The New Yorker reporter Mark Singer probably qualifies for the adjective “veteran” by now, having joined the magazine in 1974. He wrote a fine book, Funny Money, on the collapse of Penn State Oil in the 1980s. One effect of this long-service is that he’s written several profiles of Donald Trump along the way, which he’s drawn on for Trump & Me, a short book/long read based on the time he’s spent with The Donald. Here’s some notes and extracts:
[T]here is no “new” Trump, just as there was never a “new” Nixon. Rather, all along, there have been several Trumps: the hyperbole addict who prevaricates for fun and profit; the knowledgeable builder whose associates awe at his attention to detail; the narcissist whose self-absorption doesn’t account for his dead-on ability to exploit other people’s weaknesses; the perpetual seventeen-year-old who lives in a zero-sum world of winners and “total losers,” loyal friends and “complete scumbags”; the insatiable publicity hound who courts the press on a daily basis and, when he doesn’t like what he reads, attacks the messengers as “human garbage”; the chairman and largest stockholder of a billion-dollar public corporation who seems unable to resist heralding overly optimistic earnings projections, which then fail to materialize, thereby eroding the value of his investment.
Or, in one line,
both slippery and naive, artfully calculating and recklessly heedless of consequences.
I’ve got round to reading the New Scientist‘s 60th anniversary issue, published in November, which tries to look forward in the general direction of 2076. There are 14 short “What If…” essays, on everything from “What if we engineer new life forms?” (we’ll need a ‘kill’ switch) to “What if we found a theory of everything?” (it’s a very slow train coming) to “What if we discover room temperature super conductivity?” (it would utterly transform our energy systems).
In this post I’m going to review some of the essays on themes that futurists spend more time on, and pull out some of the ideas.
1. What if we create human-level artificial intelligence?
Toby Walsh, who’s a professor of AI at UNSW Australia, starts by saying that in line with other researchers, he thinks we’re 30-40 years away from AI achieving superhuman intelligence. But he’s sceptical of a singularity, for a number of reasons I haven’t seen rehearsed as clearly elsewhere.
- The “fast-thinking dog” argument: “Intelligence depends on … years of experience and training. It is not at all clear that we can short-circuit this in silicon simply by increasing the clock speed or adding more memory.
- The anthropocentric argument: “The singularity argument supposes human intelligence is some special point to pass, some sort of tipping point… If there’s one thing we should have learned from history is that we are not as special as we would like to believe.”
- The “Diminishing Returns” argument: “The performance of most of our AI systems so far has been that of diminishing returns. The are often lots of low-hanging fruit at the start, but we then run into difficulties looking for improvements.”
- The “limits of intelligence” argument: “There are many fundamental limits within the universe. … Any thinking machine that we build will be limited by these physical laws.”
- The “Computational Complexity” argument: “Computer science already has a well-developed theory of how difficult it is to solve difficult problems. There are many computational prodlems for which even exponential improvements are not enough to help us solve them practically.”
Walsh concludes, however, that even without singularity AI will have a large impact on the nature of many jobs, and a significant impact on the nature of war. “Robots will industrialise warfare, lowering the barriers to war and destabilising the current world order.” The answer: we’d “better ban robots in the battlefield soon.”
Walsh has a book on AI out later this year.
2. What if we crack fusion?
The joke about nuclear fusion, for as long as I can remember, is that it’s always 50 years away. That might be changing, though perhaos not. In 2035, if everything goes to plan, the ITER research project is scheduled to produce 500 megawatts of energy “for a few seconds,” which would make it the first fusion reactor to produce more energy than it consumers.
Even if that succeeds, there are still significant technical problems. And as Jeff Hecht notes in his article, if these are overcome, it seems that nuclear fusion won’t be the “too cheap to meter” energy that we were promised in the 1950s. Fusion reactors are vastly expensive to build, even if operating ocsts are modest. Nor are they carbon neutral, because of the carbon costs of construction, fuel production and waste management, and there is also radioactive waste to deal with, although the decay time is decades not millennia. But the nature of the technology and its cost base means that even if it works, it’s still going to be used for baseload power. Peaks may have to be managed through renewables and storage. But it seems as likely that come 2076 nuclear fusion is still 50 years away.
3. What if we re-engineer our DNA?
Michael LePage has a little 2021 scenario in which a Japanese boy is born to an infertile father after fertility specialists have played with his DNA using CRISPR genome editing. More follow elsewhere in the world, depending on local regulation and cultural attitudes. Why would parents opt for genome editing rather than cheaper pre-implantation diagnosis (PGD)? Because germline genome editing can make dozens of changes at the same time, rather than a few.
And why stop there? There are beneficial gene variants that make people immune to HIV or less likely to become obese, for example. Perhaps as soon as the 2030s, some countries may allow these variants to be introduced…
[G]enome editing can definitely make individuals less prone to all kinds of disaeases. And as it starts to become clear that genome-edited children are on average healthier than those conceived the old-fashioned way, wealthy parents will start to opt for genome editing even when there is no pressing need to do so.
On the other hand, we likely won’t be gene editing to improve personality or intelligence: “we have yet to discover any single gene variant that makes anything like as much difference to IQ as, say, having rich parents or a good education.”
LePage’s 60-year projection: states will pay for genome editing for public health reasons, becaause the savings on lifetime health costs will far outweigh the cost of the treatment.
4. What if we end material scarcity?
This future is hard to imagine, writes Sally Adee, because scarcity is the basis of our current dominant economic system. But some people have started on this: Jeremy Rifkin, for example, in The Zero Marginal Cost Society, which describes a world where the cost of producing each additional unit of anything is all but zero. In the future, in otherr words, everything will look like the current music and publishing industries.
The critical technolgies are fabrication devices that are highly sophisticated versions of our present 3D printers. Within 60 years time, these could be molecular assemblers (Eric Drexler’s phrase), working at nano scale, which ccould “produce any substance you desire. Press a button, wait a while, and out come food, medicine, clothing, bicycle parts or anything at all, materialised with minimal capital or labour.”
Rifkin thinks that fabricators will be the engines of a sharing economy, in which access replaces ownership; “purchases will give way to printing.” Rifkin thinks that within 20 years “capitalism…. will share the stage with its child.” In this future, says Adee, “You will have a job, but not for money. The company you work for will be a non-profit. Your “wealth” will be measured in social capital; your reputation as a co-operative member of the species,” although it’s worth remembering that Cory Doctorow has visited this future (pdf) and it didn’t turn out well.
Your reputation points? They might go on an antique chair that wasn’t built by a fabricator, which might be a sign of status in such a world.
5. What if we put a colony on Mars?
So the first set of non-trivial problems, according to Lisa Grossman, is that settlers would need to launch from earth everything they need to set up the first base: “tonnes of life-support equipment, habitats, energy-generation systems, food and technology for extracting breathable oxygen and drinkable water from the air.”
The second set of problems: The alignment of the planets means that although the shortest journey time is around five months, we’ll only get 22 opportunities for that short journey between now and 2060. Landing on Mars is also tricky because of the combination of gravity and thin atmosphere: the heaviest craft that’s landed successfully is the 1-tonne Curiosity rover.
The third: It’s quite a hostile place: “high levels of radiation, the threat of solar flares, dust that covers solar panels and could rip through lungs like of shards of glass, and temperatures as low as -125⁰C.”
In short: “there is nothing to do there except to try not to die… The first settlers will be dependent on the home world for a very long time.” But hey; the settlers will be in constant communication with earth. We will be able to watch them succeed or fail almost in real time.
6. What if we have to rescue the climate?
Hoovers and sunshades. We’ll have turbines that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and ships dumping minerals into the sea to reduce acidification, but that’s just the start of it, according to Catherine Brahic. Because up in the atmosphere–10 to 18 kilometres up–we’ll have a fine spray of particles to shield Earth from the sun and keep us cool.
While it sounds manageable in theory, we don’t really understand it. The best researched approach involves spraying fine particles of sulphate into the atmosphere, but this creates regional winners and losers. Northern Europe, Canada and Siberia would remain warmer, the oceans cooler; there would also be regional rainfall effects, with monsoons potentially drying up.
So the whole thing needs some kind of global or multilateral council to arbitrate. And the sunshade needs to be replenished constantly. If we stopped spraying (because of an international disagreement, say) the temperatures would climb in a decade or so to where they would have been without geoengineering.
7. What if there’s a nuclear war?
TL: DR? It’s bad, really bad.
Even a regional nuclear war has terrible results. For example, if India and Pakistan let off half of their relatively small nuclear stock (or a hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs), according to simulations by Alan Robock and Michael Mills, quite apart from the millions of deaths on the sub-continent, “the fires would send about 5 million tonnes of black smoke into the stratosphere, where it would spread round the world. This smog would cut solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface by 8 per cent–enough to drop amerage winter temperatures by a startling 2.5 to 6⁰C across North America, Europe and Asia,” for five years to a decade. As Fred Pearce writes, the Asian monsoon would collapse, destroying Asia’s water system; much of the ozone layer would be removed; and near ice-age temperatures would shorten growing seasons catastrophically. In short,
Nuclear winter would deliver global famine.
And that’s just from a regional nuclear war.
It’s worth ending with a couple of notes from New Scientist‘s editor in chief, Sumit Paul-Choudhury, in his introduction to the whole section, looking back 60 years as well as forward.
The internet, global warming, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering were all on our radar in 1956. But our ideas about how they might pan out bore little resemblance to how they have actually evolved, particularly when it comes to their social ramifications. Ubiquitous information has not created rationalist utopias, ecological catastrophes have not culled our population, and neither have super-human machines nor people, although we’re getting there.
Although the tone of the introduction is over-interested in “prediction”, he takes that scepticism into looking forwards.
Linear extrapolation inevitably fails: it’s the kind of thinking that leads people to jokily ask, “Where’s my jetpack?”, a question borne of post-war trends in transport and the space race–none of them relevant today… prediction and extrapolation are of limited use: fine up to a point if you need to place semi-conductor orders, perhaps, but not so much if you want to work out how semiconductors are changing society.
The image at the top of this post is by Andrew Curry, and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.
The theorist Mark Fisher, whose death was announced at the weekend, was one of our most original thinkers about how we experienced late 20th century and early 21st century capitalism. He also wrote honestly about his depression, and sometimes one felt that the two were related: that seeing so clearly the confines that late capitalism imposed on its subjects was too much weight for one person to stand. (Guy Debord suffered in a similar way.
People have been queuing up today to pay tribute to Fisher and his work, and rightly so: Capitalist Realism is one of the essential texts of the last 10 years: so good, in fact, that I realised recently that I’d bought two copies. His style was also singular in its skill in combining the cultural and the political, a reminder that actually the two can never be separated out, as he demonstrated in his more recent book Ghosts of my Life, which I wrote about here.
In an obituary, the music writer Simon Reynolds, a friend of Fisher’s, described his writing like this:
The exciting thing about Mark’s writing – CCRU era, K-punk era, in magazines like FACT and The Wire, the books – was the feeling that he was on a journey: the ideas were going somewhere, a gigantic edifice of thought was in the process of construction. That Mark was thinking big, building a system, always aiming for the largest scale. And finally that this work, rigorous and deeply informed as it was, was not academic, in the sense of being done purely for its own sake: its urgency came from his faith that words really could change things. Reading Mark’s writing made everything feel more meaningful, supercharged with significance. It was a rush. An addiction.
This is the second of two posts pulling together the strands of what I think I understand about Trump’s win in the US Presidential Election. (The first post is here). The first four things I think I know are:
- Neo-liberalism just died
- The long-run theories are best
- Crises are invisible before they erupt
- Class matters
Here’s another six thoughts.
I’ve read too much on the American election and on Trump’s win, and I wanted to pull it together to make sense of it. Having read too much, I’ve now written too much, so my plan is to split this into a couple of posts on the blog and then put the whole thing together as one longer post on Medium. Trump’s win is the kind of surprise that will keep happening in a world where people are expected to be both enthusiastic consumers and low-paid but grateful workers. You can only fill that gap by loading people with debt, but that’s a one-time card that’s already been played.
This post is a long extract from my essay on The Future of Work written for Future Agenda. The full piece is on Medium.
The current discussion about the future of work seems to be monopolised by the version of the future in which technology destroys jobs. It has gained an air of inevitability, as if it is the only possible future. NESTA’s open minded report suggested that the “robots hypothesis” resonated because it connected “two powerful themes in popular culture: the rapid advance of IT, and the startling growth in inequality.” But there is a problem: it hasn’t happened before.
So it is worth considering reasons why it might just be a phase. The economic historian Carlota Perez has a model of technological development that describes five long waves, or surges, since the Industrial Revolution. Each is around 50–60 years and follows an S-curve pattern; the last quarter of each is marked by saturated markets, diminishing investment opportunities and declining returns. The first part of the 20th century was dominated by the oil and auto surge; the latter part by ICT. The ICT wave is now reaching the turning point at which returns start to fall.
On this model, finance is looking for new opportunities, and although it is too early to say what the next platform will be, and we’re still 10–15 years away from it, it is possible to imagine that the next technological surge might be built around, say, a material such as graphene.
Labour market woes
David Autor concludes that much of “the labor market woes” of the past decade are not down to computerisation, but to the financial crisis and reduced investment (starting with the dot.com collapse) and the impact of globalisation on labour markets. He suggests that many middle-skill jobs will prove more resistant to unbundling than advertised; while computers can do specific tasks, turning collections of tasks into self-contained jobs, and then automating them, requires substantial investment. In the long run, people are both more flexible and cheaper.
One implication is that the question of the future of work may actually be about power in the labour market. This leads to broadly political interpretations of the future of working conditions, ranging from Guy Standing’s formulation of the fragile “precariat”, facing intermittent, insecure work, David Weil’s description of the “fissured workplace”, in which many functions are sub-contracted, and the rise of campaigns for the Living Wage.
I read a couple of things recently that are connected, but perhaps not in a way intended by all of the authors. The first is by Sally Goerner, on the rise of American oligarchy. The second is a paper from McKinsey on capitalism’s short-termism problem.
The Sally Goerner post takes a long view–around 250 years–and positions America’s current political crisis as the latest in a series of 70-90 year cycles in which oligarchy flares up. It follows a familiar pattern, says Goerner, like so:
- Economic “Royalists” infiltrate critical institutions and rig political and economic systems to favor elites.
- Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate.
- The crisis reaches a breaking point; seemingly small events trigger popular frustration into a transformative change.
- If the society enacts effective reforms, it enters a new stage of development. If it fails to enact reforms, crisis leads to regression and possibly collapse.
- Over time, transformed societies forget why they implemented reforms; Economic Royalists creep back and the cycle starts a new.
I suspect we could map similar cycles in other countries.
The systemic model that sits behind it is this:
“Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. … In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends.”
A long time ago, in an article I can no longer find, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole developed the idea of “cargo cults” as the objects of politics. Heathrow and its expansion has long been such a cargo cult in British politics. To save non-anthropologist readers among you from having to google it, a cargo cult refers originally to the belief among Melanesian islanders that material wealth can be achieved through the ritual worship of an object. Pleasingly, some of the Melanesian cargo cults involved building models of runways and planes. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
World Factory is an extraordinary theatre project that sets out to explore the impact of globalised production (and by extension, globalised trade) by creating an experiential space for its audience. I saw it in Cambridge last week; it has dates scheduled in Brighton and Manchester between now and Christmas, and may return for another run at Cambridge Junction.
For the show, the audience is seated at tables around the space, each a team charged with running a Chinese textiles factory. Once the experiential part of the production starts, the group has to handle a series of problems and dilemma, starting with whether we should handle a cashflow crisis by cutting wages across the board or firing half the staff.
The four cast members double as ‘dealers,’ issuing the cards, keeping track of the money, and exhorting us to work faster or harder. They also delivered the ‘samples’ of the different types of clothing we were ‘making’ in our factory.
Our decisions were recorded by scanning a barcode on the cards, which also meant that the decisions of each table are recorded in real time.
As you play, at speed (my team lost a lot of money early on by failing to make a decison quickly enough) you’re faced with questions about what goods you’re willing or able to make, about your workers, about dealing with local officials, about compliance and standards, about outsourcing production to other parts of China, about demands for labour rights. And so on.
The experiential part of the game is bookended by sequences that animate the recent history of globalisation and the impact of the global trade system–for example, we were told at the end the amount of water and oil consumed in producing the goods we had ‘made’ collectively during the show.
The play is supported by as vast database of research. At the end of the show we were given a print-out, on a till-roll, of all our decisions as factory owners, with a URL linking to the research that sits behind the question that was on each card. For example, one of the decisions we had to make was whether or not to move from regular wages to piecerates. Here’s the research on this decison.
World Factory is also more than a play in that the group behind it, notably the co-directors Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw, actually went into the business of making a shirt in a Chinese factory as part of the research. A barcode above the pocket reveals the history of its production. It might seem paradoxical that a show that is about over-consumption and over-production should, in effect, have its own merchandising, but perhaps it is a mark of the play’s effectiveness that there seemed to be no-one trying to buy one as we left the theatre.
I’ve read quite a lot about the global production system over the years, and plenty about Chinese factories, though more about the electronics sector than the textile sector. I’ve also sat on the Board of a retailing business, making business decisions in conditions of uncertainty. For me, the surprise of the game (although I shouldn’t have been surprised by this) was the way in which the pace and the relentlessness of it, together with the ambiguity about the possible consequences of many of the decisions, forced you constantly to make choices at speed that reflected the imperative to keep the factory working. Capital has its own logic, as Marx says somewhere, and once in role it is hard to refuse it.
One of the video interviews shown on the screens that surrounded the auditorium was with the owner of the factory that made the World Factory shirt. She had been in debt up to her eyes after her first business folded, to the tune of several hundred thousand RNB. She took a job in a clothes factory that paid 2,000RNB a month, described in the rules of the game as low but enough to live on, so would never have managed to repay her debts, so started another clothes business. As she said, once you have the business, you have to keep going.
The show is also good on the politics, or more accurately the political economy, of the global textile industry. Who knew, for example, that Chinese factories outsource novelty Christmas jumpers to British factories? The quality is low, the margins are thin, and making them close to the end-consumer, with minimal delivery times, allows enough flexibility to respond to fluctuations in demand. They also spelled out the impact of cheap disposal clothes on the countries unlucky enough to get our recycled hand-offs. We think we’re doing people a favour by recycling through charity shops; actually we’re killing off indigenous textiles business in poor countries.
The actor who was also our dealer said that working on the play had changed her attitude towards recycling clothing, from thinking it a good thing to finding it uncomfortable.
One tip if you’re lucky enough to be able to go to see World Factory: decide on your table before you start whether your strategy is going to be about maximising profits or looking after your workers, and then stick to it.
The images are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons licence.