THOSE WERE THE DAYS
The art above is speculative fiction. It shows an exhibit at a future museum of technology – a series of dioramas – showing life in the “late” Holocene epoch. The first three are closeups, but in the fourth, we step back to also include a sentient machine and its “child” taking in the show.
In scene one, we see the good old days when (insert US president’s name here) was in charge. Everything was better then. Jobs for life, home cooked meals, etc. You belonged somewhere, that was good. You knew your place, less so. Almost everyone thought they made enough money. This economy seemed to please more people than the more recent ones have.
But a couple of things happened: first, technology made work more efficient; second, new ways of making money were developed. and, because of those, not surprisingly, those in power/wealth got more powerful/wealthy. Enough so that the social governors (regulations, laws, unions, churches) that had at times in the recent past controlled them no longer could. The very poor –those excluded from the actual and potential benefits of belonging to a society– have always been depressingly unhappy. With the ever-increasing concentration of power/wealth in an ever smaller cohort more and more of the not so poor are also becoming depressingly sad and perhaps more depressing, angry.
With new tech (simple machines, at first) workers could make more stuff in the same time or the same amount of stuff could be made with fewer workers. Management tried the more stuff approach first; advertising and credit cards were used to get workers to buy more stuff. But that could only go so far, and profits plateaued. So the fewer workers plan was tried. Profits were still flat, management was not happy. The now unemployed workers weren’t either, but thanks for asking.
Flat profits made the addicted-to-growth management look for new ways to make money. Whereupon they discovered that they could still move money around and still skim some off the top each time it changed hands without that messy workers making and buying stuff thing. Now that money-making was not tied to a real marketplace there were no limits to how much could be made. This, with only a stumble or two, seems to be working out pretty good for them.
But management in its quest to maximize efficiency (eliminate workers) needed those simple machines get more complex – smarter – to do more complex jobs as all the simple jobs have been already been gotten rid of. Eventually, there were no humans left to eliminate but management itself and the now smarter than management machines following their mandate did just that. You’d have thought management would have seen that coming, wouldn’t you?
So far the top three images all seem logical, don’t they? But the fourth diorama is more controversial; a more conventional scenario would have been that 21st-century management would be like 16th century Europeans landing in the Americas armed with newer tech would wipe out the workers and make that land their own. But here we see what would be the case if the managers’ newer tech had dulled their basic survival skills and they were no match for the well-adapted to the new landscape – and possibly still pissed off – workers they had let go.
Neither this fourth scene nor the alternative is the end of us. There is a fifth unseen diorama where we, either the workers or the management, have invented the labor saving (destroying?) tech and politics all over again; that’s what makes us human isn’t it? But this time it would be different because this time, we’d not be the apex predator; the machines we created would be that. And wouldn’t they see us as competitors or pests? Wouldn’t they just set out traps or organize hunts?
None of this would be good for us humans, but as we are in reality still moving from scene one to two, it’s not too late to try something different. Going back to the good old days won’t work because one person’s paradise can be another’s hell. We would have a difficult time deciding which paradise to recreate. We should try something else. Maybe instead of designing the ever more complex machines to be the best winner-take-all competitors in any and all fields we might try to program in some compassion, so when those machines do win – and it looks like they will – they’ll share.