The Perfect Storm

Donald Trump _almost_ did not win the US presidency.  Almost.  And yet, even if he had lost, the forces that brought his candidacy right up to the brink would still have been extant. The world is proceeding through a phase change that promises economic violence and social unrest. Much of it is now inevitable because avoiding it would have required implausible clairvoyance regarding the coming storm and decades’ worth of preparation. The best we can do now is to emplace cushions to absorb the unavoidable and make course corrections that reflect the rapidly changing realities. The possibly unprecedented challenge takes shape in so much happening in a compressed timeframe.

Civilization is no stranger to disruptive phase changes that destroyed professions wholesale and entirely eliminated certain ways of life. This isn’t even the first time that we’ve been in real danger of having the world end in fire or ice. The present circumstances, rather, distinguish themselves by the breadth and rapidity of the coming changes that threaten to leave large swaths of the population without a producer role in the economy, without the tools to navigate the information-sphere effectively, and generally without stability or a sense of purpose.

While much of the bounty of what we enjoy in the world stems from globalization and automation, poor cognizance and management of the secondary effects of these things have yielded mounting negative consequences. To the extent that we have addressed these things it has been at the far ends of the spectrum, either denying their existence or importance on the one hand, or engaging in ineffective knee-jerk policies on the other. To accept the truth of things would be to acknowledge that they provide substantial material improvements to consumers in the short term, they jeopardize integration with the economy for all but the most elite and esoteric producers in the long run, and they come with a web of secondary and tertiary effects that impact everyone increasingly over time, with key areas including education, journalism, democracy, the environment, and the nature of warfare.

Consider for a moment the collection of jobs hanging very immediately in the balance and their corresponding contributions to total employment. According to the American Trucking Association, 3.5 million people are presently employed as professional truck drivers, and approximately another 5 million are employed in non-driving roles related to the industry. The US rail industry, meanwhile, accounts for approximately another quarter million US jobs, as does the cab driving profession. What happens when the self-driving car research of Google, Apple, Uber, and others comes to fruition in the coming decade? What will these people do?

The US retail sector, meanwhile, accounts for another 5 million jobs. What will be left of the retail sector once Amazon has finished its various automation efforts? Its warehouses are packed with robots that are leaving increasingly little for humans to do. It is making inroads into becoming its own shipping company. And, in a nod to the few remaining benefits of the brick-and-mortar experience, Amazon is now piloting fully automated stores where shoppers can walk out with the desired merchandise and an array of sensors determines their purchases in a completely non-disruptive fashion that requires no on-site employees.

And if that weren’t enough, there is even promising work being done in moving robots out of factories and warehouses and into the more delicate work of food preparation and nursing care.

Stack that on top of the countless unemployed or underemployed folks ejected from the manufacturing sector.

Now consider the voting bloc that these people will form when they are collectively unemployed in what is effectively the blink of an eye on political timescales.

And if you think you’re safe because you’re in some manner of white collar profession, tell that to the droves of financial services people being displaced by robo-brokers. How long can even the lofty medical profession of radiology last in the wake of systematic big data collection and machine learning? How long can any but the uppermost crust of IT professionals survive as cloud technologies mature to the point that organizations no longer operate their own infrastructures or employ the requisite support personnel?

To remain relevant as a professional in the coming economy will require a deeper knowledge stack than at any prior time. And, if that weren’t enough, the requisite stacks are undergoing a period of extreme volatility, making it all the more difficult to stay current for even the most able and motivated individuals. Keeping the general public adequately educated will require not simply an enormous investment in education but rather a fundamental re-tooling of our education system because the models of the past are unworkably inefficient and non-scalable.

And, perhaps even worse than the world’s education system’s inability to keep the general public gainfully employed is the sub-par job it is doing innoculating people against demagoguery and extremism in all its forms, ranging from ISIS to Trump. One of the nubby problems, of course, centers on our struggle to agree on what good education even looks like. In some cases, perhaps only violence is the answer, such as when dealing with people who think that women should not be educated. In others, perhaps only strategic concessions will work, as is the case with people who don’t believe in evolution, in which case the best bet may be to agree that we should teach neither religion nor evolution in public schools, instead focusing on the low-level fundamentals of language, logic, mathematics, philosophy, and scientific method, in the hopes people will stumble upon truth and reject falsehoods on their own.

Without effective public policy to ensure that the general public possesses solid educational grounding we are not going to solve any of our problems. We are in grave danger of having most people exist in increasingly insular mini-worlds that serve as echo chambers of their own pre-existing preferences. Humans are born with an innate tendency toward confirmation bias, something that once upon a time was an adaptive behavior in environments where dangers were very direct and very lethal, but now is a liability regularly exploited by those who wield information as a weapon and have a profit motive to do so.

And there is a viciously nasty cycle in all of this.

Twitter has left people with an attention span of 140 characters (“SAD!”). Google has fostered a belief that “research” consists of typing a search term into a web browser and reading the first three results. Facebook is selecting which of your friends’ posts to highlight based not on what will broaden your understanding of the world but rather on how long you’ll stay engaged with the site and clicking advertising. Real journalism outlets, meanwhile, organizations that pay professionals to do substantive research and write thoughful and balanced analyses, not only find themselves struggling to engage with a readership that can meaningfully digest their content, but worse still find themselves in a brutal pincer maneuver, on the one side being starved for cash as the big tech companies wring the lion’s share of advertising revenues by repackaging news products without properly compensating the creators of the content, and on the other side by sensationalist politicians who are openly hostile to anything that offers even a whiff of intellectualism or accountability.

As people find themselves bereft of a sense of purpose due to economic disengagement, subject increasingly to highly sensationalistic context-free information, and without the tools to either re-engage with the economy or critically question what they see, we find ourselves with a recipe for desperation, extremism, xenophobia, short-sightedness, and authoritarian rule. And we find ourselves in these circumstances when we can least afford it, at a time when we have the most powerful weapons of war, the most environmentally impactful industrial capabilities, the largest ever human population, the greatest density of sensors, data, automation, and telephony, and the greatest concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few.

There is, meanwhile, a creeping non-democratization to our world on every axis of existence. Our wars will be fought by robots, not people. Our information gateways are on a trajectory to become ever smaller in number and greater in power, though we’ll be duped into thinking that we’re in a more democratic information age as these gateways preside over a growing information anarchy. Our food will be produced by an increasingly consolidated agricultural-industrial complex whose engineering prowess in creating addictive amalgams of fat, sugar and salt is matched only their ability to do it right under our noses as we tolerate the Krafts of the world doing things far more insideous than the Marlboros ever did.

And maybe most dangerous of all is the risk that we’ll stop understanding how our world works, we’ll stop being able to route around the failures of our automation, and the likelihood of failure will grow as system complexity reaches intractable levels. Humans are pretty inefficient when it comes to most tasks as compared to a specialized robot or software agent that has been honed over time. But they are remarkably fault tolerant and adaptable, properties we generally don’t yet see in the automation we have as yet created, and our tendency seems to be dangerously skewed toward increasing featurefulness as opposed to robustness.

To maintain a coherent and sane world we probably have to focus on a few key things:

  • Rate And Scope Control: Societies must invent and evolve or they will be destroyed by the ones that do. But they must also take great care not to allow their rate of change to outstrip their ability to digest those changes and reconfigure to a new way of being. We need to dream up ways to balance the imperative of progress with the ability to understand and handle the implications. This will be a difficult balance to strike. We are in thrall to our technology. The fruits of progress are immediately obvious to us and the costs are much more difficult to see and understand. I don’t know, for instance, that we should have a tax on robots, but it’s not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard, and if that isn’t the right kind of solution for a certain kind of problem, then we at least need to be tossing around ideas like it, and we should be thinking about things like this across a variety of domains.
  • Charging Full Price: It is currently far too easy for powerful entities to reap enormous gains while misappropriating the labors of others, externalizing the negative impacts of their production processes, and free-riding on basic infrastructure, none of which is sustainable in the long run. This can take such diverse forms as technology companies looting and undermining journalism, energy companies being subsidized by military spending, mining and manufacturing firms not bearing the costs of the environmental damage they do, transportation systems charging prices that only reflect fuel and labor costs as opposed to carbon emissions, pharmaceutical companies benefiting from basic research while not adequately paying for it, food distributors selling products that are creating a public health crisis, or corporations offshoring their profits while riding atop local infrastructure. Mind you, corporations are only behaving rationally within the system of government we have created, and the price of all the benefits of a free market society is that corporations will do everything they can to maximize profits. We shouldn’t expect them to behave differently within the current system. We should change the system.
  • Investment In The Basics: The public should on the one hand be very leery of hand-outs and yet on the other hand seriously consider how to reasonably ensure that a demonstrably motivated individual has the tools to be an effective participant in society. Done under the auspices of the old regimes such a thing would be impossibly expensive. But done with the power of the technology that is precipitating the disruptions it may actually be possible.
    • With education, we must dial down the absurdly expensive direct education model, instead moving to a hybrid approach that includes self-directed computer-based study, one-on-one tutoring, group lectures, and the automation to dynamically structure the experience to the individual.
    • With medicine, we need to implement and deploy pervasive real-time monitoring of health metrics and feed these to analytics that can catch problems early enough that simple and inexpensive interventions are the norm instead of staggeringly expensive crisis care, we need to decouple healthcare plans from employers, and we need extreme transparency in the costing models for medicine so that people can consume it rationally like any other service.
    • Foundational in turn to both of these things is ensuring proper basic nutrition for everyone so that they have the energy and focus to meaningfully participate in schools and workplaces instead of being chronically ill and consequently excessively consuming medical services while being unproductive. We should accomplish this through a combination of greater transparency in product labeling, more basic research into the impacts of nutrition on health, and intelligently crafted subsidies that ensure reasonably healthy food is affordable for everyone instead of the idiotic subisides we have right now for the worst food products (I’m looking at you, corn).
    • And foundational to all of this is a surge on ensuring that everyone has access to reasonable quality basic infrastructure in the realms of transportation, energy, clean water, and communications network access, things that will become easier as we roll out self-driving vehicles, create more smart devices, emplace more fiber and cell towers, and intelligently instrument all of the processes so we can troubleshoot and optimize them.

These are the unsexy but really important foundational matters we need to address to resolve our present predicament but we’re distracted by an administration that came to power by fanning the flames of fear and hatred in an appeal to our worst selves instead encouraging us to roll up our sleeves, cast aside extremism, and get work creating a sustainable future in which everyone can participate.

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