2020: Tumult lies ahead — but hope too

Posted on January 17, 2020


Welcome to 2020, the start not just of a new year, but of a new decade — and one that promises to be more turbulent than anything in recent memory. And it will be the decade in which the exponential development of artificial intelligence (AI) will probably reach levels few have even dreamed of.

However, if these developments remains constrained within the present economic and social system, the levels reached may prove to be more of an international nightmare, triggering greater job losses, inequality and widespread social instability. Destruction and anarchy such as that now taking place in Yemen, Somalia and Iraq, let alone the Sahel regions of West Africa, also seems likely to become even more the norm.

The bellicose United States of America, with its unpredictable warlord president Donald Trump, is clearly the world’s most powerful military force, with bases dotted throughout the globe. As one humourist noted: One could not blame Trump for being concerned about Iran considering how close that country is to so many US military bases.

The same can be said of China, now the coming global economic power. The sheer number of US military bases surrounding China was highlighted dramatically in the recent John Pilger documentary, The Coming War with China.

Given these circumstances, the dawning of the new decade seems to herald not just more of the same instability, but a descent into something infinitely worse: the collapse into the sort of dystopian world that has been outlined in pessimistic speculative fiction.

Technology — smart missiles, drones and automation accompanied by the onward march of robots increasingly able to mimic human action and thought — seems to lie at the root of many of these problems. But technology is not the problem; the problem lies with who controls it and to what ends.

Most of us already rent out — at globally quite exorbitant rates — use of the latest in communications tech: cell phones, iPads and the like. And it is this alone that provides a glimmer of hope at a time when what beckons is a dystopian future of horrendous inequality on a polluted, over-heated planet.

Hope springs from the fact that the elites of this world no longer largely control the flow of information. The internet and social media have changed that, perhaps forever.

Look at recent history: in the previous decade, there was the Arab Spring and, in particular, the events of Tahir Square in Cairo. These illustrated how the popular power of working people can be marshalled by modern, democratised communication. The protests in Hong Kong and India are more recent examples.

But these and other mass protests also illustrate a recurring problem: rebellion against one or other institution or aspect of society, rather than fighting for a comprehensive and coherent alternative. This all too often dissolves into nihilism, rejecting all institutions, authority and ideology.

Even where, as with many climate change campaigners, alternatives are proposed, they are focussed narrowly on one symptom of the disease that afflicts the overall body politic. So while it is perfectly feasible — and desirable — to lance the boil of accelerated global warming by reducing, even eliminating, reliance on fossil fuels, this will not eradicate the underlying disease: the competitive, profit-driven system we now live with, and suffer for.

At the same time, rebellions against an established authority without much — or any — idea of an alternative can also open the way for populist demagogues to fill the political vacuum created by such protest. Or, as in the case of Egypt, see the emergence of a military regime even more draconian than that of the deposed president.

This is a sign of a diseased global body politic in terminal decline, but at a time when a remedy is at hand — and is largely ignored. That we may have to fgace this situation, although not perhaps to the degree now threatened, was a warning flagged more than half a century ago.

As I have pointed out in the past, when the age of the computer — and kindred automation — dawned in the immediate post World War 2 years, the mathematician Norbert Wiener wrote, warning of the consequences of the ill use of emerging technology.

This “father of cybernetics” noted that computerised automation, “machines”, could usher in “an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty”. And he added: “These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price.” Today, the threat to jobs extends well beyond manual workers in a factory.

But Wiener and a number of writers both before and since, also saw that the age of the machine could liberate humanity. And it might still do so if, to again quote Wiener, “We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.”

Humility in this context means accepting the inherent equality of all humanity and acknowledging the need for democratic control, rather than rule by a fundamentally unaccountable elite. To make this comment today seems hardly radical when even mainstream economists such as Joseph Stiglitz admit that the system is broken.

The likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson also talk of the probable need to provide a “universal income grant” as the international jobless toll rises and more instability threatens. This amounts to offering more crumbs from the tables of the super rich — handouts — in the hope of keeping the poor in thrall.

Such measures probably wouldn’t work, but the fact that they are being discussed illustrates how diseased the system is. The symptoms are everywhere evident, from accelerated global warming, over-fished and polluted seas and waterways to malnutrition and stunted children in a world of plenty.

Yet within the very technological advances the world has made, lie the solutions. Democratically controlled and used to the benefit of all, AI, automation and the world of robots could liberate humanity, ultimately allowing every individual to develop to the maximum of the inherent potential of each.

This is the hope for the next decade. We either build on it or help to hasten the slide toward a potential global catastrophe.