Our society is going through major growing pains right now. We’re struggling to cope with some of the most massive changes in human history, and I would argue that we’re not doing an awesome job at it. The current head-in-the-sand approach to globalization (see: Trump, Brexit, Le Pen) isn’t going to get us anywhere except maybe war. We’re addicted to smartphones which make our lives marginally easier, but which don’t make us happier. And we’re nonsensically fighting against automation by easing regulations on coal mining.
These issues are all intertwined, and all similar in our inability to A) take them seriously, and B) act in rational, informed, and compassionate ways about them.
Guess what folks, it’s not going away. There is enormous economic and societal gain to be had from embracing, rather than running from globalization. The question is not whether or not to participate, but how to use it to promote freedom and human rights while enriching the world. The “war on terror” will not be won by dropping a bigger bomb, but by changing people’s minds. The “war on drugs” will only be won by legalization and treatment.
We’ve put ourselves in an enormous psychological research study without any direction, intention, or regard for the health of the test subjects. Perhaps this is what society has always been, but not at this speed. What if we discover that using iPads before the age of five causes psychological or learning disorders in teenagers? It would be impossible to know or study because iPads have only existed for seven years. Clearly they aren’t going away, but the faith people are willing to put into their devices is astounding. To me, the most frightening piece of the personal technology revolution is the trust we’ve put in corporations. We can’t regulate technology when we don’t know the effect it has on our health, and right now tech companies and marketing firms have free rein to use our psychological quirks and patterns for their own profit. Or to win elections.
Like globalization, this one isn’t going away. The latest TED Radio Hour did a chilling overview of the state of deep learning, which I highly recommend. Long story short: most of us may not have much work in 20 or 30 years. Computers are going to be better than us at pretty much everything, and unlike previous technological revolutions, this one isn’t likely to create other jobs in the process. Driverless cars are an easy example. One team of engineers can create software to put 3+ million professional drivers in the United States alone out of work. Deep learning machines are going to do the same thing to less mechanical tasks, like finding cancer (already done), real-time translation (already done), and global finance (probably close).
This sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s the thing: work is not what defines us as humans. It’s time for our society to start thinking about what happens in a post-employment world. I find that idea hugely compelling, and an opportunity for arts and culture to flourish in ways we’ve never imagined. But it means reorienting our society and finding ways to support everyone, regardless of employment. Personally, I’m a fan of Guaranteed Basic Income, but more important is that we take the question seriously and talk about what our society is really for.
This is the basic idea here. We’ve taken a big step backward in politics in the last year (not just in the U.S.). Clearly this is happening for a reason. People are upset. Unfortunately, putting our heads in the sand and ignoring the issues isn’t going to make them go away. And technology isn’t going to wait for policy to catch up (clean energy, rideshare apps, laws and ethics). It’s time for us to recognize the magnitude of what we’re dealing with, clarify our ideals, and start working on an informed and compassionate way forward.