“The world will change more in the next 30 years than it did in the last 3000″ says Jim Clark, founder of the World Technology Network and curator of the World Technology Awards. Changes he claims will affect “every sphere of human existence” and “challenge what it means to be human”. In his opinion, a world-changing metamorphosis is near-inevitable, but what emerges from the chrysalis is still within our influence. How this could be achieved is the basis of his talk, the “Manifesto for a New Civilisation”; a challenge to rethink global society from the ground up.
As he tells this story, Clark stands at the podium in the small, windowless lecture theatre at Time Fortune’s European headquarters looking exhausted. Just back from five days in the smoke filled rooms at Davos (more on this later) he opts to read from a script rather than bound about the stage as if delivering a TED talk. As such, his cadence is more Church of England Vicar than Televangelist, which somehow suits the gravity of the message he’s delivering.
He starts with a fact that many in the comfortable West know but throw into private memory holes; that each year almost a billion people go hungry while we launch robots into the ether to explore alien worlds. From this he takes us on a whistlestop tour of the bleeding edge of science and technology advances. Additive manufacturing, personalised healthcare, molecular printers, cyptocurrencies, programmable matter, life extension, AI, robotics, biohacking and so forth.
Within each field there are continual developments and breakthroughs going on all the time, largely unknown to all but the most serious nerds. For example, he recently attended a conference in which he witnessed joint plans by DARPA and NASA to build an interstellar starship by end of century, yet few of the public outside the endeavour and its immediate fans would know this. Likewise, he talks of an asteroid that contains more platinum than has been extracted from the Earth in it’s entire history (around $20 trillion worth), which has now been identified for mining by startup Planetary Resources.
As the founder of the world’s premier technology network, Clark is in a better position than most to understand how far these assorted technologies have developed behind the scenes, and how they will converge in the coming decades. Nevertheless, some singularity staples he mentioned do cause one to raise a skeptical eyebrow. One is “downloading / uploading minds” and the other is “teleportation”, the objections to both being as much philosophical as they are technological. So putting on my skeptic hat for a moment, while I could attempt to delve into these claims in greater depth, I will refrain from doing so here. Not because he gets a free pass on these seemingly questionable statements, but because this isn’t what his talk is about and doesn’t change the overall picture he is trying to paint. One of runaway technological evolution within the context a stark and growing global class divide and the extinction event of our own making.
“The Wrong Path”
The calls the direction in which the world hurtles, with a certain understatement “The Wrong Path” and brands it “unsustainable & morally indefensible”. To Clark, we face a dystopia in which we are lorded over by near-immortal transhumans while the bottom billions scrape by in cyberpunk squalor in the ruins of the Old Ecology. After all, hi-tech medical devices that extend the life of the hyper-rich is already a trend. Supervillian Dick Cheney for instance, doesn’t even have a pulse due to a hi-tech gadget called a “ventricular assist device” that permanently circulates blood around his husk of a body, negating the need for a heartbeat altogether.
This sinister singularity looms on the horizon like the Eye of Sauron, but steering away from is not a matter of abandoning technology, which is morally agnostic, but a matter of addressing systemic problems in human organisation and its relationship with itself and the planet. Clark tells us that according to the UN, it takes one 1 year and six months to regenerate the resources we collectively use in a year. In 15 years that will shrink to two years. One doesn’t need to be a whiz in mathematics to see where this is going.
The sticking plaster approach of large scale philanthropy, Clark believes, is destined to fail. He points to observations made by Peter Buffet (son of Warren) of what goes down at gatherings of the heads of these mega-charities. “Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.” Buffet refers to this Iannucci-esque comedy of incompetence as as “conscience laundering”.
Clark argues that current answers from all points on the political spectrum are “not up to the scale of the problem”. Indeed, he sees the entire political spectrum being made redundant in the very near future, and the emergence of “new political parties across a new political axis”. Broadly speaking, he sees these as being luddite vs futurist (interestingly reminiscent of Robert Anton Wilson’s Neophobes vs. Neophiles). One does not need to look far to see evidence of our current politics redundancy.
Observe the current political spectrum in Britain, which is essentially a single political class with different focus group and marketing departments. Or all three pixels of the US political spectrum with its the distressingly comic political smackdowns that seem to have been scripted by Vince McMahon. Let us just hope that the new political parties to bubble up have a stronger ethical compass than the The Pirate Party, or are not a reinvention of age old prejudices like the worryingly trendy Archeofuturist and Neoreactionary movements, the latter of which want to exalt genetic royalty and adopt Dune-style techno-feudalism.
Startup Culture for Civilisation
Clark doesn’t have the answer per-se, but what he does have however is a framework in which to help us find one, and this is the nub of his talk. This name of this new framework, destined to become a classic in Conspiracy Theory literature, is “The Decagon”. As he unveils the idea, a blue powerpoint slide appears behind him that shows ten nodes, each representing an important facet of human experience. Food and Environment, Health, Arts, Science and Technology and so forth. (He even includes Religion and Spirituality, to troll easily angered atheists.) Within the sandbox of the Decagon he hopes to encourage grassroots cultural experimentation and remixing of ideas. How this cultural experimentation will look was more fuzzily defined, but he sees it as something akin to agile development as applied to social organisation; rapid rounds of iteration and failing fast and cheap. Startup culture for civilisation.
Notably The Decagon has no centre, but is meant to demonstrate that in order to develop a solution to problems affecting one node, we must calculate how it will impact the other nine; “each must look through the lens of the other”. He hopes the Decagon will enable us to create a synthesis of all ten aspects of human experience; where mutual understanding between different spheres leads to more balanced approaches to the epic problems we face.
He has already hinted that his colleagues at the WTN have used it to developed 30 new ideas to deal with global hunger at Davos. None of them, he cryptically remarked, had anything to do with the food supply, but we are to stay tuned for what they are in an upcoming report. He also said religion and science could together explore what he calls “the machinery of the divine” and attempt to reach a common understanding. To do so, he argues, we must be open to the continual reinvention of our religions structures and scientific paradigms, and letting go of entrenched ideas both sacred and secular (whilst also presumably staying true to empirical reality). Is this possible in a world where many secular activists believe religion and science are “non overlapping magisteria?” Despite highly public bunfights and mutually wilful misunderstandings I am hopeful that this may one day be the case.
The Decagon may not have been the silver bullet the audience sought, but Clark is frank about this being a work in progress idea, one undergoing rapid prototyping itself and to be and iterated as he takes onboard feedback from events such as this, and fleshed out in his forthcoming book. As alluded to earlier, he’s also been bouncing these same ideas off of business and political leaders at one of the world’s most prestigious networking events, the World Economic Forum. They were happy to discuss these ideas at the metaphorical bar, but less so in an official capacity. He says those he spoke to could be split into two broad categories. Firstly the “delusionists” who adopt a talk-to-the-hand attitude about how they will be impacted, and the “denialists”who acknowledge issues and are willing to discuss them, but want to keep the gravy chain chugging along. The fact that this second group even exists is in Clark’s view a good thing. Last year, the same ideas at Davos were “fringe” and “edgy” and that this year he was pleased to see how they had spread and conversations were starting to happen more openly.
The Luddite Fallacy?
One of the reason for these conversations starting to happen is that business-as-usual is stubbornly failing to rematerialise after 2008′s banking crash, and that technological unemployment is not panning out to be “a temporary phase of maladjustment” as Keynes wrote in 1930. In the long view, new roles for humans are not being created as fast as they are being displaced. Economists have long scoffed at what they call the “Luddite Fallacy” and argued that new jobs will always be created to replace those lost. That might be the case. It might not. But Libertarians and lovers of the free market should not be so fast to elevate the Luddite Fallacy to a logical rather than economic one.
It is one thing when Luddite Cassandra's panic about being displaced by machines, but now leaders from Silicon Valley are raising the same concerns. This week, Bill Gates has publicly stated that he is concerned that people do not grasp just how many jobs will be taken by machines. In his book “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” the technologist Martin Ford also argues that we will soon reach what he calls “peak jobs” and that;
“Accelerating automation technology will ultimately invade many of the industries that have traditionally been labor intensive. Additionally, the process of creative destruction will destroy old industries and create new ones, and very few of these new industries are likely to be labor intensive. As a result, the overall economy will become less labor intensive and ultimately reach a “tipping point”. Beyond this point, the economy will no longer be able to absorb the workers who lose jobs due to automation: businesses will instead invest primarily in more machines.”
We can see evidence of this everywhere. Recently there was a Tube Strike in progress in London that is rooted in ticket offices being replaced by robots , with a net job loss of 750. Air traffic controllers in France have long since protected their entire profession being replaced by essentially a vast machine run by artificial intelligence and little human involvement. While additive manufacturing (3D printing) will disrupt the manufacturing sector, it will do so at a time when large manufacturing itself is still evolving. Foxconn, the company at the centre of Apple’s manufacturing controversy, is planning to circumvent problems of staff conditions build the a new generation of “lights out factories”, vast machines that dispense with the need for human workers altogether. This will result in the losses of half a million jobs at Foxconn alone. News has recently emerged that Google may be helping them bring this idea to life. If their current feeding frenzy of robotics and AI companies is anything to go by, many more professions will be going the way of the chimney sweep in the coming decades.
Within our lifetimes, is it possible that we may see the majority of jobs in the primary (raw materials), secondary (manufacturing), tertiary (service) sectors and even many in the quaternary (knowledge) sectors go to machines? Technological unemployment has been a theme of western society since at least the Industrial Revolution, but it has been supercharged in these exponential times. As they must, Trade Unions swim again the tide of accelerated technological transformation by striking whenever their jobs become threatened, but in the context of Clark’s oncoming “phase change” they seem like so many Amish trying to preserve a bygone age.
Protests from Cairo to Kiev have demanded “jobs” to ease chronic unemployment, as if they can be conjured into existence by a ruling elite who are seemingly out of their depth, and fearful of the strange, unprecedented leaderless revolutions that are themselves a symptom of technological change. With the phase change comes opportunities, but also perils. The revolutions of the Arab Spring have had a worrying Animal Farm theme to them, by-and large propagating the same old hierarchical systems with different types of conceptual decoration. This is perhaps because the issues we are grappling with run deeper that ideology, into the bare bones of group psychology and emergent human interaction. Two all-human traits, selfishness and empathy, grind against one another like fault lines, leading us to love our own tribe, friends or nation while channelling selfishness on group level to explosive effect. These problems are seemingly endemic to the human experience. No idea yet devised has managed to save us from ourselves.
It is hard not to sound hyperbolic when you lay out the stakes. In terms of geological time, humanity is still in the midst of its origin story; a species yet to settle of its final form. Like our eusocial cousins the hive insects, the form we take could come to define us for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years, be that confined to this one world, or spreading across the solar system and beyond. We would be well advised to fear what we are becoming, but be hopeful that for now at least, we still have the opportunity to change it.