State of things to come, medium-term-ish edition mini-roundup

Two must reads:

"Trotskyite singularitarians for Monarchism! A political speculation" by Charlie Stross

"Automation, inequality and geopolitics" by Tyler Cowen


 

Is everyone naked in a Dyson sphere?

November 15, 2013 · Posted in Culture, Science and technology, Sociology · Comment 

There was a time, not long ago, when certain subcultures (most salient being the Cybergoth/Industrial subculture) reflected a look, or at least wish, about the future. When it began in earnest in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it still felt like we were all living on the edge of an interconnected "sci-fi" like world - and I think that feeling was correct. No one had a smartphone yet, the popular "second generation" web was just starting to hit its stride, and sci-fi yet to truly cement itself in every day popular culture (though it was getting there.) In the world of the time, we were still cargo-culting techno-fashion, as imagined by Geiger, "Tron", Anime/Manga artists, and The Wachowskis. Now that the actual technology that was being aped is here, things look quite different.

Today, when we look around at the subcultural landscape, what we see looks a lot like visions of the past, rather than any imagined future. The same way that sci-fi authors are now unable to keep up with the pace of change (as reality rapidly passes their ability to imagine, at least in any work we would deem a recognizable future), so too have our fashions stopped imagining. We're in an interesting place where the "future" that was imagined for so long is all around us, next to us, on us, with us, every second of the day. This, coupled with so many dashed dreams about what a glorious future would look like (we got the gadgets and connectivity, but haven't come close to solving the hard problems) have caused subcultures, and to a large degree, the mainstream culture (now) to use a backward-looking lens through which to view and imagine ourselves. Perhaps as a reaction to the ever-present technology, and lack of what "feels" like more than the mundane, many people have reacted by that oft-quoted search for "authenticity", where authenticity looks like "things that are old, made by hand or at least pretend to be, things that are associated with 'simpler' eras, or things that feel 'closer to the earth'" at least as they are imagined by many movie-makers and authors in  the developed world.

Of course, these things go in cycles, as it did with hippies, grunge, and now all things "twee, earthy, and old" but I do wonder if this time it's less simply cyclical, and more a reaction (due to fatigue and disappointment with how things have turned so far) or perhaps a kind of "hybridization by equilibrium." That is, as the environment gets more sophisticated, people compensate by looking or acting "more authentic and/or earthy" (the reaction to the way  Google Glass looks could be telling.) 

Writing this post, I was reminded of this quote by Fran Leibowitz, which echoes some of the thoughts here:

"I have a number of theories but one theory is that we live in the era of such innovation in technology,” Lewbowitz said. “It’s almost like we can’t do two things at once. If science or technology is going to be racing ahead, then the society is stuck. Also, I think it’s a way for people of my age to stay in the center of things."

So what happened to the future? We're living in it.

Share Or Die as a survival horror manual

Perhaps it should be titled “how to survive in an early post-apocalyptic zombie-infested wasteland”, with chapters like “collaborative consumption” guiding the way to how to divvy up scarce provisions and “unprepared” showing the disconnectedness and naivete of a formerly sheltered set of people (and how quickly the naivete dissipates when said people are thrust headlong intro reality.) In many ways, the rise of disaster fiction dovetails nicely with the follies and problems of our age. Originally created as a critique of mindless consumer capitalism, zombie survival-horror as a genre perhaps is now more apt as both a warning for those who have yet to experience this new world first-hand, and set of training videos for surviving it. Both the resurgence of these genres and the creation of this book, in retrospect, now seem to have been inevitable.

The book deals with a many issues related to our “New New Economy” (and I recommend that everyone read the original “The New Job Security” book, which I read back in the early 2000s. It turned out to be prescient quite quickly.) “Share or Die” deserves a lot of credit for putting personal stories and names to things that have been studied and detailed in the broad strokes, via discussions of policies like deregulation, downsizing, offshoring, outsourcing, widespread automation, and upper-income-bracket tax cuts; ballooning student debt, and the associated peonage of its debtors, as well as the fact that degrees have gone from proof of competence to the most basic of HR filters; short-lived traditions like “jobs for life” gone, and at-will employment treated the way you’d expect based on the label; the shrinking or disappearance of health benefits, our lack of universal health care, or paid leave; the dog-eat-dog economy where the dogs are getting hungrier as the opportunities shrink with each passing day; and a landscape which differs from the rosy  ”you can do anything if you only try” meritocratic fairytales pushed by our institutions, policymakers, teachers, and many others who grew up in an era (post WWII to Reagan) where standards of living seemed like they’d rise forever and opportunity for everyone seemed ever-present, and never-ending.

The book offers many ideas for coping – a few of which are worth entertaining – but are mostly just the ideas of people grasping for something, anything that will deliver us from this predicament. Unfortunately, the vast majority of ideas will not serve most people very well, or for very long. In this way, the ineffectiveness, indifference, or complete absence of societal institutions present in virtually every piece of zombie (and related disaster genres) fiction look like extremely fitting metaphors for our government, corporations, and charities. From the false promises of the “governments” of “Survivors” and “Threads” to their complete absence in “The Walking Dead” or “28 days later“, these pieces of fiction illustrate quite well the plight of those under 40, and increasingly, those over it, today. Those genres also shows what happens as the supplies run out, the crazy ideas which seemed to have a hope of working (the book) stop doing so, and the nerves are well past the frayed stage.

Share Or Die is an excellent, ground-level snapshot of our new age. An age without useful answers (only the same answers that have failed us for a long time), and without the promise of prosperity returning anytime soon.  An age which, to someone transported here from only two or three decades ago, would seem like a radically futuristic place (and it many ways it is.) The powerful devices in our hands, the always-connectedness, the truly instant communications, self-driving cars, the nascent “cyborging” of humanity, the medical advances, and a great many other wonderful things. It also looks like those other futures – the ones with the walled fortresses, and black seas; poverty; despair; wealth concentration; a growing underclass; social unrest and outright rebellions; rising political divisions; and a widespread lack of trust of just about everything

Lastly, there appears to be another parallel in the book to those movies and shows. At some point a few of the characters come to a terrible realization: that no help is coming.

The future of work, part 2

October 5, 2011 · Posted in Business, Culture, Government, Politics, Sociology · Comment 

Very interesting and important video. It starts getting especially interesting around 1:00:00 when Cowen and Ford start talking. A few things:

- The idea of "personal shoppers" being a growth area seems dubious. With recommendation and predictive desire systems getting better all the time, I think this is probably a no-go.

- Nannies might be a growth area for a few decades, but decent AI will likely obviate the need for these as well. I'd give this one 50-50 odds over the next 4-6 decades.

- Basically everyone on that panel endorsed the guaranteed income. The fact that people from so many different perspectives had their policy prescription converge to that is really striking.

- This also brings us back to the "how do we occupy the unemployed masses?" question yet again. Arts and leisure activities will likely not need much support from society, as they will just happen. Sports might (stadiums, etc.) Other things we'll probably be looking at will be extremely powerful, long-lasting, side-effect-free (or tolerable side effect having) drugs. That road of course leads to wireheading, but I think that denying that as a possibility now is extremely naive.

A cultural shift will be required, as several people in the video make clear. Having one's self worth (and respect of one's peers/society) be defined by a traditional support-one's-livelihood "job" is going to have to disappear. Demonization of those "lazy, ne'er do wells" is just not going to work in a future where much human labor is not needed.

Another thing this brings to mind is the effect on the labor market that does continue to function: a great deal less unemployment, at least for a long while. For those skills that are essentially not able to be automated any time soon (let's stay over, the next 50-100 years) those that stay in the labor market will not be doing much competing for open positions. It may in fact be an employee's market in those cases where someone is not simply their own business.

Source problem for public goods: culture (like so many other things)

September 7, 2010 · Posted in Culture, Economics · Comments Off 

In regards to "Krguman and Wells, The Slump Goes On: Why?"

How do you deal with this when the problem is not economics, but culture? A culture that says that taxation is theft. A culture that says that the government spending "your" money = government telling you what to do with your money = elitism. A culture that has internalized "people are always rational"/Homo Economicus. A culture that believes, in the face of massive evidence, that markets always know better. A culture that accepts the idea that "process legitimizes outcome." How do you argue with people who (wrongly) believe that we live in an actual meritocracy and that messing with it is basically immoral?

This, of course, doesn't even scratch the surface of the other issues relating to weakness, incompetence, corruption - and even more importantly - the "not passing the necessary threshold" when we actually DO try to spend on public goods. What does this do? As a commenter noted elsewhere, it saddles Democrats with "all the stigma of big government with none of the results."

On top of all this, how can we get anything large done in a culture that is so short term-focused? What happens if a policy takes, say, 20 years to make the difference we /actually need/? In this country, you only get 2-4 or 4-8 years to prove your idea works; because of time lags, you may get voted out (and the policies changed) long before they make a difference.

We're slaves to short stints for elected officials (relative to how long certain policies take to work) and a "short termist" culture.