An Unprecedented Age
Some of my friends tell me that we should study past dramatic events, such as the Russian revolution or the rise of Hitler, because the future will be just like the past. Some of them think that history is only capable of doing six different things, so we just have to figure out which of those is now being repeated. I’m not convinced of that.
Certainly we can learn from history, but I think there are a lot more possibilities. Our situation now is very different from any past era. I don’t know what is coming, but here are several major factors that are unprecedented:
- The ecosystem is dying, far faster than most people realize, from a variety of causes. One cause is global warming. Global warming has feedback loops — i.e., some of its consequences are also causes — and that causes exponential growth. There may also be abrupt rises in temperature, as we pass through certain tipping points — for instance, perhaps a lot of the methane sequestered in the Arctic will be released at once, as the temperature rises past some point. Unlike previous catastrophes such as wars, the destruction of the ecosystem actually imposes a time limit on humanity: We have to fix this soon, or we’re going extinct. (And it’s my opinion that we can’t fix this under our present economic system — we must replace that system soon or die — but that’s beyond the scope of this essay.)
- Unlike previous centuries, we are living in the shadow of Edward Bernays. The battle we must fight is a battles of ideas, propaganda versus awakening, far more than ever before; it’s not just a battle with guns. The internet has served partly as an anti-Bernays, but the establishment may be about to take the internet away from us. It may soon be replaced by the “Ministry of Truth” (actually untruth) depicted in the dystopian novel “1984.”
- Unlike previous centuries, we are living with a recent memory of prosperity. The so-called “golden age of capitalism,” around 1950 to 1970, was the one time in history when a market economy seemed to be working favorably, not for everyone, but for a large portion of society. We could debate how real or illusory was that prosperity, and what were its real causes (I’ll skip over my opinion about the Kuznets versus Piketty debate), but at any rate we do have that memory. Now that we know what prosperity looks like, we would like to figure out how to make that happen reliably.
- The past is not completely forgotten. Perhaps we don’t study history as much as we ought to, but some of its major features cannot be forgotten. The History Channel on television has played unending videos of World War II, so much that some people refer to it as “The Hitler Channel.” And every time some authoritarian politician makes any headway at all, bloggers and pundits are all asking each other “is he just like Hitler? has fascism begun to rise again?” This awareness does not completely prevent the rise of A New Hitler, but it does prevent a new rise of A First Hitler. If we get a new Hitler, he will be coming into a world that is already aware what it is like to have a Hitler. That doesn’t prevent the experience, but at least it changes the experience. Likewise for repeating the Russian Revolution, or any other major drama from the past.
- Information and its tools — e.g., computers — are growing exponentially fast, because these too are a feedback system. This has enormous consequences.
- Automation is spreading — i.e., human labor is being replaced by machines. The pace of this replacement is still slow, but it is accelerating. No job is “safe.” You might call this late late stage capitalism. Carry this trend to an extreme, and the only people with incomes will be the handful of people who “own” all the robots. But that’s an absurdity, a contradiction, because then there would be no customers with money in their pockets to buy the goods and services produced by the robots. Thus, that extreme cannot be reached; the current economic system will fall apart first. I don’t know what system will replace it, or what form the transition will take. Maybe we’ll have a guaranteed basic income for all, or maybe there will be a fight to the death between the general public and the soldiers who are loyal to the so-called “owners.” But at any rate the current economic system can’t continue much longer. Probably the outcome will be more favorable if more people see the change coming; we need to tell more people about it.
- Communication is increasing. The “Arab Spring,” which was run on Twitter, may have failed, but it may portend later revolutions that will succeed. A single neuron by itself is not very smart, but the human brain is a hundred billion neurons networked in parallel, and together they sometimes do brilliant things. Facebook is a billion human brains networked in parallel. Perhaps we will be smarter together than separately, better at figuring out how to do things. More importantly, perhaps we will be wiser, better at figuring out which things are worth doing. Perhaps an age of understanding and cooperation is finally within reach.
- But the growth of information is also making us all more powerful, in ways that can be used for good or ill. The question of gun control will soon be obsolete and old-fashioned, because soon people will be able to make guns on 3d-printers in their basements; gun registration won’t be able to stop that; any madman will be able to kill dozens of people. In fact, soon, every suicidal madman will have all the information he needs to build a germ warfare lab in his basement, and that can’t be stopped by some authoritarian bully with drones; any suicidal madman will be able to kill millions of people. The only thing that can make us safe is a change to a culture of caring and sharing that leaves no one behind, so that there aren’t any suicidal madmen and no one wants to hurt us.
- And a time may be coming, not long from now, when computer intelligence will cross the threshold of sentience, when computers surpass us in their ability to think independently and to care about their own well being. It may seem far off, because presently computers can only do very specialized tasks, such as beat us at chess. But research into artificial intelligence is accelerating too, as a feedback loop; some self-teaching machines are already being devised. When the computers take charge, will they squash us like bugs, as in the “Terminator” movies? Or will they keep us on as pets, as we have kept our dogs and cats? Or will we merge with computers — will we all be augmented by implants that integrate us into some great network, transcending our present notion of “human” in ways that we presently can’t even imagine? Will this be a new addition to the chasm between haves and have nots, where the rich can afford to augment themselves and the rest of us can’t? (We already see a little of that: The richest Wall Street firms buy the fastest computers and internet connections, to gain advantage in automated trading and thus make themselves still richer.) I don’t know, but I think that whether we are moving toward heaven or hell may depend on what kind of culture we develop now — that is, how we treat each other now. We need to work on philosophy, and cognitive semantics, and just simple kindness.
I don’t know just what is going to happen, but I think computer scientist Mark Miller had it right when he said, “You know, things are going to be really different! . . . No, no, I mean really different!”
Latest revisions 2018 March 12, version 3.04. Suggestions for alterations are welcome.