Daily Archives: January 20, 2017

A tentative framework

[I wanted to work on this and turn it into a real essay, but I feel intellectually constipated. So, I’m just going to squirt this out… well, let’s end this metaphor. Suffice it to say, this will be half-baked. My intention is to put this to start my thinking on this topic rather than to indicate that this is my final word. I’m attempting to build a framework for myself to understand future trends.]

I don’t really have anything to say about the election. I’m more interested in longer term trends, and I believe we’re going to witness the collapse of nation-states and capitalism. Nation-states and capitalism aren’t good, so hooray, but collapse could mean violence, so not hooray. (Well, those statements need a lot of unpacking. Not gonna do it yet, though.) Here are the trends that are causing this destabilization: AI/automation, decreased trust in political and financial institutions, global warming, and advances in asymmetric warfare.

AI will destroy a lot of jobs in the relative near-term. Truck drivers are first on the chopping block. This is millions of jobs. (I did see a chart that makes this look more alarming, saying it was the biggest job in many states. However, that chart is misleading because several other jobs are broken into categories the way truck driving isn’t. Still, it’s a lot of jobs.) There are also second-order effects from self-driving cars/trucks. When people are driving less and riding in cars will be a lot safer, that will reduce the need for car insurance and could potentially erase jobs in that field. A lot of service jobs will also disappear. At fast food restaurants, you won’t need nearly so many people. With kiosks and/or natural language parsing, you could replace cashiers. Advances in natural language processing could potentially replace a lot of customer service representatives, but I’m a little more skeptical about that because it’ll be harder to get enough data to do customer service for smaller companies. AI can also replace white collar jobs. Anything that is mostly spreadsheet work can probably be replaced. I believe that AI will replace these jobs more quickly than we can replace these jobs with new jobs. If we look at where automation has taken jobs before, like with manufacturing in Detroit, you’ll see that the transition isn’t easy. Lots of unemployed people means instability. The scale of this change will be a shock that capitalism can’t absorb.

Global warming will destabilize nation-states through forced migration and disaster-caused refugee crises. In Alaska, villages are already being forced to move. Sea-level changes, which to some degree is inevitable, will force many more to move. Strictly defined borders will be strained. Other factors, like natural disasters and desertification, will cause movement and fighting over resources in other areas that aren’t directly affected by rising sea levels. Refugees will move in numbers that the nation-state system probably won’t be able to absorb.

People are losing trust in the institutions we have now. Examples of decreasing trust in government are the record-high unfavorable ratings of both Trump and Clinton in the most recent election. Congress’s approval ratings are also in the toilet. This distrust extends to the elites in the financial system. During the Great Recession, bankers were bailed out while less rich people lost their homes. I believe this distrust is further reflected in pop culture by the prevalence of dystopian fiction and shows like Mr. Robot. The current nation-state system requires trust to function. People follow laws when they trust the system. Power transitions peacefully. But without trust, the system loses its hold on the people.

Asymmetric warfare will also destabilize the current systems. We already have examples of insurgencies taking on nation-states. The US didn’t win the Iraq War. Economically, it’s way cheaper to destroy something than to create something. And disruption has gotten even cheaper and less risky with new technologies. Well-timed robo-calls can cause panic and disruption, causing economic costs, and this requires no investment in actual weapons. Our basic infrastructure, including electrical grids and water distribution, is centralized, fragile, and would be easy to disrupt. Advances in the organization of insurgencies has also advanced. (See open-source insurgencies.) This decentralization makes it even tougher to fight an insurgency.

So, imagine all these things happening at the same time. Angry people without jobs. Displaced angry people without jobs. Displaced angry people without jobs who distrust the current institutions. Displaced angry people without jobs who distrust the current institutions and can asymmetrically attack current institutions.

Nation-states can’t provide security. Capitalism can’t provide jobs. The system is headed toward severe failure.

But I mean, this doesn’t have to be bad. Nation-states industrialized murder. Capitalism and nation-states are responsible for some of the worst, most racist atrocities. Most of the jobs that will be replaced are shitty anyway. In fact, most jobs are shitty. In addition, capitalism and the elites in charge are specifically responsible for the climate change that is fucking the planet. Morally, these systems should be erased.

This is very radical for someone who is classically conservative, as in Burkean, not Republican, but I came to this conclusion without even doing a deep dive of history. It’s all rather obvious once you let yourself look. Still, shouldn’t I be fighting for the preservation of institutions? They’re hard to build anew, so shouldn’t we build incrementally? But you have to understand that our current systems do more to eradicate traditional knowledge than build it. Capitalism atomizes society, breaking our communal ties and thus our communal knowledge. Nation-states are agents of genocide and the current borders often arbitrarily divide communities. Plus, if this morally bankrupt systems are about to collapse anyway, then it really doesn’t make sense to preserve them. The strategy, instead, should be to work as hard as we can to create alternatives before the system collapses.

This is an opportunity to build something new. To restructure society in new ways. To exercise our imagination. Or rather, societies and imaginations. Because the future also needs to be decentralized. The world is too complex for one solution. It’s too risky to put power into large centralized authorities. I can imagine many solutions with cities and communities figuring out their own ways to switch to renewable energy and redistributing the gains of automation to their citizens instead of to the rich. These communities, although not under centralized control, don’t have to be isolated from each other. Social media and other technology can allow new forms of communication and organization. They can more dynamically share information or organize and reorganize to reach common goals without an overarching nation-state.

I don’t want to pretend that decentralization will solve all our problems. It won’t erase racism or oppression. Insular small communities can be very *-phobic. It’s not as if Ferguson’s problems would disappear if nation-states would disappear. However, I’d rather have the damage limited to smaller communities than be carried out on a vast scale. For example, a homophobic president can do much more damage than a homophobic mayor simply because of the scale. The military-industrial complex is giving weaponry that militarizes our police forces. We can also start to build truly radical spaces where people can escape; you can’t escape capitalism or nation-states right now. Removing nation-states and industrial capitalism is necessary but not sufficient.

So, that’s my framework for the future. We have to start create spaces outside the system and strengthening communities and communication to brace for the fall of capitalism and nation-states. The alternative is losing to the elite, who’ll continue to horde resources. We have to exercise our imaginations. Stop imagining dystopias and start imagining what’s next. I still don’t believe in utopias. There will always be bad actors. I don’t think I even believe in hope. Good doesn’t eventually triumph because the universe is indifferent. Humanity may be a tiny blip that wipes itself out. But I think there’s a chance our future can be better than what we have now. There’s an opportunity to disrupt the system and reap the benefits. That’s enough for me.

Further reading: