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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. Likewise, we are living with something like a memory or tradition of democracy. It’s true that the so-called “free” nations of the world are still, and always have been, plutocracies thinly disguised as democracies — but we the people believe in democracy and egalitarianism, and that belief has grown stronger over the years; it is stronger now than ever before. A century ago, the plutocrats felt no need to conceal their contempt for ordinary people, but now they do have to conceal it. The disguise is wearing ever more thin, and cannot last much longer.
  5. 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.
  6. The nature of labor has changed, and so Marxists might want to update their organizing manuals from Lenin. Most labor is no longer happening in big factories — it is spread out more sparsely — there are only a few baristas working in any Starbucks, the Uber driver works alone, and in fact the Uber driver owns his workplace. Moreover, much faster than most people realize, humans are being replaced by robots that aren’t necessarily human-shaped — for instance, many sales clerks have been replaced by vending machines. As automation continues, we have more unemployed humans competing for fewer jobs, and so the bosses can get away with lowering the salaries of those few jobs. But this trend can’t continue much longer, as it means fewer consumers with money in their pockets to buy the goods and services produced by all those robots. Change is coming, though I don’t know what form it will take. If we continue to have a class struggle, it will be between the handful of people who “own” the robots and everyone else, but the latter class may no longer be called “working class.”

    Information and computer capabilities are growing exponentially fast, because these too are a feedback system. This has enormous consequences:

  7. new man new womanCommunication 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.
  8. 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.

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 2020 Feb 8, version 4.03. (Original version 2016 Feb 28.) Suggestions for alterations are welcome.

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