Monday, April 20, 2015

An unknowable Social Future that will certainly be Different



So let’s assume that from here on out, money is going to rule. Accepting that as fact liberates the mind to the reality of what is likely to arrive in the developed countries rather more quickly than we might imagine. By ‘developed,’ I define the term as wealthy, industrial, technological and consumer-based nations.

Those of us (and I have been among them) who rail against the inequity of the 1% and commiserate with the left behind may be beating a tired drum that will never lead another marching band. We’re wrong to look backward when the sand is shifting under our feet at an unprecedented rate. And if there is truly no looking back, then what lies ahead? A Blade-Runner world? Unending chaos? Not likely.

But we may come frighteningly close during the transition and it won’t be pretty. Political and social response to those changes is unknowable, so I’ll not pretend to know. Who would have thought that in a scant fifty years the same Africa that spread the word of John Kennedy’s assassination by drums from tribe to tribe, would now be awash in cell phones?

There’s no avoiding the fact that work and jobs, as we know those terms, will most probably disappear at such a rate as to change the very nature of employment. The jobs issue is politically and socially a mirage, as robots take over service industries, clean our streets, bake our bread and even drive our cars. War, that historic job-creator of last resort is fast becoming manpower-less, opting for drones rather than boots on the ground. Wall Street forsakes eager and hopeful MBAs, favoring computer programmers. Investors these days, faced with a world awash in cash, skim hundreds of billions in earnings from micro-trades accomplished instantly by algorithms replacing traders.

The evidence is overwhelming. Amazon.com meets more and more sales with fewer and fewer employees and has just recently been approved by the government to experiment with drone-delivery. Legal firms may soon replace their non-partner lawyers with algorithm-enabled litigation (you just knew there would be an upside somewhere). Airliners already have little need for human pilots and computer codes don’t commit suicide (so far as we know).

So the scene is set for a movie we’ve never sat-through before and we’ll either modify our society or the reality of social chaos will modify it for us. Not a pretty picture—and quite probably more Blade Runner than It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart is dead and gone and a knowable society based on the past is gone as well. It may well turn out to be a wonderful life, but there’s a lot of mind-bending change needed to get us there.

Mind-bending change is not in vogue at the moment, other than in a technical world that promises to make Apple the first trillion-dollar company. Who would have guessed that a few years ago? Google is a mere seventeen years old and yet is life really imaginable without Google-search and mapping?

Each day promises more and more of less and less (smartphones and search), raising questions we’ve never thought to ask or even contemplate:

What is wealth and conversely, how do we define poverty in this brave new world? Is wealth and poverty solely defined by money or other values entirely? We know the money-based wealth and poverty. It’s been with us for as long as money itself and, if we’ve chosen to ignore it, at least we understood the issues as we struggled with them.

But if we sail off into the uncharted waters of no longer working (as we always defined work) and are no longer rewarded for that work (as we once defined reward), what then? These are existential questions, not unlike the layers of an onion. Peel back that and this unexpectedly appears to bite us in the ankle.

What serves as reward, when work itself changes at both the top and bottom of society? That calls into question our definition of money itself. Is the interest on money viable under a new and broader understanding of currency? How do we cope and, at the same time, reward achievement while supporting a growing and largely idle society? I don’t have answers for that.

But merely because the questions have not been asked doesn’t mean the need for solutions will not arise—and quickly--probably way more quickly than we dare to imagine.

While we fiddle and argue over minimum wages and the offshoring of jobs, debate the power of the 1%, watch the middle class disappear into the sunset, wrangle over environmental issues and agonize over white police shooting unarmed blacks, the very ground beneath us is shifting.

This is not about the fairness of Walton family wealth, the ignorance of a locked down and paid-for Congress, who will be the next President, the resurgence of our rust-belt cities, quality of schooling, gay and lesbian rights, conservatives, liberals, environmentalists, terrorists, gun rights or immigration. This conversation is about a sea-change in what we do as a working, energetic and hopeful society.

What we do has always been how we define ourselves as individuals. The methods by which we search out (or don’t) and find answers (or don’t) to this new and as yet unknown territory will define us as a nation for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.

Where does one run during a metaphoric earthquake? What happens when the toilets don’t flush? Buildings, bridges, roads and economies collapse upon the rich as well as the poor. Where do we turn when we can’t pay the mortgage or rent? What happens across our entire social structure when a consumer-driven economy no longer generates the ability to consume? Bread lines? Soup kitchens? Suicides?

These are now (and will more quickly become) pressing issues for both the haves and have-nots. We’re in this together. Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be an unknowable ride in this 21st century.

A Chinese proverb says “may you live in interesting times.” We’re about to test the context of that proverb.