An unknowable Social Future that will certainly be Different


So
let’s assume that from here on out, money is going to rule. Accepting that as
fact liberates the mind to the reality of what is likely to arrive in the
developed countries rather more quickly than we might imagine. By ‘developed,’
I define the term as wealthy, industrial, technological and consumer-based
nations.

Those of us
(and I have been among them) who rail against the inequity of the 1% and
commiserate with the left behind may
be beating a tired drum that will never lead another marching band. We’re wrong
to look backward when the sand is shifting under our feet at an unprecedented
rate. And if there is truly no looking back, then what lies ahead? A Blade-Runner
world? Unending chaos? Not likely.

But
we may come frighteningly close during the transition and it won’t be pretty. Political
and social response to those changes is unknowable, so I’ll not pretend to
know. Who would have thought that in a scant fifty years the same Africa that
spread the word of John Kennedy’s assassination by drums from tribe to tribe, would now be awash in cell phones?
There’s
no avoiding the fact that work and jobs, as we know those terms, will most
probably disappear at such a rate as to change the very nature of employment. The
jobs issue is politically and socially a mirage, as robots take over service
industries, clean our streets, bake our bread and even drive our cars. War,
that historic job-creator of last resort is fast becoming manpower-less, opting
for drones rather than boots on the ground. Wall Street forsakes eager and
hopeful MBAs, favoring computer programmers. Investors these days, faced with a
world awash in cash, skim hundreds of billions in earnings from micro-trades accomplished
instantly by algorithms replacing traders.
The evidence
is overwhelming. Amazon.com meets more and more sales with fewer and fewer
employees and has just recently been approved by the government to experiment
with drone-delivery. Legal firms may soon replace their non-partner lawyers with
algorithm-enabled litigation (you just knew
there would be an upside somewhere).
Airliners already have little need for human pilots and computer codes don’t
commit suicide (so far as we know).
So
the scene is set for a movie we’ve never sat-through before and we’ll either
modify our society or the reality of social chaos will modify it for us. Not a
pretty picture—and quite probably more Blade
Runner
than It’s a Wonderful Life.
Jimmy Stewart is dead and gone and a knowable society based on the past is gone
as well. It may well turn out to be a
wonderful life, but there’s a lot of mind-bending change needed to get us there.
Mind-bending
change is not in vogue at the moment, other than in a technical world that promises
to make Apple the first trillion-dollar company. Who would have guessed that a few years ago? Google is a mere
seventeen years old and yet is life really imaginable without Google-search and
mapping?
Each
day promises more and more of less and
less
(smartphones and search), raising questions we’ve never thought to ask
or even contemplate:
What is wealth and conversely, how do we define poverty in this brave new world? Is wealth and
poverty solely defined by money or other values entirely? We know the money-based wealth and poverty.
It’s been with us for as long as money itself and, if we’ve chosen to ignore
it, at least we understood the issues
as we struggled with them.
But if we
sail off into the uncharted waters of no longer working (as we always defined
work) and are no longer rewarded for that work (as we once defined reward),
what then? These are existential questions, not unlike the layers of an onion.
Peel back that and this unexpectedly appears to bite us in
the ankle.
What serves as reward, when work
itself changes at both the top and bottom of society? That calls into question our
definition of money itself. Is the interest on money viable under a new and
broader understanding of currency? How do we cope and, at the same time, reward
achievement while supporting a growing and largely idle society? I don’t have
answers for that.
But
merely because the questions have not
been asked
doesn’t mean the need for solutions will not arise—and quickly–probably way more quickly than we dare
to imagine.
While
we fiddle and argue over minimum
wages and the offshoring of jobs, debate
the power of the 1%, watch the middle
class disappear into the sunset, wrangle
over environmental issues and agonize
over white police shooting unarmed blacks, the very ground beneath us is shifting.
This is not
about the fairness of Walton family wealth, the ignorance of a locked down and
paid-for Congress, who will be the next President, the resurgence of our rust-belt
cities, quality of schooling, gay and lesbian rights, conservatives, liberals,
environmentalists, terrorists, gun rights or immigration. This conversation is
about a sea-change in what we do as a
working, energetic and hopeful society.
What we do has always been how we define ourselves as individuals. The methods by which we search
out (or don’t) and find answers (or don’t) to this new and as yet unknown
territory will define us as a nation for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.
Where
does one run during a metaphoric earthquake? What happens when the toilets
don’t flush? Buildings, bridges, roads and economies collapse upon the rich as
well as the poor. Where do we turn when we can’t pay the mortgage or rent? What
happens across our entire social structure when a consumer-driven economy no
longer generates the ability to
consume? Bread lines? Soup kitchens? Suicides?
These
are now (and will more quickly become) pressing issues for both the haves and
have-nots. We’re in this together. Fasten
your seatbelts. It’s going to be an unknowable ride in this 21st
century.
A
Chinese proverb says “may you live in
interesting times
.” We’re about to test the context of that proverb.

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