Those who know me know I spend far too much time speculating on the future, but to me the act of prediction is a thought experience filled with excitement and mystery. Not only does prediction lead to good financial rewards (i.e. if you saw the future of bitcoin in 2011 you are an incredibly rich person today), but it also can help open our minds and adjust our behaviors (e.g. if you lived in 1948 you might have realized that the future would be one of racial equality and might be more likely to embrace it now).
Plus, people are notoriously bad at predicting the future. We draw a ton from anecdotal experiences, limited in sample size and relevance. We assume that the rate of change is constant within our lives because exponential thinking is tricky. Moore’s law is difficult for us to grasp, especially given that both societal and technological change seem to happen in jumps (yada yada yada CELL PHONES yada yada INTERNET yada ya SMART PHONES). Those ‘yada’ periods feel like nothing too exciting is happening, but the major jumps we all remember for their influence in our lives.
To exemplify this, I recall that when I was in elementary school, I had memorized the home phone landline numbers of my closest friends. If I wanted to see them, I would call their houses and ask their moms where they were. Now, I have a supercomputer that lives in my pocket and can contact them in a multitude of ways (though this is a subject for another blog, let’s list them here: call, email, FaceTime, iMessage, whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, gchat, snapchat, WeChat for my Chinese friends, Signal, Slack, Skype, kik, twitter message, holy shit this is a market problem). The tech gap between 1997 and 2017 is enormous, and if it grew equally much by 2037 life would be radically and unrecognizably different.
But it won’t.
No, the tech gap between 1997 and 2017 is likely to be much smaller than the tech gap between 2017 and 2037. In other words, the world will be significantly more unrecognizable in twenty years that it was twenty years ago today. Some realistic expectations:
Major US cities will be filled with electric self-driving vehicles. Work to build a centralized and optimistic traffic grid algorithm will have already begun. Commute times will be dramatically less and the cost of transportation will plummet.
Food and gas prices will also drop as transportation costs diminish.
VR tech will let you take vacations with your friends from the comfort of your own house. There will also be a lot of sex.
Wireless internet will be universal, secure, and free, everywhere.
There will be between 0-1 human-operated check-out stands at the grocery store.
Drones will deliver goods at a very low cost. They will also be a source of fear, as terror-related drone incidents will increase.
In this most likely of futures, everything is faster, cheaper, easier. It’s the destiny of capitalism – when walking was hard, we invented better legs (wheels). When wheeling was too hard, we invented airplanes that soar. The curve of capitalism surges towards maximum efficiency on a parabolic curve, and eventually it reaches an asymptote. When it reaches the asymptote, though, we reach maximum efficiency and there is nowhere else to go. Everything is cheap and abundant, but machines can do literally everything. This is the future.
I was asked recently if I was a transhumanist. My initial thought was, “how could anyone not be?” We have pacemakers to regulate our hearts, prosthesis to help amputees compete in track and field, cochlear implants that restore hearing, IUDs that let us have sex without the consequence. We’ve already fused technology with our bodies to make our lives longer and better, and we’ve done it using technology that will seem primitive in a short time. When technology exists to limit Alzheimer’s and memory loss, to enhance our visual and audio abilities, to make our lives even longer and even better, we’ll adopt that too. For people who are afraid of change (most people), this will seem terrifying, but for all people it will just be too advantageous to pass up. And, like all pieces of technology, everyone will eventually get on board and get with the program.
That “get on board” process is pretty tricky too. Allow me to introduce you to the Luddites. In 1811, a group of English weavers were frustrated – they felt that the introduction of new weaving technology, and the efforts of their employers to skirt labor rules to maximize use of these machines, directly threatened their jobs. They were correct in this sentiment. So, they set about smashing as many machines as they could find in a violent, five-year-long public uprising. They lost and the machine of capitalism rolled onward, using this excess capital earned to create new industries – “weaving loom repair-person”, for example, or “inventory manager”, or other increasingly white-collar opportunities.
Now, let me introduce you to the fascists. After WWI, and especially during the Great Depression, there was massive, incomprehensible unemployment. If you have grandparents who lived through it, please ask them about the conditions. Without work, lots of men felt both a lack of identity and a lack of security. Centralized, autocratic leadership rallied them around a mix of racial identity politics, economic consolidation of power, and militarism. These common people, frustrated by their lack of identity and their lack of resources, were angry and violently blamed their situation on the most convenient scapegoats. They became the fascists. Their leaders were Benito Mussolini, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and Adolf Hitler. They came reasonably close to subjugating and enslaving the entire world.
The height of fascism in Europe – you can basically count Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden as part of it too
Now, back to modern times – the machines are again coming for the jobs, and this time they’ll be replacing all of the middle class jobs. The minimum wage jobs are too expensive to replace with robots (people are cheaper). The high-end jobs are (probably) too complicated to be replaced. But the middle jobs, the white collar jobs, the jobs that rely on difficult-but-not-too-difficult skills like driving or manufacturing or crunching numbers, these are the jobs that are about to be swallowed.
As I’ve written in the past, I believe the election of Donald Trump is the first salvo in a Luddite conflict between a disenfranchised and identity-stripped middle class against a capitalist system designed to replace them with efficient machines as quickly as possible. The Luddite armies exist on both the left and the right, as both communist and fascist, both just different ways of controlling the means of production and finding an identity in a jobless environment. The fascists tend to win out over the communists, though, due to their willingness to be brutal and because racism is a powerful and ingrained motivational force.
So yes, I believe that the current climate is a pre-fascistic one, which is why I made my Fascism Bingo! board which I am happy to say has not seen any squares get checked off so far (though a few are medium-close).
That all is pretty depressing, Andrew. Is there any good news?
Of course! The good news is that the robots are not just working on how to replace all our economic viability – they’re also working on ways to help us feel happy, connected, friendly, and content. They’re helping to make sure food and healthcare are available to everyone. Their goal is nothing short of a perfect, jobless, abundant, automated utopia, where all people have all things and can just focus on learning and eating and drinking and fucking and traveling and sleeping. This would be an “identity-less” existence that I think most people would eventually come around to. But, somehow, it will be harder for people to accept than you’d think.
So, we end up in a world with a team of fascists rushing to destroy or control the wheels of the capitalist machine, and another team of robots rushing to reach the asymptotic end of capitalism in which human beings can just exist and not need to work.
I’m on Team Robots. Not a surprise.
I also think Team Fascists are faster and more coordinated. The best way to slow them down is to think about identity – when a person works a job, they have a few things: a community that supports them (e.g. their employer and fellow employees), something to do with their time (rather than protest on the streets), and a direct monetary identifier of their economic value (you’re worth $28 per hour, yay!). We need to think seriously about what people will do with their free time, who they will be able to talk to about their identity problems, where they will get money in the short term if their job is swallowed – who can they turn to for help? Because if good, rational, forward-thinking people are not available or present or reliable, the fascists will be there, and they will be there quickly.
This is why I want to focus on the idea of community. How can we better prepare our society for joblessness? For identity loss? How can we coordinate all that free time and alleviate all of that anxiety? What do people really want from their communities?
Would love to hear your comments, and thanks for reading this really long piece.