Seeing through the Mirror

Planning for Tomorrow, not Yesterday

I’ve taken to “Medium” a few times now and it is a wonderful outlet for me to get my thoughts and feelings out on different topics. So far, I’ve written about childhood bullying, animal rights, property rights, race relations and gender equality among other topics. Writing about these topics has forced me to really think through these issues more than I had previously.

  • A Good and Wise Steward

My professional life for the most part has had no direct link whatsoever to these articles that I’ve written. I am a licensed civil engineer and have been working in the planning/design/construction world for nearly a quarter century. I’m currently a program controls manager for a large, tax-payer-funded construction program — overseeing schedule and budget. This suits me. I care about the proper use of tax dollars because I understand that we live in a world of limited-resources. Money that might be wasted during the inefficient construction of a school building, for example, could ultimately impact the ability of a school district to continue paying for a needed teacher. (Yes, there are “color of money” issues regarding which funds can pay for which types of costs, but there are also often ways to legally shell-game some costs between funds, with limitations of course.)

Outside of my work, I feel the same way about wanting to protect tax dollars — simply as a citizen. I may or may not agree with a given program that our elected representatives put forth, but I like to believe there is a common denominator across all political leanings that regardless of whichever tax-payer funded program is being implemented, optimizing those dollars in a way that most benefits the tax-payer should be a basic building block in each political philosophy.

It has been said frequently (but not frequently enough in my opinion) that a budget is a moral document. A group of people will often talk about what they care about, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding. The things they TRULY care about get funded. When our governments pass a budget, we are prioritizing one need over another. We might care about our veterans and we may care about an expanded convention center, but ultimately, we can see just how much we care about each in comparison to each other — on a quantitative and measurable level in the budget. Yes, it can be a bit more nuanced and complicated than that, but in the end, the hard numbers mean something.

If a budget is a moral document, the listing of tax-payer funds and initiatives is sacred text. Perhaps there may be justifiable reasons to stray from the text at times, but this needs to be done via transparent procedures, and ultimately the spirit of the text at least should prevail. Those elected officials and stewards of the public trust who betray that trust and misuse tax-payer money (or knowingly misrepresent the need for it) are clear “heretics” in this analogy. (The term “heretic” does not have the negative connotations for me that it does for many. In this case, however, I imply the negativity.)

But being a good steward of tax payer money needs to go far beyond just avoiding corruption. A good steward is smart. She recognizes that we live in a resource-limited world (currently at least) and it isn’t good enough just to go off the old playbook. She does not plan for the past. She plans for the future, and this means imagining the future. Studying the past and “how we’ve done it for years” is important, but hitching our wagon to the old ways of doing things will not optimize our move forward. A good steward of tax payer funds aims to “see through the mirror” — to see what the world ahead of us is likely to look like and to plan as best as one can for that world. The forces that would have us look only backwards are strong but they cannot help us.

  • Scientific / Technological Change

So how are we to imagine the future? (Enter stage right: the star-trek-geek version of the author). I have loved science fiction since my childhood — ever since first seeing Captain Kirk and Spock beam through space in their snazzy yellow and blue shirts. The dreaming about the future, of time travel, of other life forms spurred on by Star Trek and other shows was the caffeine jolt for my imagination. (I could truly geek-out here for several more paragraphs on Star Trek, but I will restrain myself.)

What I find most amazing (and interesting) about science fiction, is its ability to hold out a yard stick by which real life is measured. It throws out seemingly bizarre science fiction ideas that scientists then work towards. Today, so much science fiction is science fact. Cell phones, intelligent vacuum robots, self-driving cars, and drones are just some examples of things first dreamed up in cerebral cortexes years before becoming reality. (If you have not seen it, I strongly recommend the Science Channel’s television series “Prophets of Science Fiction” regarding this topic.)

Even things that seemed so outlandishly on the “fiction” side of “science fiction” are slowly being walked towards the center of that phrase. Recent technological advances and discoveries have provided a warp drive for scientific advancement and development. Even one of the craziest sci-fi ideas, “beam me up, Scotty” teleportation, has seen significant scientific development (albeit with limitations).

Furthermore, people are re-imagining what they’ve known. Steve Jobs helped create the personal computer as we know it. He did this in an era when home computers, cell phones, and Walkman’s (personal music devices, for those under 20 years of age) were each distinct devices. He stepped outside of these boundaries and imagined a device that could be all three… and more… and the iPhone was born. This was revolutionary thinking that destroyed certain industries, but has spurred faster and more efficient means of sharing information.

  • Putting it Together

All stewards of tax-payer money (from city planners to the head of the United Nations) need to develop their re-imaging skills. For all the importance of a STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education, the ability to develop creativity and out-of-the-box thinking is perhaps most essential in our schools. We need to be able to snap out of our current limitations and start seeing and planning around the corner.

Just as it would not have been wise to invest in a Blockbuster Video franchise at the advent of streaming video as a successful means for entertainment delivery, it may not be wise to invest billions of dollars in roadway widenings when proven self-driving and inter-connected vehicle technology already exists, is likely on the cusp of exploding on the market, and can make drastically more efficient use of the lanes that we already have. Perhaps that money could be better spent elsewhere… making room for other needs in our moral document.

Last year, I started a Technology Committee in my local San Diego chapter of APWA (American Public Works Professionals). I find that I leave each meeting energized because I’m surrounded by likeminded people who share an interest in getting the public-works industry to learn from the fast-paced world of technological change. We meet with local tech firms, learn about cutting edge technologies, and we take that back to our greater group — finding areas of overlap with what we do as public-works professionals. Our mission is to research, educate, and advocate for new technologies and ways of doing things. A short portion of each of our meetings is a brainstorming session focused specifically on developing our creative thinking as a group.

It should be a given that we as citizens must aim to elect stewards that will not be corrupt or solely self-serving when dealing with our collective money and will revere what it represents. Admittedly, this appears to be a surprisingly big ask at times given numerous local and national political scandals in the news daily. Such a bar though is way too low. We need elected official who truly care about the communities they serve AND ALSO are able to apply around-the-corner thinking.

And this isn’t just about self-driving cars. The technological curve has shot up so quickly that it may in some circumstances be exponential. Technological change is fast-paced, in our face, and in nearly every asset of our lives. And it isn’t just elected officials that need to “get woke” on this topic. We as the citizenry need to understand how our environment is changing around us and below our feet, or we run the risk of losing ourselves to nostalgia — focusing our energy on a time when our skills were more relevant, a time when we were “great”. Despite talk of making ourselves “great again”, this cannot happen with a focus on the past. Yesterday is gone and is not coming back. The world continues to change. Fast kerosene-lamp-lighting skills kept you gainfully employed 130 years ago. Today, you may get a job as an “extra” actor in an 1880’s period-drama if you are lucky.

  • Steadying for the Wave

I don’t believe that many of our officials really grasp just how different our near future is likely to be. I attended an economic forum about a year ago and listened to three local economists discuss the anticipated job growth and they each projected a continued, slow-and-steady recovery from the economic cliff-dive of 10 years prior. Towards the tail end of the Q&A session, I asked a question that I was somewhat surprised no one had yet asked, “How do you think artificial intelligence (AI) will affect the job market and the greater economy?”. One did not respond, but the consensus of the other two went something like this: “Yes, yes, we’ve heard the doom & gloom predictions about AI, but people have been concerned about technology displacing human jobs ever since the industrial age began. Although machines have replaced some lower-skilled labor jobs, we adapt and people still seem to find a way to survive and even thrive. For every job that is lost, we invent a new job that can take its place.” The event was wrapping up so I did not push back against that response as I wanted to.

The truth is that technology has long replaced the brunt of physical labor on the farm and the factory floor. That has been conceded by all for decades. But it is not just manual labor jobs anymore. As a civil engineer, I can attest to software programs that run nearly any calculation I needed to make during my exams in school. The army of drafters that architects might have hired 30 years ago has been replaced by a far smaller group of professionals who know how to operate specific drafting computer programs. As these programs have gotten more algorithmically sophisticated, they can now identify clashes between design parts, virtually build the building for you on the screen in 3-D, and even assist with the construction scheduling and cost estimating at the same time. This does not require more people. It requires less people, but with more knowledge of the technology. Where does this leave the run-of-the-mill civil engineer or architect? It leaves her either out of a job or panic-stricken to get into the upper echelon of technological knowledge in order to keep her job. Ultimately, though, there are simply less seats at the table.

Even the whitest of white-collar jobs are threatened. Wall street is essentially run by computer program. The number of floor traders at the New York Stock Exchange is 15% of what it was 30–40 years ago. Where do those folks go? Maybe some adapt and can ride the technology, but again, chairs have been pulled from the table. Well, what about the legal and medical professions? Read these two articles and call me in the morning:

The trend is the same for those professions as well. People need to be one of the few experts who know how to successfully interact with artificial intelligence or they will eventually be replaced by it.

Throw in the solid projections that self-driving cars will decimate the cab and trucking industries (and potentially some public transit options) — potentially within the next decade, and it should not be hard to see that the job-loss wave for which we need to steady ourselves is a tsunami.

Will new jobs pop up that will help people to earn a living? I presume so, but I do not expect that these will be in sufficient quantity to address the problem in any real way. Our adaptive thinking skill — our ability to learn so many things on the fly — which has helped us humans to evolve to the heights that we have is on the verge of losing its differentiator status. Putting aside nuanced semantics regarding the definition of “learning”, machines can already learn… and they can learn to learn. As this skill develops, it will be very hard to compete.

Luckily there are some leaders who are anticipating this likelihood and its impact on the average person. Some of these are researching different possibilities and even experimenting with universal income. Ultimately, the lean seems to be towards a more socialistic distribution of the wealth, but who will be earning the wealth and is it appropriate to tax someone 95% of their income to cover the cost of those who are without employment? There are many questions that arise here and the discussion resides in the deep-end of the political pool — drenched in political positioning.

Regardless of which side you take in that argument, I think people fail to understand that this tidal wave will do enormous damage to both the capitalism and the socialism sand castles on the beach. It is likely that the “capitalism vs socialism” arguments are about to get usurped and outdated quicker than people might expect. The ~170 years of arguments regarding the best way to organize our economies and societies have been monumental in building our current political landscape, and it all indeed could be made moot within decades.

Two building blocks of both systems have historically been property/resources and human labor. Artificial intelligence is set to clear the chess board on human labor, and it is difficult to see how this will impact property and resources. The presumption of many is that the few people who will be able to “control the robots” will hold all property and resources. Everyone else would be left to fend for themselves. Such a scenario is highly dystopian for most, and most likely unsustainable without frequent bloodshed.

I think these changes will force us to re-imagine the whole concept of money. Bitcoin and others are dipping their toes in that water now. I don’t know if they will ultimately be successful, but I like that they are pushing the conversation. The idea of money backed by gold is also soon-to-be outdated in my view. If there is truly a global catastrophic event, I expect that paper money will likely become worthless, and do you really think gold is something that people will be clamoring for? People will be looking for things that are useful to them now — computer chips, mobile phones, solar panels, water, and access to information. In light of expected changes to our economy alone (even without a worldwide disaster), I find the argument that gold will be effective as a stable basis for a money-standard going forward wholly unconvincing.

Let’s go one step further. If the rug is to get pulled from under capitalism due in part to minimal opportunities for human labor, and the form money itself might take is still up for debate, perhaps it may be best to imagine a world where money is not needed — at least not in the same way it is needed now. I am not saying this in a “hippy-let’s-go-live-on-a-commune-and-talk-about-the-evils-of-corporate-powers” way. I am saying this in a “this-might-be-the-best-chance-for-human-survival” way.

The best answer I see is heavy investment now in renewable energy production and distribution. I see this as one of the best ways we have to prepare for the likely huge increase in unemployment. Instead of curtailing technological advancement to try to keep jobs for people, why not focus on the flip side? Take away the assumption that people will need money to survive. If a strong renewable energy infrastructure is in place and not constricted, the price of energy will be driven down so low as to be nearly free. If energy is nearly free, then the high-energy demand of water desalination from our oceans becomes an even smaller economic barrier, leading clean drinking water prices to be driven down towards free. If you have nearly free energy, you have air conditioning in hot places and heat in cold places for nearly free. With nearly free energy and water, you have nearly free food. Now it still might not be fun to be unemployed in the future, but if we play our cards right, it need not be a death knell.

Of course, there are challenges to reaching the above scenario. Corporate interests that benefit from fossil fuels and others will fight it. Distribution will not likely reach everyone equally, thereby perpetuating poverty in some areas over others. Even investment in such a renewable energy infrastructure itself will be a challenge, given that such an infrastructure is only successful when it is ultimately providing energy for next to nothing. Not much return on investment in that case. These issues, however, are things we can address IF we have the right people involved in addressing them.

This is my call to all of us to look at our mirrors differently when we next stare at them. Understand that there are so many social and psychological pressures involved in getting us to look backward and to think how we thought in the past. Be one of those people who can peer through and see the future. Then plan for it, act, and make it. (And despite the gutter-low bar of some of our political discourse, it will only be raised when we demand it to be so.)