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A Brave New World December 21, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: ,

As more and more sober people call attention to the fact that there is a dichotomy between the winners and losers of the information/technology economy, it’s still not at all clear that this issue is concerning or even recognized by those best in a position to do something about it.  Many of us are operating under the impression that advances are universally good, and that attempts to slow or stop such advances are universally bad.

I am not at all sure that the future of society will take care of itself. I am reminded of the old Sydney Harris cartoon, below:


We advance technology because it is fun, it is intellectually invigorating, and it will make us money. We acknowledge that in many cases we are disrupting the established order, and that in significant cases we may be the proximate cause of eliminating jobs and even entire industries.  We justify that by saying that other jobs will arise to replace them.

Probably true; almost certainly true. But that process could take years, even decades.  In the meantime, many lives will be disrupted as jobs and lifestyles disappear without a clear way forward.

We justify that by saying that every adult needs to be a lifetime learner, and become accustomed to multiple career shifts over the course of a lifetime. Again, true.  But some are more capable at this than others, for a wide variety of reasons.

Well, those who are left behind deserve to be, right? Here is where the logic starts to break down.  In a strict economic sense, that may be correct.  But economics only models society at large, and only loosely (yes, I know the difference between macro and micro).  Forces other than economics are at work, and economists don’t seem to want to model those forces at all.  And the end result seems to be coming as a surprise to many.

In 1968, psychologist Garrett Hardin defined “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  He noted that when there was a shared interest in a limited resource, it was in every person’s self-interest to use as much of that resource as they could, thus destroying the resource for all.

What we have in society today is possibly approaching a tragedy of the commons. That’s not to say that economic value is a fixed resource, but however we grow it, it is finite.  If all use the value to the best of their abilities, some will achieve great wealth.  Others will lose out.

I strongly believe in advances in technology, and in capitalism. In general they benefit society, and make it wealthier and more secure in the aggregate.  I also strongly believe in democratic processes.  Others are welcome to disagree with my beliefs in technology and capitalism.

Beyond the intellectual simulation and possibilities for profit, we in technology largely believe that we are building a better society. There are those who disagree with us, with some justification.  The disagreements between these two forces may be getting closer to a head.  If there is confrontation, I have no doubt that many of us will be among the first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

To be clear, I’m copasetic with being one of the haves (relatively speaking) in a have/have-not society (I also realize that society can turn on me in a heartbeat). I’m not nearly as copasetic with helping to create (in a very minor sense, but still) the have-nots.  We can do better, and it is in our personal, economic, and societal interest to do better.

I wonder what Ayn Rand would say.



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