us), Halpern notes that while predictions that mechanization would put humans out of work – and even Keynes saw the problem of what he called “technological unemployment” – so far technological advance has seemed to create new jobs to replace lost ones. But Carr argues that we are facing something new this time as computer driven automation – robots and virtual robots – takes on tasks such as surgery, drug development, driving, analysis and writing software and not only old fashioned machine production. This means not only losing jobs but most especially good jobs. While increased efficiency and lower cost of the goods and services produced through this new age of automation may be good for consumers with money, the questions arise of who will be able to afford them and what quality of life will those with no or unrewarding work have? As Paul Krugman has noted, most benefit – in the form of higher profits – will accrue to those few who own the robots.

So “modernity” in the 21st Century may turn out to equal a shrinking middle class and increased and unrelenting inequality. This leads to the third trend, the breakdown of order. Over the last few centuries, an increasing number of people have experienced modernity as disruption to their lives and traditions and an increasingly fierce struggle for livelihood. The frustration, resentment and often unbridled competition produced provided the motive force to the social and political movements that led to the domestic and international conflicts and wars of the 20th Century. The Cold War contained these forces by dividing the world between just two all-powerful and demanding camps. But since the fall of the USSR, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and reassertion of nationalisms, new forces of disorder have added to the old while the world has splintered into multipolar chaos. Globalization has meanwhile not solved inequality but has succeeded in presenting have-nots with minute-by-minute images of what they have not. The Cold War may have been an artificial order while disorder and chaos may be the new rule in what might be best described as an ever encroaching “state of nature.” And by the way, “military responses” just seem to make things worse and the rich don't seem to see a problem.

This brings us to environmental change, where the environment might be best understood as including the natural world in its totality: biology (e.g., disease) and land (e.g., desertification) as well as weather and climate. Scientists tell us – and have been telling us for a while – that humans are changing the world in ways we can't entirely predict but seem to be leading to challenges unprecedented in human evolution.

So, we – and more to the point, our children and their children – face finding a way to live in a world increasingly characterized by inequality, disorder and automated change that seems to be racing beyond our control. A singularity is something you enter that leads into a reality beyond normal experience. If we have not yet passed the event horizon of this human “black hole,” we are close. Time to start thinking of something different?