Technology drives change. And, by definition, change turns the world upside down. So it takes a perfectly good blue-blood nobleman and turns him into a pauper. It takes a king and, at best, makes him a ceremonial figurehead with no real power. It takes a shepherd and makes him a laborer, hopefully a member of the middle-class or, occasionally, a capitalist. And so, in the end, technology, as a bringer of change, is about politics. Because, as my undegraduate textbook defined it, politics is about “who gets what, from whom, under what conditions, and for what purpose.”
To those who know history this is no revelation. Every time we’ve had a technological change we’ve had both social and political change. Karl Marx was but one of a few who has pointed out that our socio-economic system, and therefore our politics, is determined by and derived from the mode of production. That was the case with the Industrial Revolution when we replaced muscle power with artificial power. And it will be the case with the AI Revolution when we replace human intelligence with artificial intelligence.
So if you think that 4 million truck drivers going out of business because of self-driving vehicles is merely a limited technological change then you are fooling yourself. We are all truck drivers now. And it is not just a matter of education or re/training. It is a matter of time. And that is but the beginning of the most seismic political and therefore dangerous period of our civilization. The kind that will dwarf the previous Industrial and Agrarian Revolutions. And the signs are easy to see.
Take Brexit or the election of President Trump. Those are not just the misguided votes of the stupid and uneducated. They are the protest vote of the excluded, marginalized and disregarded millions of people who are struggling to make ends meet. The people who can’t connect with a cocooned LA multi-millionaire telling them we live in an age of abundance. Or hope to attend his elitist organization where a couple of months cost more than what they make per year. The people who couldn’t afford to care about “humanity’s grand challenges” because they know that feeding their families, paying their mortgage or medical bills, and sending their kids to school are their daily economic grand challenges. Now ad 4 million truck drivers. And keep adding more occupations and people. Millions of them. Where does this take us?
It takes us to politics.
Neoliberalism has failed. And it is no mere coincidence that it has failed worst where it all started – Ronald Reagan’s United States of America and Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom. Because the world order we live in was born in 1980 with the wholesale global introduction of Thatcher-ism and Reaganomics. And their ideological promises that:
A rising tide lifts all boats.
If the rich have more money, they will create more jobs.
Lower taxes will lead to more prosperity.
Increases in housing and stock market prices will increase prosperity for everyone.
Trade deals and globalization will make everyone better off.
These Laissez-faire neo-liberal promises turned out to be lies. It’s that simple. For most of the UK and US voting population the last 3 or 4 decades were either an experience of stagnation or an experience of decline. And that is why people have lost faith in mainstream media telling them that the economy has recovered. Or Silicon Valley millionaires telling them we live in a world of abundance. Because people can see for themselves.
Noone is too stupid to know if their lives are better today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. And no statistics, mass media or rose-glassed-books can change that reality for them. But politics can. And so it is natural to be compelled to take political action and vote away from the current system and personalities. Because it’s become abundantly clear the current system is a global casino where the people in charge have loaded the dice. Yes, a few can win this game every once-in-a-while and keep the myth that winning is possible but most are sure to lose. Because the casino never loses. And so voters desperately want to stop gambling and change the game to one where they can actually start winning. And are thus compelled to believe the sales pitches of political opportunists and demagogues who promise to reform the system. It is what happened in Germany and Italy after WWI. And the whole world paid a high price for it.
Economic polarization leads to discontent, social instability, upheaval, and eventually, if left unchecked, revolution. In fact, we know that economic polarization is arguably the best indicator for an impending revolution. And the statistics of the past 3 or 4 decades are pretty clear that the middle class is being decimated. And freedom and democracy follow economics. But economics follows technology. As Elon Musk said at the recent Asilomar Conference on Beneficial AI: “Freedom consists of the distribution of power and despotism in its concentration.”
So if you think that a few dozen people, controlling more data and more wealth, than any government ever has in the history of our civilization, is merely a technological change, think again. It is profoundly political because it ultimately is about the distribution, or rather the concentration, of power. More power than we have ever had in the history of the world. In fewer and fewer hands. And people have not failed to notice that this trend has coincided with an exponential explosion of technology. So, at the very least, it is by now pretty clear that technology on its own doesn’t necessarily have a positive effect on democracy or the standard of living. And that we need to have a few other factors in place to spread more evenly the accumulated surplus, rather than watch passively as it concentrates.
Peter Diamandis often talks about the coming of the world’s first trillionaires. And I have no doubt he is correct. Though I somehow fail to see this as a necessarily good thing for many others than those trillionaires. In fact, it is a clear sign of the further concentration Elon Musk was talking about. But there is another, more important trend happening at the same time.
In the past capital needed labor in order to perpetuate and multiply itself. Just as much as labor needed capital in order to earn wages. This long-standing mutual co-dependency gave bargaining power to labor and allowed for an equitable distribution of the consequently produced economic surplus. Which in turn gave us the most prosperous period of capitalism during which both capital and labor were benefiting from the above arrangement.
Today, a new era is beginning. An era, when with the rise or robotic automation and AI, the super rich can control not only capital but also labor. Thus human labor is no longer necessarily needed by capital, at least not at a price which would pay for AI and robots. But that price itself is constantly shrinking, while the cost of living is rising. So the incentives are clear. And the trends are not likely to change. To the point when trillionaires can literally build private armies of robot laborers and soldiers to do their bidding. And change doesn’t get more political than this.
So we are currently experiencing a backlash against the above trends. And yet it is easier for economists to see the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism as we know it. And Silicon Valley struggles to understand the rest of America that elected Donald Trump but insists that what both the USA and the world at large need is simply more of Silicon Valley. Failing to recognize the facts that California, with its crumbling infrastructure, environmental mismanagement and 20.6% of the population living in poverty, is hardly a good role model of anything.
Yes, the “Golden State”, where you have the highest congregation of both billionaires and high tech, is the nation’s poorest state. [See, for example, Un-American Dream] So clearly neither technology nor a large number of hyper-rich people are sufficient to make a difference for the public good. But yet poorer countries, with less technology and less wealth, somehow do. Then doesn’t it make more sense to be humble and seek lessons that California can learn from the rest of the world? Rather than push to export yourself abroad “to save the world.”
And most of those lessons California has to learn are, of course, not technological but political. Furthermore, every grand challenge that humanity has is, at some level, a political one. That is why the idea that Singularity University will “solve humanity’s grand challenges” within the current political realm is utterly self-serving and ridiculous. The new world will be new because it will not be just a bigger and better version of California’s prized horse – aka Silicon Valley. The new world will be fundamentally new because we’ll have to go beyond horses. So the idea that the coming exponentially disruptive change can occur without equally disruptive political, social and economic change is dangerously short-sighted or even delusional.
And, in a country where the presumption that those who don’t work don’t deserve to eat reigns unchallenged, things are only going to get more and more unstable in the face of further concentration of power, technological unemployment and economic polarization. And that is why not focusing on changing the current political and socio-economic paradigm but rather on “monetizing” it as much as possible, is not only selfish. In the long run, it might turn out to be potentially suicidal, not just for California, but for humanity in general.
So what do we do? Where do we begin?
Even the longest journey starts with a single step. In this case it is to recognize that technology is not enough. Because it is as much about politics as it is about technology. It always has been. And that the politics of the future is technology just as much as technology is the future of politics. And, most importantly, that we may get the technology right but if we get the politics wrong, then, we are all doomed. The sooner we wake up to that basic truth the better chance we have. Because if the current trends persist the people will likely rise up in revolt long before the machines do. They already have. Only next time the revolt may not be happening at the voting booth.
And while Rome is burning there is always someone having a party or trying to make money. Or both. So it is time to get very clear about our mission – be it personally or collectively: are we here to party, to make money or to put down the fire, build a new world order and make a dent in the universe?!…