Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Ian Morris

End of nations: Is there an alternative to countries?

Nation states cause some of our biggest problems, from civil war to climate inaction. Science suggests there are better ways to run a planet

Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws.

Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. (Like a unified UN passport?)

Try to describe yourself: you have a right to at least one nationality, and the right to change it, but not the right to have none (it has been more common recently. Even France is removing the citizenship of born French. Most Palestinians are denied a nationality ID)

Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them. (Apparently, the Rio Olympics admitted 210 nations or semi-nations or potential States)

And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a new Islamic state in the Middle East.

Many of the big news stories of the day, from conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine to rows over immigration and membership of the European Union, to Kashmir… are linked to nation states in some way.

Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution.

Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it.

Khallda Elzanfaly shared this link. Yesterday at 2:21pm ·|By Debora MacKenzie

Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good.

(Why, the richer States will take better care of the poorer people? They are Not even recognized in their own Nation)

At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.

How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it (becoming) a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?

These are not normally scientific questions – but that is changing.

Complexity theorists, social scientists and historians are addressing them using new techniques, and the answers are not always what you might expect.

Far from timeless, the nation state is a recent phenomenon. And as complexity keeps rising, it is already mutating into novel political structures. Get set for neo-medievalism.

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states, says John Breuilly of the London School of Economics. If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders (you had to show a document or a letter from a high ranking official that you are allowed to cross the border) ; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed.

People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in.

That goes back to the anthropology, and psychology, of humanity’s earliest politics.

We started as wandering, extended families, then formed larger bands of hunter-gatherers, and then, around 10,000 years ago, settled in farming villages. Such alliances had adaptive advantages, as people cooperated to feed and defend themselves.

War and peace

Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has shown that one individual can keep track of social interactions linking no more than around 150 people. Evidence for that includes studies of villages and army units through history, and the average tally of Facebook friends.

But there was one important reason to have more friends than that: war.

“In small-scale societies, between 10 and 60 per cent of male deaths are attributable to warfare,” says Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut at Storrs. (a range between 10 and 60% is meaningless) More allies meant a higher chance of survival.

Turchin has found that ancient Eurasian empires grew largest where fighting was fiercest, suggesting war was a major factor in political enlargement.

Archaeologist Ian Morris of Stanford University in California reasons that as populations grew, people could no longer find empty lands where they could escape foes. The losers of battles were simply absorbed into the enemy’s domain – so domains grew bigger.

How did they get past Dunbar’s number? Humanity’s universal answer was the invention of hierarchy. Several villages allied themselves under a chief; several chiefdoms banded together under a higher chief. To grow, these alliances added more villages, and if necessary more layers of hierarchy.

Hierarchies meant leaders could coordinate large groups without anyone having to keep personal track of more than 150 people. In addition to their immediate circle, an individual interacted with one person from a higher level in the hierarchy, and typically 8 people from lower levels, says Turchin.

These alliances continued to enlarge and increase in complexity in order to perform more kinds of collective actions, says Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For a society to survive, its collective behaviour must be as complex as the challenges it faces – including competition from neighbours. If one group adopted a hierarchical society, its competitors also had to. Hierarchies spread and social complexity grew.

Larger hierarchies not only won more wars but also fed more people through economies of scale, which enabled technical and social innovations such as irrigation, food storage, record-keeping and a unifying religion. Cities, kingdoms and empires followed.

But these were Not nation states.

A conquered city or region could be subsumed into an empire regardless of its inhabitants’ “national” identity. “The view of the state as a necessary framework for politics, as old as civilisation itself, does not stand up to scrutiny,” says historian Andreas Osiander of the University of Leipzig in Germany. (Not clear how it doesn’t stand up)

One key point is that agrarian societies required little actual governing. Nine people in 10 were peasants who had to farm or starve, so were largely self-organising. Government intervened to take its cut, enforce basic criminal law and keep the peace within its undisputed territories. Otherwise its main role was to fight to keep those territories, or acquire more.

Even quite late on, rulers spent little time governing, says Osiander. In the 17th century Louis XIV of France had half a million troops fighting foreign wars but only 2000 keeping order at home. In the 18th century, the Dutch and Swiss needed no central government at all. Many eastern European immigrants arriving in the US in the 19th century could say what village they came from, but not what country: it didn’t matter to them.

Before the modern era, says Breuilly, people defined themselves “vertically” by who their rulers were. There was little horizontal interaction between peasants beyond local markets. Whoever else the king ruled over, and whether those people were anything like oneself, was largely irrelevant.

Such systems are very different from today’s states, which have well-defined boundaries filled with citizens. In a system of vertical loyalties, says Breuilly, power peaks where the overlord lives and peters out in frontier territories that shade into neighbouring regions. Ancient empires are coloured on modern maps as if they had firm borders, but they didn’t. Moreover, people and territories often came under different jurisdictions for different purposes.

Simple societies

Such loose control, says Bar-Yam, meant pre-modern political units were only capable of scaling up a few simple actions such as growing food, fighting battles, collecting tribute and keeping order. Some, like the Roman Empire, did this on a very large scale. But complexity – the different actions society could collectively perform – was relatively low.

Complexity was limited by the energy a society could harness. For most of history that essentially meant human and animal labour. In the late Middle Ages, Europe harnessed more, especially water power. This boosted social complexity – trade increased, for example– requiring more government. A decentralised feudal system gave way to centralised monarchies with more power.

But these were still not nation states. Monarchies were defined by who ruled them, and rulers were defined by mutual recognition – or its converse, near-constant warfare. In Europe, however, as trade grew, monarchs discovered they could get more power from wealth than war.

In 1648, Europe’s Peace of Westphalia ended centuries of war by declaring existing kingdoms, empires and other polities “sovereign”: none was to interfere in the internal affairs of others. This was a step towards modern states – but these sovereign entities were still not defined by their peoples’ national identities. International law is said to date from the Westphalia treaty, yet the word “international” was not coined until 132 years later.

By then Europe had hit the tipping point of the industrial revolution. Harnessing vastly more energy from coal meant that complex behaviours performed by individuals, such as weaving, could be amplified, says Bar-Yam, producing much more complex collective behaviours.

This demanded a different kind of government. In 1776 and 1789, revolutions in the US and France created the first nation states, defined by the national identity of their citizens rather than the bloodlines of their rulers. According to one landmark history of the period, says Breuilly, “in 1800 almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. By 1900 they all did.” For various reasons, people in England had an earlier sense of “Englishness”, he says, but it was not expressed as a nationalist ideology.

By 1918, with the dismemberment of Europe’s last multinational empires such as the Habsburgs in the first world war, European state boundaries had been redrawn largely along cultural and linguistic lines. In Europe at least, the nation state was the new norm

Part of the reason was a pragmatic adaptation of the scale of political control required to run an industrial economy. Unlike farming, industry needs steel, coal and other resources which are not uniformly distributed, so many micro-states were no longer viable. Meanwhile, empires became unwieldy as they industrialised and needed more actual governing. So in 19th-century Europe, micro-states fused and empires split.

These new nation states were justified not merely as economically efficient, but as the fulfilment of their inhabitants’ national destiny. A succession of historians has nonetheless concluded that it was the states that defined their respective nations, and not the other way around.

France, for example, was not the natural expression of a pre-existing French nation. At the revolution in 1789, half its residents did not speak French. In 1860, when Italy unified, only 2.5 per cent of residents regularly spoke standard Italian. Its leaders spoke French to each other. One famously said that, having created Italy, they now had to create Italians – a process many feel is still taking place.

“At the revolution in 1789, half of France’s residents did not speak French”

Sociologist Siniša Maleševic of University College Dublin in Ireland believes that this “nation building” was a key step in the evolution of modern nation states. It required the creation of an ideology of nationalism that emotionally equated the nation with people’s Dunbar circle of family and friends.

That in turn relied heavily on mass communication technologies. In an influential analysis, Benedict Anderson of Cornell University in New York described nations as “imagined” communities: they far outnumber our immediate circle and we will never meet them all, yet people will die for their nation as they would for their family.

Such nationalist feelings, he argued, arose after mass-market books standardised vernaculars and created linguistic communities. Newspapers allowed people to learn about events of common concern, creating a large “horizontal” community that was previously impossible. National identity was also deliberately fostered by state-funded mass education.

The key factor driving this ideological process, Maleševic says, was an underlying structural one: the development of far-reaching bureaucracies needed to run complex industrialised societies. For example, says Breuilly, in the 1880s Prussia became the first government to pay unemployment benefits. At first they were paid only in a worker’s native village, where identification was not a problem. As people migrated for work, benefits were made available anywhere in Prussia. “It wasn’t until then that they had to establish who a Prussian was,” he says, and they needed bureaucracy to do it. Citizenship papers, censuses and policed borders followed.

That meant hierarchical control structures ballooned, with more layers of middle management. Such bureaucracy was what really brought people together in nation-sized units, argues Maleševic. But not by design: it emerged out of the behaviour of complex hierarchical systems. As people do more kinds of activities, says Bar-Yam, the control structure of their society inevitably becomes denser.

In the emerging nation state, that translates into more bureaucrats per head of population. Being tied into such close bureaucratic control also encouraged people to feel personal ties with the state, especially as ties to church and village declined. As governments exerted greater control, people got more rights, such as voting, in return. For the first time, people felt the state was theirs.

Natural state of affairs?

Once Europe had established the nation state model and prospered, says Breuilly, everyone wanted to follow suit. In fact it’s hard now to imagine that there could be another way. But is a structure that grew spontaneously out of the complexity of the industrial revolution really the best way to manage our affairs?

According to Brian Slattery of York University in Toronto, Canada, nation states still thrive on a widely held belief that “the world is naturally made of distinct, homogeneous national or tribal groups which occupy separate portions of the globe, and claim most people’s primary allegiance”. But anthropological research does not bear that out, he says. Even in tribal societies, ethnic and cultural pluralism has always been widespread. Multilingualism is common, cultures shade into each other, and language and cultural groups are not congruent.

Moreover, people always have a sense of belonging to numerous different groups based on region, culture, background and more. “The claim that a person’s identity and well-being is tied in a central way to the well-being of the national group is wrong as a simple matter of historical fact,” says Slattery.

Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that the nation-state model fails so often: since 1960 there have been more than 180 civil wars worldwide.

Such conflicts are often blamed on ethnic or sectarian tensions. Failed states, such as Syria right now, are typically riven by violence along such lines. According to the idea that nation states should contain only one nation, such failures have often been blamed on the colonial legacy of bundling together many peoples within unnatural boundaries.

But for every Syria or Iraq there is a Singapore, Malaysia or Tanzania, getting along okay despite having several “national” groups. Immigrant states in Australia and the Americas, meanwhile, forged single nations out of massive initial diversity.

What makes the difference? It turns out that while ethnicity and language are important, what really matters is bureaucracy. This is clear in the varying fates of the independent states that emerged as Europe’s overseas empires fell apart after the second world war.

According to the mythology of nationalism, all they needed was a territory, a flag, a national government and UN recognition. In fact what they really needed was complex bureaucracy.

Some former colonies that had one became stable democracies, notably India. Others did not, especially those such as the former Belgian Congo, whose colonial rulers had merely extracted resources. Many of these became dictatorships, which require a much simpler bureaucracy than democracies.

Dictatorships exacerbate ethnic strife because their institutions do not promote citizens’ identification with the nation. In such situations, people fall back on trusted alliances based on kinship, which readily elicit Dunbar-like loyalties. Insecure governments allied to ethnic groups favour their own, while grievances among the disfavoured groups grow – and the resulting conflict can be fierce.

Recent research confirms that the problem is not ethnic diversity itself, but not enough official inclusiveness. Countries with little historic ethnic diversity are now having to learn that on the fly, as people migrate to find jobs within a globalised economy.

How that pans out may depend on whether people self-segregate. Humans like being around people like themselves, and ethnic enclaves can be the result. Jennifer Neal of Michigan State University in East Lansing has used agent-based modelling to look at the effect of this in city neighbourhoods. Her work suggests that enclaves promote social cohesion, but at the cost of decreasing tolerance between groups. Small enclaves in close proximity may be the solution.

But at what scale? Bar-Yam says communities where people are well mixed – such as in peaceable Singapore, where enclaves are actively discouraged – tend not to have ethnic strife. Larger enclaves can also foster stability. Using mathematical models to correlate the size of enclaves with the incidences of ethnic strife in India, Switzerland and the former Yugoslavia, he found that enclaves 56 kilometres or more wide make for peaceful coexistence – especially if they are separated by natural geographical barriers,

Switzerland’s 26 cantons, for example, which have different languages and religions, meet Bar-Yam’s spatial stability test – except one. A French-speaking enclave in German-speaking Berne experienced the only major unrest in recent Swiss history. It was resolved by making it a separate canton, Jura, which meets the criteria.

Again, though, ethnicity and language are only part of the story. Lars-Erik Cederman of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich argues that Swiss cantons have achieved peace not by geographical adjustment of frontiers, but by political arrangements giving cantons considerable autonomy and a part in collective decisions.

Similarly, using a recently compiled database to analyse civil wars since 1960, Cederman finds that strife is indeed more likely in countries that are more ethnically diverse. But careful analysis confirms that trouble arises not from diversity alone, but when certain groups are systematically excluded from power.

Governments with ethnicity-based politics were especially vulnerable. The US set up just such a government in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Exclusion of Sunni by Shiites led to insurgents declaring a Sunni state in occupied territory in Iraq and Syria. True to nation-state mythology, it rejects the colonial boundaries of Iraq and Syria, as they force dissimilar “nations” together.

Ethnic cleansing

Yet the solution cannot be imposing ethnic uniformity. Historically, so-called ethnic cleansing has been uniquely bloody, and “national” uniformity is no guarantee of harmony. In any case, there is no good definition of an ethnic group. Many people’s ethnicities are mixed and change with the political weather: the numbers who claimed to be German in the Czech Sudetenland territory annexed by Hitler changed dramatically before and after the war. Russian claims to Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine now may be equally flimsy

Both Bar-Yam’s and Cederman’s research suggests one answer to diversity within nation states: devolve power to local communities, as multicultural states such as Belgium and Canada have done.

“We need a conception of the state as a place where multiple affiliations and languages and religions may be safe and flourish,” says Slattery. “That is the ideal Tanzania has embraced and it seems to be working reasonably well.” Tanzania has more than 120 ethnic groups and about 100 languages.

In the end, what may matter more than ethnicity, language or religion is economic scale. The scale needed to prosper may have changed with technology – tiny Estonia is a high-tech winner – but a small state may still not pack enough economic power to compete.

That is one reason why Estonia is such an enthusiastic member of the European Union. After the devastating wars in the 20th century, European countries tried to prevent further war by integrating their basic industries. That project, which became the European Union, now primarily offers member states profitable economies of scale, through manufacturing and selling in the world’s largest single market.

What the EU fails to inspire is nationalist-style allegiance – which Maleševic thinks nowadays relies on the “banal” nationalism of sport, anthems, TV news programmes, even song contests. That means Europeans’ allegiances are no longer identified with the political unit that handles much of their government.

Ironically, says Jan Zielonka of the University of Oxford, the EU has saved Europe’s nation states, which are now too small to compete individually. The call by nationalist parties to “take back power from Brussels”, he argues, would lead to weaker countries, not stronger ones.

He sees a different problem. Nation states grew out of the complex hierarchies of the industrial revolution. The EU adds another layer of hierarchy – but without enough underlying integration to wield decisive power. It lacks both of Maleševic’s necessary conditions: nationalist ideology and pervasive integrating bureaucracy.

Even so, the EU may point the way to what a post-nation-state world will look like.

Zielonka agrees that further integration of Europe’s governing systems is needed as economies become more interdependent. But he says Europe’s often-paralysed hierarchy cannot achieve this. Instead he sees the replacement of hierarchy by networks of cities, regions and even non-governmental organisations. Sound familiar? Proponents call it neo-medievalism.

“The future structure and exercise of political power will resemble the medieval model more than the Westphalian one,” Zielonka says. “The latter is about concentration of power, sovereignty and clear-cut identity.” Neo-medievalism, on the other hand, means overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, multiple identities and governing institutions, and fuzzy borders.

“The future exercise of power will resemble the medieval model”

Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, a former US assistant secretary of state, also sees hierarchies giving way to global networks primarily of experts and bureaucrats from nation states. For example, governments now work more through flexible networks such as the G7 (or 8, or 20) to manage global problems than through the UN hierarchy.

Ian Goldin, head of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, which analyses global problems, thinks such networks must emerge. He believes existing institutions such as UN agencies and the World Bank are structurally unable to deal with problems that emerge from global interrelatedness, such as economic instability, pandemics, climate change and cybersecurity – partly because they are hierarchies of member states which themselves cannot deal with these global problems. He quotes Slaughter: “Networked problems require a networked response.”

Again, the underlying behaviour of systems and the limits of the human brain explain why. Bar-Yam notes that in any hierarchy, the person at the top has to be able to get their head around the whole system. When systems are too complex for one human mind to grasp, he argues that they must evolve from hierarchies into networks where no one person is in charge.

Where does this leave nation states? “They remain the main containers of power in the world,” says Breuilly. And we need their power to maintain the personal security that has permitted human violence to decline to all-time lows.

Moreover, says Dani Rodrik of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, the very globalised economy that is allowing these networks to emerge needs something or somebody to write and enforce the rules. Nation states are currently the only entities powerful enough to do this.

Yet their limitations are clear, both in solving global problems and resolving local conflicts. One solution may be to pay more attention to the scale of government. Known as subsidiarity, this is a basic principle of the EU: the idea that government should act at the level where it is most effective, with local government for local problems and higher powers at higher scales. There is empirical evidence that it works: social and ecological systems can be better governed when their users self-organise than when they are run by outside leaders.

However, it is hard to see how our political system can evolve coherently in that direction. Nation states could get in the way of both devolution to local control and networking to achieve global goals. With climate change, it is arguable that they already have.

There is an alternative to evolving towards a globalised world of interlocking networks, neo-medieval or not, and that is collapse. “Most hierarchical systems tend to become top-heavy, expensive and incapable of responding to change,” says Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “The resulting tension may be released through partial collapse.” For nation states, that could mean anything from the renewed pre-eminence of cities to Iraq-style anarchy. An uncertain prospect, but there is an upside. Collapse, say some, is the creative destruction that allows new structures to emerge.

Like it or not, our societies may already be undergoing this transition. We cannot yet imagine there are no countries. But recognising that they were temporary solutions to specific historical situations can only help us manage a transition to whatever we need next. Whether or not our nations endure, the structures through which we govern our affairs are due for a change. Time to start imagining.

Leader:In our world beyond nations, the future is medieval


How Many Jobs Will Be Replaced By Software Bots and droids? 

Bill Gates: People Don’t Realize How Many Jobs Will Soon Be Replaced By Software Bots

“Robots and algorithms are getting good at jobs like building cars, writing articles, translating.
Jobs that once required a human. So what will we humans do for work?” Andrew McAfee

As it turns out, when tens of millions of people are unemployed or underemployed, there’s a fair amount of interest in what technology might be doing to the labor force.

And as I look at the conversation, it strikes me that it’s focused on exactly the right topic, and at the same time, it’s missing the point entirely.

The topic that it’s focused on, the question is whether or not all these digital technologies are affecting people’s ability to earn a living, or are the droids taking our jobs? And there’s some evidence that they are.

0:43 The Great Recession ended when American GDP resumed its kind of slow, steady march upward, and some other economic indicators also started to rebound, and they got kind of healthy kind of quickly.

Corporate profits are quite high.

In fact, if you include bank profits, they’re higher than they’ve ever been. And business investment in gear, in equipment and hardware and software is at an all-time high. So the businesses are getting out their checkbooks.

What they’re not really doing is hiring.

So this red line is the employment-to-population ratio, the percentage of working age people in America who have work. And we see that it cratered during the Great Recession, and it hasn’t started to bounce back at all.

1:29 But the story is not just a recession story. The decade that we’ve just been through had relatively anemic job growth all throughout, especially when we compare it to other decades, and the 2000s are the only time we have on record where there were fewer people working at the end of the decade than at the beginning.

This is not what you want to see. When you graph the number of potential employees versus the number of jobs in the country, you see the gap gets bigger and bigger over time, and then, during the Great Recession, it opened up in a huge way. I did some quick calculations.

I took the last 20 years of GDP growth and the last 20 years of labor productivity growth and used those in a fairly straightforward way to try to project how many jobs the economy was going to need to keep growing, and this is the line that I came up with. Is that good or bad?

This is the government’s projection for the working age population going forward. So if these predictions are accurate, that gap is not going to close.

2:32 The problem is, I don’t think these projections are accurate. In particular, I think my projection is way too optimistic, because when I did it, I was assuming that the future was kind of going to look like the past with labor productivity growth, and that’s actually not what I believe.

When I look around, I think that we ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to technology’s impact on the labor force. Just in the past couple years, we’ve seen digital tools display skills and abilities that they never, ever had before, and that, kind of, eat deeply into what we human beings do for a living. Let me give you a couple examples.

3:10 Throughout all of history, if you wanted something translated from one language into another, you had to involve a human being. Now we have multi-language, instantaneous, automatic translation services available for free via many of our devices all the way down to smartphones. And if any of us have used these, we know that they’re not perfect, but they’re decent.

3:34 Throughout all of history, if you wanted something written, a report or an article, you had to involve a person. Not anymore. This is an article that appeared in Forbes online a while back about Apple’s earnings. It was written by an algorithm. And it’s not decent, it’s perfect.

3:51 A lot of people look at this and they say, “Okay, but those are very specific, narrow tasks, and most knowledge workers are actually generalists, and what they do is sit on top of a very large body of expertise and knowledge and they use that to react on the fly to kind of unpredictable demands, and that’s very, very hard to automate.”

One of the most impressive knowledge workers in recent memory is a guy named Ken Jennings. He won the quiz show “Jeopardy!” 74 times in a row, took home three million dollars. That’s Ken on the right getting beat three to one by Watson, the “Jeopardy!”-playing supercomputer from IBM.

When we look at what technology can do to general knowledge workers, I start to think there might not be something so special about this idea of a generalist, particularly when we start doing things like hooking Siri up to Watson and having technologies that can understand what we’re saying and repeat speech back to us.

Now, Siri is far from perfect, and we can make fun of her flaws, but we should also keep in mind that if technologies like Siri and Watson improve along a Moore’s Law trajectory, which they will, in six years, they’re not going to be two times better or four times better, they’ll be 16 times better than they are right now. So I start to think that a lot of knowledge work is going to be affected by this.

5:12 And digital technologies are not just impacting knowledge work.

They’re starting to flex their muscles in the physical world as well. I had the chance a little while back to ride in the Google autonomous car, which is as cool as it sounds. (Laughter) And I will vouch that it handled the stop-and-go traffic on U.S. 101 very smoothly.

There are about three and a half million people who drive trucks for a living in the United States. I think some of them are going to be affected by this technology. And right now, humanoid robots are still incredibly primitive. They can’t do very much. But they’re getting better quite quickly, and DARPA, which is the investment arm of the Defense Department, is trying to accelerate their trajectory.

5:54 The droids are coming for our jobs.

In the short term, we can stimulate job growth by encouraging entrepreneurship and by investing in infrastructure, because the robots today still aren’t very good at fixing bridges. But in the not-too-long-term, I think within the lifetimes of most of the people in this room, we’re going to transition into an economy that is very productive but that just doesn’t need a lot of human workers, and managing that transition is going to be the greatest challenge that our society faces. Voltaire summarized why. He said, “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.”

6:36 But despite this challenge, I’m personally, I’m still a huge digital optimist, and I am supremely confident that the digital technologies that we’re developing now are going to take us into a utopian future, not a dystopian future. And to explain why, I want to pose kind of a ridiculously broad question. I want to ask what have been the most important developments in human history?

6:58 Now, I want to share some of the answers that I’ve gotten in response to this question. It’s a wonderful question to ask and to start an endless debate about, because some people are going to bring up systems of philosophy in both the West and the East that have changed how a lot of people think about the world.

And then other people will say, “No, actually, the big stories, the big developments are the founding of the world’s major religions, which have changed civilizations and have changed and influenced how countless people are living their lives.”

And then some other folk will say, “Actually, what changes civilizations, what modifies them and what changes people’s lives are empires, so the great developments in human history are stories of conquest and of war.”

And then some cheery soul usually always pipes up and says, “Hey, don’t forget about plagues.” 

There are some optimistic answers to this question, so some people will bring up the Age of Exploration and the opening up of the world.

Others will talk about intellectual achievements in disciplines like math that have helped us get a better handle on the world, and other folk will talk about periods when there was a deep flourishing of the arts and sciences.

So this debate will go on and on. It’s an endless debate, and there’s no conclusive, no single answer to it.

But if you’re a geek like me, you say, “Well, what do the data say?”

And you start to do things like graph things that we might be interested in, the total worldwide population, for example, or some measure of social development, or the state of advancement of a society, and you start to plot the data, because, by this approach, the big stories, the big developments in human history, are the ones that will bend these curves a lot.

8:39 So when you do this, and when you plot the data, you pretty quickly come to some weird conclusions.

You conclude that none of these things have mattered very much.

They haven’t done a darn thing to the curves. There has been one story, one development in human history that bent the curve, bent it just about 90 degrees, and it is a technology story.

9:06 The steam engine, and the other associated technologies of the Industrial Revolution changed the world and influenced human history so much, that in the words of the historian Ian Morris, they made mockery out of all that had come before. (Anything that increase power?)

And they did this by infinitely multiplying the power of our muscles, overcoming the limitations of our muscles. Now, what we’re in the middle of now is overcoming the limitations of our individual brains and infinitely multiplying our mental power. (Our individual mental power or the multinational knowledge power?)

How can this not be as big a deal as overcoming the limitations of our muscles?

So at the risk of repeating myself a little bit, when I look at what’s going on with digital technology these days, we are not anywhere near through with this journey, and when I look at what is happening to our economies and our societies, my single conclusion is that we ain’t seen nothing yet. The best days are really ahead. (Increased unemployment is that good?)

9:59 Let me give you a couple examples. Economies don’t run on energy. They don’t run on capital, they don’t run on labor. Economies run on ideas. (Then why economy is still reliant on cheap oil and gas?)

So the work of innovation, the work of coming up with new ideas, is some of the most powerful, some of the most fundamental work that we can do in an economy.

And this is kind of how we used to do innovation. We’d find a bunch of fairly similar-looking people we’d take them out of elite institutions, we’d put them into other elite institutions, and we’d wait for the innovation.

As a white guy who spent his whole career at MIT and Harvard, I got no problem with this.

But some other people do, and they’ve kind of crashed the party and loosened up the dress code of innovation. 

So here are the winners of a Top Coder programming challenge, and I assure you that nobody cares where these kids grew up, where they went to school, or what they look like. All anyone cares about is the quality of the work, the quality of the ideas.

11:07 And over and over again, we see this happening in the technology-facilitated world.

The work of innovation is becoming more open, more inclusive, more transparent, and more merit-based, and that’s going to continue no matter what MIT and Harvard think of it, and I couldn’t be happier about that development.

11:25 I hear once in a while, “Okay, I’ll grant you that, but technology is still a tool for the rich world, and what’s not happening, these digital tools are not improving the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid.”

And I want to say to that very clearly: nonsense. The bottom of the pyramid is benefiting hugely from technology. The economist Robert Jensen did this wonderful study a while back where he watched, in great detail, what happened to the fishing villages of Kerala, India, when they got mobile phones for the very first time, and when you write for the Quarterly Journal of Economics, you have to use very dry and very circumspect language, but when I read his paper, I kind of feel Jensen is trying to scream at us, and say, look, this was a big deal.

Prices stabilized, so people could plan their economic lives. Waste was not reduced; it was eliminated. And the lives of both the buyers and the sellers in these villages measurably improved.

Now, what I don’t think is that Jensen got extremely lucky and happened to land in the one set of villages where technology made things better. What happened instead is he very carefully documented what happens over and over again when technology comes for the first time to an environment and a community.

The lives of people, the welfares of people, improve dramatically.

12:40 So as I look around at all the evidence, and I think about the room that we have ahead of us, I become a huge digital optimist, and I start to think that this wonderful statement from the physicist Freeman Dyson is actually not hyperbole.

This is an accurate assessment of what’s going on. Our digital — our technologies are great gifts, and we, right now, have the great good fortune to be living at a time when digital technology is flourishing, when it is broadening and deepening and becoming more profound all around the world.

13:10 The droids are taking our jobs, but focusing on that fact misses the point entirely.

The point is that then we are freed up to do other things, and what we are going to do, I am very confident, what we’re going to do is reduce poverty and drudgery and misery around the world. (If these were to happen, they would have been proven in the data and the world would not be in such a dismal condition. And I’m not talking rates and ratio, but actual numbers)

I’m very confident we’re going to learn to live more lightly on the planet, and I am extremely confident that what we’re going to do with our new digital tools is going to be so profound and so beneficial that it’s going to make a mockery out of everything that came before.

I’m going to leave the last word to a guy who had a front row seat for digital progress, our old friend Ken Jennings. I’m with him. I’m going to echo his words: “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared this link on FB.
Robots and algorithms are getting good at jobs like building cars, writing articles, translating.
Jobs that once required a human. So what will we humans do for work?
Andrew McAfee walks through recent labor data to say: We ain’t seen nothing yet. But then he steps back to look at big history, and…|By Andrew McAfee




January 2023

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