50. Techno-driven change

The year and a half I have been blogging has been full of surprises, delights and some disappointments. I have been positively surprised by the ever more visible advances for women and by the greater awareness of the electorate to environmental threats, but looking back I found that my prevailing and recurrent theme has been “change.”1 Small wonder: Technology driven change is overwhelming the world and all its inhabitants at speeds never previously experienced. Its scope and impact have been so powerful that I am finding it hard to write: There are now more cell-phones than people.

Instead of guiding change we are letting technology run away with it. The pace of change has been driven in part by an economic system ruled by both the profit motive and the demands for growth. It startles me that nobody is really questioning whether the global consumers of such rapid change are capable of handling it without enduring serious psychological and social challenges. More disturbing is that hardly anyone is asking where such change is leading us or even where would consumers like it to take them … or future generations. My goal in writing this blog has been to consider positive alternatives and to suggest different outcomes for free societies. But how to deal with the simultaneous rise of nanotechnology, automation, robot advances, data-driven algorithms, quantum computers, social networks, driverless cars, domestic control systems, threats to privacy, internet education, medical diagnostics, and internet banking – to mention a dozen that immediately come to mind.

Our immediate challenge is to confront the serious crises from technological advances creating (A) unemployment (particularly for the 16-to 25 age group) caused in part by robots and automation, (B) rising economic inequality, and (C) massive tax avoidance/evasion by global corporations.

For the less than one per cent of the population who were already wealthy, change has been extremely beneficial — even in a time of economic contraction. High tech capitalism tends to create rates of return on investment considerably higher than the overall rates of economic growth with the result that more wealth is transferred into the hands of an hereditary elite of investors to the detriment of most of society. This is the clear conclusion of Thomas Piketty’s massive book, Capitalism in the 21st Century. Hedge funds, like Renaissance Technologies, have found devious ways and loop-holes which allow them to borrow $17 for every $1 in the accounts of investors while those with ordinary brokerage accounts are legally entitled to borrow only $1 on every dollar held. These hedge-funds manage to pay long term tax rates on short term trades for their privileged customers even when the shares were held electronically for just a few seconds. Such operations have enabled the wealthy to greatly increase their holdings at the expense of the US and UK treasuries which have been deprived of billions in taxes.2

Technological solution-ism has been in full swing in Silicon Valley pushed by corporations whose goals would appear to be both profit (on revenues of over $200 billion in 2013) and the optimization of efficiency. They are actively researching the “smartification” of everyday chores in “smart” environments serving “ambient assisted living.” Would success of such a trajectory lead to an improvement of the human condition? As it is, both research and development seem to be headed towards a communication connectivity of our lives where home, business and personal associations will be linked. Is such change desirable? Make no mistake: the web, which was still free two decades ago, is now dominated by big corporations.

It has been said that the key to understanding the major corporate players in the electronics industry is to recognize that they don’t have any formal strategy. As the technology analysts from Gartner explain: “Google encourages innovation through emergence. It doesn’t have a strategic master-plan with investors or clients, which for some is a source of confusion or frustration. Applications, services and products that succeed — whether in revenue generation or serving as irritants and disruptors to its rivals — receive more resources.” What such analysis is saying is that there is no plan behind the changes we are all experiencing — there is only the market.

Larry Page, one of the developers of Google, contends that robots and machines should be able to provide a “time of abundance” where everyone’s basic needs could be met relatively easily. He recognizes that much of what people used to do has been taken over by machines over the past century and that this trend will continue.“90 per cent of people used to be farmers. So it’s happened before. It’s not surprising.” But Larry Page has no suggestions for the unemployed or under-employment in terms of work or income.

It is in fashion for those in Silicon Valley to use terminology like “The Cloud.” Down to earth, this term refers to using shared internet services to process, manage or store data instead of personal computers or local servers. This will come in handy for those somehow seeking to solve society’s problems with giga masses of data gathered from the ever multiplying “smart” devices. Such a data based approach to economics, politics and governance, or “algorithmic regulation” may indeed be in the offing but will it bring us closer to dealing with global problems?

One observer, Evgeny Morozov, suggests that “algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient.” It “will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots.”3 This sounds to me like a new definition for dystopia where human behavior is monitored and managed by smart ambient technology. This would be an invasive computer world where corporate executives and power-hungry politicians could control and manipulate the monitored population.

In a ‘visionary’ moment a year ago, Larry Page said: “We should be building great things that don’t exist … We’re really only at 1% of what’s possible, and maybe even less than that … we’re still moving slow.” Page is correct to say that we are still at an early stage of the possible. The effects on the “plugged in” new generations — whose attention spans keep on shrinking, whose memory lapses are on the rise, and whose stress levels are increasingly medicated — are inconclusively researched. Perhaps the fear is that the results of such studies could be so intimidating that they might induce panic in parents, teachers, politicians, corporations and the market.

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1The relevant blogs include:

2Report of the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, July 29, 2014
3Evgeny Morozov, The Observer, July 20, 2014, The New Review, p.11

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