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 seem to think that history is only capable of doing something like six different things, and so if our current situation starts to resemble some past era in some way, then that tells you which of the six things it is, and it’s going to go just the same way again. I’m not convinced of that.
History is worth studying — we can learn some useful things from it — but actually I think there are a lot more than six possibilities. And in fact, I think the situation has changed quite a bit from any past eras, and we’re not going to get anything very close to what happened in the past. I don’t know what is coming, but here are several major things that make our present situation 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. 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 although it would involve a whole additional topic that I don’t want to take up here, it’s my opinion that we cannot fix this problem under our current economic system.)
- Unlike previous centuries, we are living in the shadow of Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann. The battles we must fight are battles of ideas, understanding, awareness, far more than ever before; they are not just battles with guns. Wars after Bernays (e.g., the CIA’s overthrow of democracy in Guatemala in 1954) are qualitatively different from wars before Bernays (e.g., the Russian revolution and Hitler’s war).
- Unlike previous centuries, we are living with a recent memory of prosperity. The so-called “golden age of capitalism,” around 1945 to 1970, was the one time in history when a market economy seemed to be working favorably for a large portion of society. Now that we know what prosperity looks like, we have to try to figure out how to make it happen reliably. — Advocates of capitalism, such as Simon Kuznets, have convinced themselves that the “golden age” was the normal behavior of capitalism, and all the other behavior we’ve seen was just aberrations that could be fixed by adjustments. But Thomas Piketty has shown, with extensive data, that just the opposite is true: the “golden age” itself was the aberration, and the general trend of capitalism is toward greater inequality. Piketty advocates taxing the rich, not just on their greater incomes, but also on their greater wealth — but the rich won’t let that happen, as long as they are in control. When more people understand this, they will demand change of a different sort.
- 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 The First Hitler. If we get a new Hitler, he will be coming to a world that is already aware what it is like to have a Hitler. That doesn’t completely prevent the experience, but at least it changes the experience. Likewise for 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. This is still happening slowly, 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 this means there will be no customers with money in their pockets, to buy the goods produced by the robots. The contradiction becomes blatant; the current economic system cannot continue. 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 “owners” and everyone else. But at any rate the current trend in the current economic system can’t continue much longer.
- Communication is increasing. The “Arab Spring” may have failed, but it may portend later revolutions that will succeed; it was run on Twitter. A single neuron by itself is not very smart, but the human brain is a billion neurons networked in parallel, and together they sometimes do brilliant things. Facebook is a billion human brains networked in parallel, and perhaps we will be smarter together than separately — perhaps we will be better at figuring out how to do things. More importantly, perhaps we will be wiser — i.e., 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. 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. The only thing that can make us safe is a change to a culture of caring and sharing that leaves no one behind, and so that there aren’t any suicidal madmen and no one wants to hurt other people.
- And I see a time coming, not long from now, when computer intelligence will cross the threshold of sentience, when computers surpass us in their ability to think independently. 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? I don’t know, but perhaps they will inherit the culture we have developed; perhaps they will treat us as well or as badly in the future as we are treating each other now. Indeed, perhaps we will merge with the new computers, just as we are currently merging with our cell phones. We need to work on our culture. We need to understand our culture better. Perhaps a better understanding of our culture, and of the meanings we are giving to our lives, and of the cognitive semantics we use in perceiving reality, will be a byproduct of the research that develops artificial intelligence.
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!”
2017 Aug 24, version 3.01. If you think of an additional major unprecedented thing to add to my list, please let me know.