Monday, February 26, 2007

Edge Prospect

Listening to Andrew Marr's Start the Week on Radio 4 this morning I heard discussion of Prospect Magazine's recent "Big Question" survey of intellectuals and thinkers. From Prospect's website:

"Left and right defined the 20th century. What's next? The pessimism of their responses is striking: almost nobody expects the world to get better in the coming decades, and many think it will get worse."

Aside from the fact that I don't really understand the cause of pessimism amongst intellectuals, this is an interesting question, so I'll have a hash at it myself.

I would say that the 20th century was defined in terms of a continuing transition from barbarism to civilization. The corrections being made to our behaviour as individuals and as a larger social group can be characterised in two ways:

  • The extent to which objects can be considered private property, with anarcho-capitalists at one end (in such a society everything and anyone could be owned), and anarcho-socialists at the other (in such a society everything would be held as commons).
  • The extent to which the state controls the affairs of individuals, including the level of taxes and laws.
So that has defined what they mean by left and right. I think the 21st century will see these themes continue in a slightly modified fashion. I think one of the biggest issues of the coming century will be that of the freedom of personal augmentation and alteration. This will probably come to mirror the right/left aspect of the 20th century. There will be discussion over the issue of whether or not implants can be considered "part" of a person, whether uploads of people can inherit their original's property, as well as arguments over AI.

As to Muslim extremism and other forms of religious extremism I have a couple of things to say:

  • It remains doubtful if, in the grand scheme of things, the current movement towards fundamentalism will arrive at much. It would be wonderful if a great wave of fundamentalist Muslim intellectuals could create a democratic-faith-government in the Middle East, but this probably won't happen with ourselves and the USA stirring the melting pot.
  • It is worth remembering the anarchist movement of a century ago. They terrified the establishment, however their greatest mark on history was initiating the First World War through the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This was huge, of course, but all anyone really remembers about the anarchists who assassinated him are vague bits of unrealistic dogma. So, these small, sad, groups of people who were attacking what they saw as an unfair global hegemony, who were not afraid of sacrificing themselves in the process, but nevertheless (completely unintentionally) started a global conflict between far greater powers. Sound familiar?
Over the 18th and 19th centuries human civilization went through enormous economic and social change. Liberalism was invented, the concept of the free market was, the idea of individual liberties was invented. These developments were a correction against things like slavery, tyranny, monarchs, and empires.

Liberalism and the free market were not universally good things though. The laissez-faire attitudes prevalent in Britain between about 1830 and 1860 were shocking in the mistreatment of workers. In the same ways that new concepts were invented during the Age of Enlightenment to correct for the problems of the Dark Ages, things like socialism were invented during the 19th century and developed into the 20th century. These ideas include that of state education, state-funded welfare, the NHS, and communism. These developments were a correction against things like mistreatment of workers by factory-owners, people living in poor conditions, poverty, epidemics due to poor drainage and water supply etc.

The sine-wave of Confucius' "pendulum of history" swings back and forth as ever. However in decreasing amplitudes. The 20th century was characterised by the sudden and shocking discovery that it is not quite as fun to go out and attack your enemies if you're both armed with machine guns.

Communism was pretty unpleasant. American-style free market capitalism is alright as long as you're on top of the pile (the same is true of Communism though). The best place to live in the world today (at least as defined bywishy -washy European pinko liberals) is Scandinavia. There there is a mix of capitalist systems coupled with massive government spending.

I believe that if there is ever to be a great, global system of governance it will follow the Scandinavian model. There will be those who have a predilection for competition and seek to succeed. That is well and good and healthy. There will be those who would rather live off their government-paid-for birthrights, and that is alright too.

As manufacturing costs decrease, and as more and more of industry becomes automated, we will have surplus wealthy in abundance.

At this point an environmentalist will say: "but hang on, our industry is what has caused global warming! We can't continue consuming as we are, because the planet can't support us without environmental collapse, either through global warming or one or two of any number of factors that limit the extent to which we can live."

Richard Branson was recently criticised on Alternet for his presumption in assuming that there can be a technological "quick fix" to global warming. The argument that his x-prize-style contest will lull the public into a false sense of security is laughable. Liberals orcontrarians will never be taken seriously if they insist on treating the vast bulk of the public like complete idiots. Branson is doing his own thing, and instead of being a disgusting capitalist, he is doing something constructive and helpful.

I believe that we can streamline and improve our manufacturing, transport, communication, housing, and power-generating infrastructure to the extent that we can all live as environmentally-neutral individuals. As much as I'd love to slap a command-economy oneveryone via my new global government I know this is impractical and probably not even that effective a solution to out current problem.

Emergent order theories, and the invisible hand of the market, are powerful tools in effective resource allocation. However a tool is useless without someone to use it. We need a powerful external body to correct for problems in the free market, like a state.

Everything needs to be aware of individual people, so there need to be checks and balances. In the case of states, these are in the form of democratic votes, in the case of companies, these are in the form of consumer's cash.

Public-limited-companies and limited-companies generally need to stop thinking of state-imposed controls on pollution as state-imposed controls and more as facts of life. Like gravity. You can't be allowed to make money by flying people on planes without wings (even though it would reduce the cost of manufacture) and you can't be allowed to make money by dumping tonnes of dangerous carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (even though it is very profitable). In the first case because the laws of gravity won't allow it, and in the second case because of the guidelines of respect towards others, if these need to be enforced by a state, then so be it.

Wow. Anyway. What I meant to do was bring in a contrast between the Prospect survey and's Big Question, which was most recently "what am I optimistic about?" I advise everyone to read and contrast the two texts.

I am optimistic that we will be able to live in a responsible, respectful, way. The best way of accomplishing my desired liberal-quasi-capitalist-anarcho-socialist-secular-humanist-techno-progressive-global society is to carry on as we are. Pushing harder to reduce waste, increase efficiency of transport and industry and invent new technologies to solve the problems.

Transhumanism offers an opportunity to solve these sorts of problems from the bottom (individual humans) up. However I see no reason why we can't accomplish what we need to accomplish on our own.

As was commented on Start the Week. All the indices of deaths due to conflicts, poverty, malnutrition, are looking good. People tend to be pessimistic when things are uncertain. I look forward to the future.

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