Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Rose-Colored Glasses of the World Future Society

Chris Jablonski’s post yesterday to his Emerging Tech blog on ZDNet provides an excellent example of how, even in the worst of times, technology evangelism can still prevail.  That evangelism is right there in the title of the post;

The silver lining of a world run amuck by machines

(Yes, it did not take long for a comment to surface about the spelling of “amuck;”  but I am willing to write that off as style, rather than content.)

It turns out that the silver lining is there in the post’s final paragraph.  It comes from the World Future Society:

The activities that make us human – thinking, dreaming, learning, communicating, and feeling, are the skills that are the most difficult to program. In a contest of “man vs. machine”, people will continue to shine and outperform in these areas for years to come.

What is most telling about these rose-colored glasses is that they filter out the substance of Jablonski’s point of departure.  This comes from a new book, Race Against the Machine, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, whose conclusions have just been summarized in an article in The Atlantic as follows:

The threat of technological unemployment is real. To understand this threat, we’ll define three overlapping sets of winners and losers that technical change creates: (1) high-skilled vs. low-skilled workers, (2) superstars vs. everyone else, and (3) capital vs. labor. Each set has well-documented facts and compelling links to digital technology. What’s more, these sets are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the winners in one set are more likely to be winners in the other two sets as well, which concentrates the consequences.

The important thing here is that the world will be more and more polarized into winners and losers and that this polarization involves an alignment of the three factors enumerated in the above passage.  Ultimately, the World Future Society is forecasting change in the first of those factors, claiming that there will be a new world of new skills in which we shall find new fulfillment, so to speak.  When we take the other two factors into account, however, we realize that those new skills will be restricted to a highly elite class of superstars, significantly removed from “everyone else.”  This is a far more dystopian vision that we have encountered in both The Time Machine of H. G. Wells and the film Zardoz.  What is most disturbing about both of these divisions is that the “superstar” class is ultimately determined by heredity, rather than achievement, and deteriorates to ineffective effeteness.  So much for the World Future Society!

1 comment:

Jones said...

When I hear all this talk about biofuels, electric hybrids, and the like, I eventually get a sense of vertigo trying to sort through all the assumptions people make because they have a religious faith in technology, and all the consequences they subsequently ignore.

When people promote electric hybrids, they don't understand that this is a symbolic product meant to make consumers feel good about themselves. Nobody mentions that drivers of these cars wind up paying less for the roads they drive on because they're not paying gasoline taxes. Nobody mentions that for federal highways to be financially solvent, the federal gas tax would need to be raised by 40¢ per gallon, now. When free-marketeers say that we don't need subsidies for green tech, that the market would supply it if there really was demand, have no idea of the scope of present fossil fuel subsidies. Typical cars are only about 30% efficient: 70% of the energy consumers buy as gasoline is literally thrown away. Our whole society is built around fossil fuel subsidies that make it impossible for green tech to compete. But all this green tech evangelism itself is misdirected: all the effort spent researching various biofuels would be better spent on various forms of mass transit. If you get 6 people on a typical city bus, it's getting 28 miles per gallon per person. There's not much more green than a bus, and you don't need any R&D to figure out how to get those energy savings. Diminishing returns would seem to be a taboo subject, especially among technology reporters.