105. Wither Nostalgia

Only recently have I begun to recognize that when people speak wistfully of the past, they often wax more optimistically about the future. Partially this is because nostalgia can increase one’s perceived meaning in life. Most of us have occasional yearnings to return to the past: a time or era when children were more innocent, when hitch-hiking was a hobby, when both men and women were more trusting, the tempo of life was slower, the skies bluer and the politicians more reputable.

In actuality, nostalgia expresses a yearning for a different time, the time of our childhood, with its slower rhythms and longer days. Nostalgia has become a form of protest against our modern idea of time linked to progress, speed, encumbered by appointments, demands, efficiency and competition. Nostalgia feeds the increasing belief in both American and British electorates that the past was better than the present and that the prospects for the future make them uneasy. Politicians like the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, are picking this up by looking backwards into the future on such issues as the education of children.1

As I started to look into the psychology of nostalgia I learned from a brilliant book by Harvard Professor Svetlana Boym that there are two main types of nostalgia: The restorative and the reflective. The restorative stresses nostos (the Greek word for a homeward journey) and the desire to return to our former “home.” The reflective focuses on algia (pain and longing) cherishing the fragments of memory and savoring all the details and memorabilia. At its ironic and humorous best, the reflective can present an ethical and creative challenge while temporalizing space. Boym contends that in this mode, critical thinking and longing are not in opposition. On the other hand, restorative nostalgia is not just about the historical past, but about universal values such as the homeland, family, nature and trust. It gravitates toward song and oral culture, as well as photographs and pictorial symbols – all of which it guards seriously.2

In the 21st century we are experiencing a global epidemic of nostalgia which encompasses an affective yearning for community and continuity in an increasingly fragmented world. However, there is not much that is new about our current nostalgia, even though the actress Simone Signoret entitled her autobiography: “Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be.”

Despite the inroads of Facebook, digital technology and startling pharmaceuticals, today’s nostalgia remains an engagement with a moment or moments one wants to preserve. As such, it is an existential resource which makes one feel that one’s life has roots even in an era which has lost touch with the mythical worlds of the past and all their enchantments.

One of the dangers of nostalgia is that it can confuse the past “home” with an imagined one. Such unreflective nostalgia can lead to aggression and war. The mourning of displacement and its irreversibility, as in the case of Gaza, the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the Brexit phenomenon, all are examples of the tragic aspects of nostalgia invading politics. Such slogans as, “Let’s Make America Great Again,” expose how widely nostalgia is being exploited.

Nostalgia has a long history in Western culture. In Virgil’s epic, Odysseus was most nostalgic about his lost friends, his wife and his Greek homeland. The hero made his sentiments accessible to homesick readers for centuries. However, by the 16th century nostalgia had come to be regarded as a dangerous but curable disease. Leeches, opiates or even a trip to higher altitudes were often prescribed, but none was believed to be better than a return to one’s birthplace. During the French Revolution of 1789, Jourdain Le Cointe, a doctor, held that terror and pain could cure nostalgia. Later another doctor was to claim that nostalgia was the result of hypochondria of the heart! Much as today genetic researchers seek to identify genes for sexual orientation and medical problems, so the doctors of the 19th century sought without success to discover the pathologic make-up of nostalgia.

Many 19th century thinkers believed that enlightenment and progress would stop people suffering from nostalgia. Instead, these very forces were to exacerbate it. The rapid pace of industrialization and the higher speed of railroads and steamships increased the yearning for the slower ways of the past. The spread of nostalgia was pushed both by the changing conception of time and the relocation of people from the countryside to cities. Nostalgia also became established in national museums and celebrated in urban memorials. This caused the past to be transformed into part of our “heritage” and to be popularized on a mass scale.3

Looking back on nostalgia, as I have done above with a degree of longing thrown in, can also help us in planning for our future and that of our progeny. The known past, the understood present, and plausible possibilities for the future are together helpful in guiding us. It assist us to consider that progress and nostalgia are mirror images of one another. While futuristic utopias are currently out of fashion, I have to admit that nostalgia itself opens many utopian dreams. As Professor Svetlana Boym has written: “The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future.” Nostalgia, then, can also be prospective.

Drawing on retrospective nostalgia, I shall now boldly try to look ahead some two generations (or 50 years) at how future members might look back as us with bewilderment, envy, resentment and nostalgia. This is similar to how we look back 50 years on the introduction of color television and cheap travel abroad as aspects of the “new” for our parents in the 60s, and consequently, much as they looked back on the glamour of the roaring twenties with its introduction of automobiles and telephones. So here go some advanced comments of the 2070s:

  • “The last shopping mall in our city closed recently. In films we have seen, it looked like people had such pleasure just wandering around years ago.’’
  • “It must have been wonderful to have lived in the era of low air pollution and clear blue skies.”
  • “It’s amazing to think back that many of our grandparents lived in a world purportedly based on “liberal values” such as “enlightenment.” What a challenge that must have been for them!”
  • “How exciting it must have been in the old days when people used to drive with steering wheels!”
  • “Could our grandparents really have enjoyed using their memories? Memory just gets in the way of our ever-helpful robots.”
  • “We often wish we were not so electronically addicted. A non-electronic world is hard to imagine, but it could be relaxing.”
  • “Did people in the early days of the 21st century really lead such varied and humane ways of life?”
  • “It must have been wonderful to live in a world which was real.”
  • “We may consider “the truth” as held by our grandparents as somewhat boring, but lying and fantasy are much more fun and challenging. So maybe we are less than nostalgic about the old-world realm of the mind and communications.”
  • “We wonder, and sometimes envy, how people back then really believed they could improve the world and hailed the promise of a better tomorrow! But then they had not yet lived according to our well-established and binding social networks.”
  • “What fun it must have been to have had “money!” In our nano-electronic era, none of us has ever experienced cash.”

1Martin Kettle, “On left and right, politics is now led by nostalgic gestures,” The Guardian, August 26, 2016.
2Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (2001)
3Foster’s historic song seemed to me the essence of popularizing nostalgia

All up and down de whole creation

Sadly I roam

Still longing for de old plantation

And for de old folks at home.

 

— S C Foster, “Old Folks at Home” (1851)

104. A Twisted Energy Tale

All too many decisions being made in 2016 puzzle me because they appear not to have been rationally thought through. These range from Brexit to the further construction of already out-of-date gigantic nuclear power plants, such as Hinkley in the UK.1 Globally, all nations are increasingly dependent on electric power but there is an enormous variation of sources — most of them polluting the planet’s atmosphere. Coal is on its way out but China is still building one new, highly polluting coal burning power plant every day of the year. Oil supplies may be dwindling (as in the North Sea off Scotland), but at the same time the price of barrels has been falling causing severe economic distress in the less developed nations.

Among the energy sources that are non-polluting, there are only a handful which I believe will serve us well in the years ahead. For example, wind-powered units are safe, long-lasting, and clean but nations like the UK have reduced their under-writing as part of austerity measures. All such energy sources everywhere now have lobbyists promoting their particular merits and pointing out the dangerous consequences of those of their competitors. Some of the plausible, but safe, sources of energy are available but remain under-invested. Exploiting the heat of the interior of the planet itself, like Iceland does on a vast scale, should tantalize us. On the other hand, hydrogen produced by sunlight is highly desirable but is difficult to handle. Huge plants have been developed in North Africa, but marketing liquid forms of hydrogen has proved expensive. Personally, I have been badly burnt by my investment in the future of this technology. Nevertheless, I continue to believe in it.

Hydroelectric power has truly been a godsend for humanity but the few new dams being built (in part for the lack of suitable locations) are no longer matching growing demand. The sad truth is that globally we have become increasingly dependent on problematic sources of energy, Chernobyl and Fukoshima have demonstrated how risky nuclear fission can be. Why then, continue to invest billions in nuclear fission which will produce decades of frustration, frightening clean-up costs and storage problems?2 Does this make sense? One must ask: Why did the new British Prime Minister go ahead with the huge, untested and highly expensive nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point? Theresa May never did regard nuclear plants as an effective resolution to the UK’s forthcoming electricity shortage, but after years of deliberation by all parties she did not see a way out.

Her decision was primarily based on economic and political reasons: Some 40,000 jobs in the UK were at stake; so were the UK’s economic relations with China which might have been compromised; while its relationship with France would also have been endangered as would the UK’s fragile investment standing globally. One of the few positive reasons for the go-ahead was that nuclear fission has the advantage of being a low carbon producer and without it, Britain would struggle to meet its national environmental target of carbon free energy by 2050.3

But not all countries have taken the same dubious path. Russia has stepped up research and development of Integral Fast Reactors — the first to come into successful operation being the BN-880 launched in August. After being painstakingly developed over nearly 40 years of trial and error, this 880 Megawatt fast neutron reactor reached its full Megawatt power in Siberia this past summer. This new plant will help to reduce Russia’s deadly weapons-grade plutonium stockpile. An advanced version also is being bought by the Chinese who will increase its power. It is important to note that the closed cycle of these new reactors will not require chemical processing or plutonium separation. It has also made Russia the only nation that currently is operating this kind of advanced breeder reactor. Russian physicists are already working on a more powerful 1200 Megawatt plant to be operative by 2020. Their long-range plan is to have eight BN-1230 reactors constructed by 2030. Russia and China will be the only states to have introduced a new era of nuclear reactor generators that are clean and ecologically secure.

Regretfully, I believe that although there have been decades of frustration in researching a way to safely launch laboratory methods of controlling nuclear fusion, we are still far removed from developing its commercial potential. Fusion reactors ultimately would combine light atomic nuclei into heavier particles to generate heat, much as the sun does. The continuation of massive investment in fission, instead of deeply researching the possibilities of fusion, is a manifest failure of our era. Capitalism has forced investors to seek out ever faster profits. Research, for risky projects like nuclear fusion, demands long term investments to meet the eventual energy needs of our grandchildren.5 Alas, our economic system is not geared to underwrite uncertain research for long-term results. Instead of being inspired or guided by the research and technological advances of our scientists, politicians — responding to electoral pressures — continue to tread on the well-worn path of least risk. As in so many other areas this is not the best way forwards for humanity.


1Andrew Packer, “Decision follows Years of fierce Debate,” The Financial Times, September 16, 2016, p.3
2Jonathan Ford, “Britain’s great energy gamble,” The Financial Times, September 18, 2016, p.18
3Sam Coates, “Compromise was vital to keep France on Side,” The Times, September 16, 2016, p. 6
4Eric Albert, “Feu vert conditionnel a Hinkley Point, Le Monde,4 (supplement) September 16, 2016
5Nils Pratley, “More Hinkleys would be madness,” The Guardian, September 16, 2016, p.9

103. Tribal Echoes in Our Era of Globalization

Tribalism may seem to have disappeared, but in ever so many ways it is still very much with us. It is most evident in the popular enthusiasm we show globally for Olympic competitions as well as the primitive vocals of would-be politicians like Donald Trump which frighten some and are instinctively appealing to others. To the millions who are dismayed by the effects of globalization and feel disenfranchised, ignored, forgotten, or jobless, the options are limited. Their immediate hopes rest in their membership in a family, a community, or social groupings like churches — that is, modernized versions of tribal units. Recourse to help from the state is not always available.

We, that is all the 7+ billions of us, are inhabitants of one planet, such that globalization is truly a given. The problem is how can we be global and at the same time tribal, that is, tied to family, community, and nation when all three of the latter have become less stable? The industrial society which started two hundred years ago has been overtaken by the age of molecular transformations, robotics and electronic communications all of which have contributed to the decline of the family, the social institutions of the past and the decline of trust in government. This has led to alienation and higher levels of anxiety for many. The electorate now yearns for an effective, steady and normative order in which to live.

Much of humanity now seeks a greater sense of certainty. Sometimes this is reflected in a search for a charismatic leader who can relieve them of their burdens of responsibility: In sum a throwback to the tribal days when none of the current uncertainties of change existed. The German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies described the tribal community as a convincing focus for our social nature before we gradually evolved over the past 2000 years into the fragile legal, rational, and bureaucratic democracies of the present. Because we have all become “individuals,” our ethnic groupings — and to a certain extent our identities — are vanishing.

Only ten thousand years ago our ancestors were still hunter-gatherers living a nomadic existence. Traditionally, tribesmen sought to avoid the agricultural life and its humiliations, and saw their destiny as pursuing the interest and honor of their kin group. Some two thousand years later the first farms and small settlements arose. The spirit of the tribal wanderer was still fighting within the newly settled and hard working agriculturalists.

Around 4,500 BC the first cities arose along the Euphrates, the Nile, and rivers in China. Accompanying these were the division of labor, wars involving conquest, as well as forms of writing and record keeping by a small elite. The nomadic Israelites became the first to record and transcribe their transformation from a tribal status to that of a nation. In what was to become the first five books of the Bible, much of this historical recording revolved around the persistence of the tribal mind, vacillating between taboo and ethics, between the drumbeats of custom and the first establishment of laws. A large part of this Biblical text focused on kinship and the impositions of sexual taboos about incest, that is sex with our nearest kin.

The shift from nature to culture was intertwined with the struggle to keep incest at bay by laws and taboos. This was to become a basis of our social relations. Injunctions about whom one could and could not marry and one’s obligations to the new in-laws became among the first human rules. To persuade tribespeople that “the other” is not a stranger, but is in fact a relative, remained an important and difficult development in our gradual social evolution. Even today, the Muslim world is still largely wedded to a system of close-cousin marriage. Muslim kids when asked about this will retort: “Of course we marry a cousin. Would you have us marry a stranger? We cannot trust strangers.” An enormous reluctance remains in the Muslim world to help all “non-kin” strangers.

The move away from kinship and into non-kin groupings and organizations took many centuries of evolutionary effort that drew on Christianity, the growth of humanism and the development of commerce, industry and science.1 The continuing antagonism between tribe and state was manifest by the tapping of the support of tribal groups in wars, as the British did with the Scottish clans which they turned into national regiments. Indeed, the United Kingdom remains a political agreement between English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh ‘tribal’ groupings. The Scots, proud of their heritage, are still eager to have greater recognition and acceptance of their strong separatist desires. The systematic efforts of nation states to suppress their internal tribal units go against the aspirations and the need of identity that they, as citizens, also want as human beings.

The primitive soul encompassed all those powers that were invisible and non-material. It flourished with the poetic and verbal mythology that passed on and was embroidered upon from one generation to the next. The primitive soul was enriched in the Greek, the Norse, Hindu, and Chinese mythologies. Poets like Eliot, Pound and Yeats in the 20th century were united in the belief that “modern” man must recapture the mystic voices of antiquity if they are to heal the division in their souls. In today’s globalized world where the word ‘sacred’ is disappearing, we can also consider whether the “soul” is similarly diminished. Urbanite citizens no longer feel the natural order where their ancestors had once been integrated in a green existence. People lose their souls when they lose contact with nature and with themselves. In effect, they become rootless.

Modern man is becoming increasingly alienated from the world his predecessors inhabited. We walk alone swiftly communicating with others with flicks of our fingers. Online addiction by millions is eroding the mores which our ancestors spent millennia developing, such as shaking hands, reading the eyes of another, observing the person greeting you. Instead, we are undergoing universal social changes through which mankind will have to pass as technology, communications, and work evolve. We don’t really know where we fit as we advance into an “all encompassing data-processing system,” suggests Yuval Noah Harari. “We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands.”2 Even the most educated find it hard in the age of globalization to accept the unpredictability of change and have trouble trying to cope with it. Indeed, what to do with the rungs of cultural construction of our historical developmental ladder when it is no longer vertical and robots enter? We are facing the threatening globalized confluence of scientific advances in microbiology’s exploration of the brain and in computer technology’s incredible data processing capacity.

Globalization’s sheer trading and economic power drives the world economy in ways which even economists struggle to understand. When advisers to conservative leaders in both the US and the UK in the early 1980s pushed for a global free market in the transfer of capital as well as the free market in goods and services, none truly considered the consequences for the labor market, the increase of immigration, nor the rise of inequality. They failed to recognize that the vast expansion of individual choice would come at the expense of social bonds. They were lured to turn a blind eye to the big multi-national corporations that encouraged global investment both to avoid national taxation and to cut costs by finding cheap “third world” labor. Alas, the anti-globalization groups failed to come up with a set of beliefs that could counter capitalism’s competitive momentum nor could they direct the global economy in a more rational way. For decades those in power descended, in tribal fashion, on the talk shop in Davos every January to celebrate the ever-increasing profitability of the giant multi-national corporations.

We are as unwilling to take a larger, longer perspective on the corporate face of globalization as we are to acknowledge the important role of the tribal in our heritage. We need a new global contract focused on increased regulation of markets as well as international cooperation on both a financial transaction tax and a wealth tax. If inequality continues to rise and increasingly large numbers of the electorate feel left behind, then tribal-like nationalism will increase as the most alluring alternative to globalization. The still vociferous and impressive Gordon Brown, as ex-Prime Minister, did his best to slow down the 2008 economic crisis, saying after Brexit that “if we cannot show how we can make globalization fair and inclusive then our politics will revolve around nationality, race or simply identity.”3

Alas our thinking processes abandoned the old tribal patterns and have become increasingly less imaginative and socially responsive. Tribal people were (and the few remaining are) more confident of their identity than we are of ours, contended David Maybury Lewis in his book and television series.4 Because we have all branded ourselves as “individuals,” we have left the strength of the tribal behind. Re-acquainting ourselves with our tribal heritage could re-ignite some of our lost humanity.

Organizing society into smaller units, each of about 250 members, would be the rational way to advance to more meaningful and enduring human relationships. Past experience tells us that social units or clubs much larger than this tend to split up into various smaller ones or into “sects.” Small community groups would result in the return of familiarity and stability so basic to reducing the social anxiety, tension and isolation that are increasingly prevalent today. The proposition that small is not only beautiful but also economically viable has been blocked by a profit driven economy that has done its utmost to prevent such change from taking place.5

In my book, Dollars or Democracy, I outlined the direction in which we should advance: corporations should be turned into cooperatives and the huge multi-nationals broken up into small cooperative units. The emphasis of the state should also be to encourage and support the formation of smaller social groupings in which the individuals could find their place and identity much as they once did in tribal communities. Short of such vast and radical change, the humanizing remains of the tribal in us will be crushed by ever more ruthless corporations and the determination of national states.


1Even so, some of the footholds of tribalism remain, as in the Mafia. The motto of this inward looking group is: “Never go against the family.” As Robin Fox noted, in the Mafia “Trust is possible only between close relatives and preferably those of the paternal clan.” Robin Fox, The Tribal Imagination, (2011) p.63
2Yuval Noah Harari, “In big data we trust,” The Financial Times Magazine, August 27, 2016, p.14
3Gordon Brown, “Globalization must work for all of Britain,” The Guardian, June 29,2016.
4David Maybury-Lewis, Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World, (1992) p. 279
5See: Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy (2006) p.190

102. AN UNFAMILIAR ROLE FOR THE DEVIL

SATAN is not as popular as he was only 50 years ago — except perhaps among Evangelicals. And yet it seems that even among religious believers in the United States, the Devil in Donald Trump goes largely unrecognized.

As a confessed agnostic I find this to be extraordinary because Donald Trump has all the characteristics described by Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Milton and others in their portrayals of the Prince of Darkness:

  • All agree that the devil is a confirmed Liar.
  • His being exudes Hate.
  • His favorite techniques include the manipulative exercise of cunning in turning one group against another.
  • He excels in spreading fear.
  • His prejudices are endemic.
  • He tends to equate women with “sin.”
  • Human imperfections are subject to his full contempt.
  • He boasts of the triumphs of his falsehood.
  • He has the utmost contempt for those who don’t believe in him.
  • A standard operating procedure of his is to spin the threat of death.
  • Brazen pretense is his trademark.
  • Deceptive smiles are always of the essence.
  • Loyalty has little meaning for him.
  • His contemporary use of the exclamation, “You’re Fired!” originated in the old day when sinners were assigned to the Inferno.
  • This social media Lucifer does his best never to mention the name of his eternal opponent, God.

The great poet, John Milton, best described the cynical Satan, that personification of evil, in Paradise Lost:

“…round he throws his baleful eyes

That witness’d huge affliction and dismay

Mixt with obdurate pride and steadfast hate.”

101. The Challenges of Expertise

The widespread antipathy to experts is an angry and emotional reaction by electorates to the over-dependence on their advice. Scientific evidence and economic proposals are increasingly viewed with skepticism and their conclusions are dismissed as biased. Political and social experts are criticized for having been wrong on Iraq, Syria, Libya, immigration, the economy, inflation, prosperity and a range of technological challenges. The views of expert groups of economists, bankers, academics who opposed Britain leaving the European Union were dismissed by swaths of the population in the UK as being corrupt and incompetent. One Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove, said during the referendum campaign that Britain “has had enough of experts.”

Technocracy, or the rule by experts, has indeed conferred powers and legitimacy to governments as a way of implementing technical programs. This has long been condemned by such prominent economists as Friedrich Hayek who maintained that unchecked power should not be entrusted to “the wise and the good.” In his book, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek warned that in such technocracies there would “be special opportunities for the ruthless and the unscrupulous.” He went on to warn that “the readiness to do bad things becomes a path to promotion and power.”

Given this challenging perspective, Dan Gardner has pointed out that expertise entails more knowledge and that more knowledge produces more detail and complication which in turn makes it ever harder to come to clear and confident answers: “It will be a struggle to bring even modest clarity to the whole chaotic picture.”1

I must confess that I come from a highly skeptical background. My father, being a Berliner, was deeply suspicious of German experts. He called them “Klug Scheissers” (which can be generously translated into “smart alecks” or “know-it-alls.”) The German military experts of WWI had been disastrously wrong — as had been the generals on all sides. Years later, when he was a celebrated photographer in the United States, he found the so-called experts in the world of fashion as limited in their vision as the “experts” of the German military.

I have had the ‘privilege’ during my life to be in contact with top experts in differing professional categories. One of the foremost of these while I was still in university was the philosopher and essayist Isaiah Berlin who divided experts into two prototypes: The single “grand idea” ones whom he called ‘hedgehogs’ and the more eclectic thinkers who were the ‘foxes’. Berlin favored the foxes for having greater and more genuine foresight. He portrayed the fox as knowing many little things and being skilled at improvising when faced with rapidly changing events. The hedgehog’s perspective was limited by its single-minded determination to prevail. This was effective in winning an argument, but the foxes were more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehogs by evaluating the forecasts of a range of experts.

Over the years I have developed a wide range of attitudes towards experts in different fields. I have found the perspective of macro-economists to be unusually narrow and restricted. Ditto for the cold-war warriors I encountered. Rounding up experts for Prospects for Tomorrow, a series I edited, was surprisingly difficult: These tended to focus their essays on the immediate rather than on the wider aspects of the future.
I learned first-hand about today’s medical experts on the occasion when I entered Addenbrookes, the gigantic hospital in Cambridge, with a high fever and chest pains. I was examined by a series of specialists each of whom in turn related my problems to their area of expertise: After a brief examination, the cardiologist suspected a heart problem; the lung specialist thought it was a viral infection, the renal specialist suspected a kidney problem, and the psychologist was concerned over my mental state. As the concilium of specialists could not decide what was the cause of my condition, I was conveyed to the contagious infection unit on the top floor where I stayed for a full week. When my temperature reverted to normal, I signed myself out — never knowing what had been the exact nature of my problems.

In the medical profession, as is true elsewhere, many specialists find it difficult to look at the broad picture. Those experts who spend decades focused on one particular area are not necessarily right, but they are more likely to be correct than those unfamiliar with the subject. Dan Gardner, who has written a number of books on experts, was initially perplexed how one of the best thinkers of his time, Arnold Toynbee, could be so wrong so often. “Here was a man who probably knew more history than anyone alive. His knowledge of politics and current affairs was almost as vast. He brimmed with intelligence, energy and imagination. And yet his whole conception of the past and present was based on a mirage, and his supposed visions of the future were no more insightful than the ramblings of a man lost and wandering beneath a desert sun.”2

It is fortunate that the polymaths of yesteryear, figures like John Maynard Keynes, Isaiah Berlin, or Francis Crick — all of whom crossed many fields of knowledge — were never overwhelmed by the swiftly increasing scope of human knowledge. Wikipedia is infinitely more comprehensive than the Encyclopedia Britannica of 75 years ago. Today “stars,” who make expertise their business on the internet and relish appearances on television, are no better than the rest of us when it comes to making predictions about the future. Their analysis of events may be more perceptive, but when they are wrong it is rare for them to admit it or for them to be held accountable for their misjudgments.
Modern science has demonstrated that uncertainty, like the quantum, is an inevitable element in our world. Total certainty is an illusion. Scientists acknowledge they must avoid that feeling of certainty. Questioning and degrees of doubt are essential. On the other hand, politicians, journalists and those in business all dislike uncertainty and scorn at the use of words such as “however”, “maybe,” and “if.” At the same time, those political experts who bore us with a misty spray of “howevers” are more likely to be right about what might happen than the charismatic experts who exude confidence in their predictions.

Studies have shown that a strong commitment to ideology or theory by experts makes for prejudiced evaluations. Controversial issues such as climate change, GM crops, vaccinations, incarceration, and banking are often tied up with emotions and values passionately held by the electorate. Experts seeking to establish levels of public opinion often have to resort to work with the probability factor. However, one of the many problems encountered with probability is the way people interpret it: “High probability” is all too often turned by the media into “this will happen,” when it should be translated into ”this is likely to happen.”

The foremost American writer on expertise, Philip E. Tetlock, suggests we should view political forecasting by intelligence analysts, independent pundits, institutional specialists or media figures with the same degree of skepticism that the well-informed now apply to stock market forecasting.3 Tetlock contends that there is no direct correlation between the knowledge or intelligence of our political experts and the quality of their forecasts. To evaluate the prediction of any of these experts we should look at the ways he or she is processing information and the paths along which they are thinking. Experts often are wrong in their forecasts simply because they fail to use good judgment.

The world is becoming far more volatile in this digital age than even most intelligent people realize. Such volatility makes evaluation of our future direction far more risky for the experts. The best approach consequently is to ask provocative questions which might help to clarify the alternatives. For example, as Dr. Randall Wray has observed, professional economists actually know less about government budgeting today than they did 50 years ago.4

Another contributor to The World Economic Review, maintains that “The bottom line is that there is no fiscal debt crisis… The world is faced with enough problems as it is without us fabricating one. It is high time that we put the myths to bed and started basing policy on fact and not on fiction.”4 What haunts most experts is that what appears most likely often does not happen, while what actually occurs is quite unexpected- as in Brexit!


1Dan Gardner, Future Babble, (2010) pp.87 and p. 67
2Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment (2005)
3L. Randall Wray, “Taxes are for Redemption not Spending,” World Economic Review No.7, July 2016
4John T. Harvey, ”Worldwide Fiscal Crisis: Fact or Fiction,” World Economic Review No.7, July 2016.

YORICK’S BLOG

As I have been suggesting in the past hundred blogs, we are living in a highly uncertain era in which our future is rapidly evolving with minimal planning or careful consideration. Nowhere is this more evident than in our approach to economics where we are reluctant to confront the many challenges facing us. I am selecting a few of these in the hope that the discussions and debates they may provoke will result in the examination of plausible alternatives to the shambles into which we might otherwise plunge. Creating a better world has been at the basis of this blog.

We are currently experiencing global economic chaos. Since the end of the gold standard in the 1930s economists have been unable to come up with an effective substitute.

We are reluctant to recognize that the globalized free flow of capital was designed for corporations to evade taxes and the burden of social legislation. Free market economics are creating universal and sinister levels of inequality.

We hesitate to accept that we are at an end of a period of growth and higher living standards for the majority of people in what used to be the “advanced economies.”

We remain reluctant to admit that with ever improving technology and robotics we are reducing the opportunities for workers to find jobs.

We fail to grasp that the entire banking system with its near-to-zero interest rates has become redundant. In the age of computerized accounting and transfers, one National Bank per country would suffice.

We cannot come to terms with the reality that the globalization of tax evading corporations has undermined the social structure of democracies. Corporations have brought in rules that restrict what governments can and cannot do in terms of interfering with corporate interests which focus on profits not human beings.

We are unwilling to face up to the corruption of civil society by the dynamic greed of capitalism. The power of money rules almost all contemporary economic scenarios .For example, from a recent newspaper comment: “Britain has become a power base for a legalized financial mafia that strips the assets of healthy companies, turns the nation’s housing into a roulette table, launders money for the drug cartels and terrorists, then slashes the gains beyond the reach of police and tax inspectors.” [@georgemonbiot, June 15, 2016]

If the global markets implode, what follows? We have no contingency planning.

Plan B, please.

100. ADVANCES IN HEALTH RESEARCH

This entry marks the hundredth blog I have written over the past 30 months.

Looking at the genuine advances being made on so many fronts, including computer technology, environmental improvements, and space exploration, I believe the most favorable projection for our future rests on the genetic revolution that promises positive improvements in our lives in the 21st century. Advances in biotech have already made it possible to feed the world in new ways. The crop yields of wheat, rice, corn and other cereals have increased dramatically. We enjoy the result of breakthroughs which have increased our life spans, reduced diseases like malaria and improved technology in hospitals to correct a wide range of disorders.

Since the mid-19th century most countries have had continuing improvements in the health of their inhabitants. In 1850 four in ten English babies died before their first birthday, today less than five out of every thousand infants in Britain die before the age of one. As a consequence, we have come to expect continuing advances in medicine and health care. Sir William Castell, the retired chairman of the Welcome Trust thinks “We are on the cusp of spectacular change, as genomics, imaging, diagnostics, data analysis and other technologies come together to make real precision medicine possible for the first time.”1 Precision has become a key word in the practice of 21st century medicine. Precision demands that patients be diagnosed for the exact cause of the their ailments and only after examining their genetic make-up, prescribed the best treatment.

Now the laboratory development of CRISPR* will be making the editing of the genomes of all living species much more rapid, cheaper and more accurate. Each of our cells contain all of our 22,000 human genes. These are not all simultaneously active all of the time, but are controlled by complex networks of programs and circuits in our body’s systems. The CRISPR breakthrough now makes it possible to modify the DNA without altering the gene sequencing itself. Earlier this month, the US National Academy of Sciences published a paper on altering the genetic composition of mosquitoes which can render the female offspring sterile and potentially open to extermination. The technique now employed assures that certain genetic changes are passed on to the offspring. CRISPR could also be employed on pig embryos injected with human cells to create new kidneys, pancreases, and livers, which could then be transplanted into humans without the risk of rejection by the immune system.

Microbiologists continue to make startling advances in understanding the complex microbiome, that is all the bacteria, microbes, viruses, fungi and eukaryotes that inhabit our guts. Massive groupings of competing and co-operative microbes have evolved in our species. Microbes in our guts are essential for survival and the loss of microbiotic diversity in our digestive system (due to the overkill by antibiotics as well as the use of radiation in food preservation and agricultural pesticides) is detrimental to our well-being. Even our nervous systems are dependent on gut bacteria. These produce hundreds of neurotransmitters which regulate mood, memory and learning. They also produce much of the body’s supply of serotonin which is recognized as one of the keys to our sense of well-being.

Methods are being explored which might enable doctors to tell immediately whether an infection is bacterial or viral. If doctors were then able to tell which antibiotics could eradicate an infection, they would not prescribe some drugs, as they often risk doing now, which offer only partial resistance and advance the progress of resistant strains.2 Competing microbes in the gut, trying to keep others in check, secrete antibiotics. In the search for these microbes pharmaceutical groups are extracting antibiotics from bacteria living in dirt. This has led to testing new drugs like Teixobactin.

With the spectacular advance of antibiotics over the past century the rise of drug resistant organisms, such as Staphylococcus aureus, has increased the risk of hospital infections. Some three quarters of a million people die each year from drug resistant infections. Immunotherapy is being used increasingly to fight many illnesses which do not respond to penicillin and other antibiotics. Reserving some of the new breakthrough drugs for emergencies keeps sales low and prices high. This in turn discourages some of the big pharmaceutical companies from costly research, development and testing. Cheaper diagnostic techniques may partially correct this imbalance.

Medical technology, such as stem cell therapy, has moved swiftly from the drawing board two decades ago into human trials and now into transplant operations as in patients suffering macular degeneration of their eye cells. Other technological advances are focused on ways to radically alter our biological composition.3 Tissue engineering is creating functional matter that avoids rejection by patients having transplants. Their porous structure is such that it induces the body’s cells to integrate with the artificial tissues to ultimately transform into normal tissues. Progress is being made in creating biomaterials and artificial polymers (that is, chains of molecules) which will interact with networks of stem cells.4

Because of the lack of donors, thousand of patients around the globe are desperately awaiting organ transplants. Organoids are another of the dramatic new breakthroughs in which laboratory grown body parts are used to test patients about to receive transplants for kidneys, liver, intestines and other organs. Such organoids are grown from stem cells similar to those found in embryos. However, some organoids are actually created by treating skin cells with chemicals which transform them into stem cells. These organoids are then placed in the lab into glass vessels where they respond to drugs being tested for toxicity exactly in the same way as would a corresponding transplanted organ of the afflicted patient. Most people who currently have transplant surgery must take immune system suppressing drugs for life.

Cerebral organoids are 3D tissues generated from stem cells that allow modeling of human brain development in glass vessels which are turned into supportive microenvironments. Such “neural precursor tissue can spontaneously self-organize to form the stereotypic organization of the early human embryonic brain,” explains Madeline Lancaster of Cambridge University.5 Her current interests focus on neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and intellectual disability by introducing mutations seen in these disorders and examining their roles in pathogenesis in the context or organoid development. The researchers in the Medical Research Council’s labs are studying mechanisms underlying the progression of neurological diseases and the potential therapeutic advances.

Researchers also are moving towards the creation of implantable pacemakers for the brain which could be used to treat problems like Parkinson’s, drug addiction, dementia and depression much as we have developed cardiac pacemakers for heart problems. Intense research is also focusing on testing strategies which could treat or even prevent Alzheimer’s where sticky plaques of a protein called amyloid build up in the brain forming deposits that suffocate nerve cells. The advances in brain imaging enable scientists to spot small amyloid clusters before they cause damaging symptoms. Vaccines are being tried (so far unsuccessfully) to develop vaccines which could eliminate amyloid plaques.

Last year the Hinxton group of bioethicists, stem cell researchers and genome experts agreed that human genome editing is necessary if we are to gain further understanding of the human embryos — even if this is not applied to cultivating gene-edited embryos. Ultimately the hope is that genes could be edited to avoid certain inherited cancers.

Research has been going on for more than 75 years to avoid the surgery, radiation treatment or chemotherapy in breast and other cancers. The search is now becoming far more precise due to our ability to pinpoint specific cells responsible for cancer formation. For example, genetic researchers have found that a mutation in the gene named BRCA1 which affects less than 1 percent of women is responsible. Specific new drugs, such as Denosumab, will now be tested in clinical trials to ascertain and study the possible side-effects. The hope is that in the not so distant future, it will be possible to avoid mastectomies and debilitating radiation treatments for this cancer as well as for so many others.

As the power of computers has steadily advanced in assisting researchers and testers, so have the cures for human diseases. I am filled with optimism when contemplating where we are headed in tackling Alzheimer’s, autism, cancers and other genetic defects. I am less confident that these advances will eradicate the health problems of billions of people whose governments have neither the means nor the ability to raise the resources necessary to tackle the massive national inequalities in health care.


* CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR involves taking a strand of RNA, a chemical messenger, to target a section of our DNA and using an enzyme (a nuclease) that can cut unwanted genes and paste in the edited RNA. This sequence borrows from a process in nature that scientists have harnessed to snip and splice sections of DNA. To make this possible researchers found a specific slicer enzyme called Cas9. This technological advance is key to the synthetic biology and gene editing revolution and represents an amazing improvement over existing techniques.

1Clive Cookson, “The (very precise) future of medicine”, The FT Magazine, October 3, 2015.

2“When the drugs don’t work,” The Economist, May 21, 2016, p.9

3Linda Geddes, “The gene revolution,” The Observer, June 12, 2016.

4Oran Maguire, “Engineering the rise of cell therapies,” Bluesci, Easter 2016, p.12

5mlancast@ mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk

99. OUT NOT IN

I rarely change my mind on important issues, but I surprised myself when I shifted out of the British camp which wants to stay in the European Union and found myself recognizing that change is necessary and can only come if the UK votes OUT. Having been born in Holland and partially educated in France, the US, and the UK, I have always thought of myself as being pro-European. I strongly admired the leaders who created the Common Market after WWII as well as those who followed with the realization of the European Union in an effort to end centuries of hostility.

Until about a year ago, I took it for granted that I would support the UK remaining in the EU. My first serious doubts were aroused by the narrow and inept ways the European community dealt with the Greek financial crisis. The scandalous way the Europeans then dealt with the immigration crisis horrified me. I began to see the sprawling bureaucracy in Brussels as incompetent, reactionary and unaccountable. A serious desire for change altered my perspective.

I began to see the vitriolic exchanges coming from both the protracted electoral campaign in the United States and the four months of raging debates in the United Kingdom between the “ins” and the “outs” as a reflection of popular concerns which exist on multiple fronts: An obvious demand for change in “Big Government,” global inequality, environmental control, runaway technology, banking instability, migration and immigration, and despair over the ineffectuality of the United Nations and the European Union. Add the challenges of capitalist corruption, and the lack of genuine leadership in all of these areas and the message became clear that we cannot go on as we have in the 21st Century. The rise of populist figures like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others of both the left and the right is an indication of the general disaffection.

That is why I am NOW advocating Britain’s exit from the European Union. If the “Remain” camp wins, nothing in Europe will be changed. Should the Brexit camp win, the floodgates for change could be opened, starting with the resignation of the Prime Minister and followed by unknown consequences in the European Community, the eventual break-away of Scotland, and the beginning of a major shake-up of the world banking system with unknown consequences for the global economy. My hope is that such major challenges would renew democratic initiatives and fire the spirit of people around the world with hope. A “Leave” vote could also mark a change for such huge bureaucratic organizations as the European Union in Brussels and the United Nations in New York. It could possibly lead us to smaller, cooperative groupings in which the voices of the electorate become heard. People are fed up with ever more remote bureaucratic centralization for the sake of cost-cutting and “efficiency.” The public is beginning to recognize that “efficiency” comes at the expense of both accountability and human contact.

The prospects for the European Union look increasingly bleak as the “social” part of the European social market is being sacrificed to focus on the need for greater economic stability. The politicians in Brussels still believe they can push through a fiscal union even as unity is crumbling. Acting in the interests of the big corporations which, through their army of lobbyists and inside dealers, have corrupted the administrations in London, Washington and Brussels. Moreover, the unaccountable elite in the EU, who originally embraced the lofty ideals of the “Democratic Process,” are also failing to act effectively on the increasingly undemocratic tendencies of the governments in Eastern Europe. These bureaucrats in Brussels have never been exposed to the will of the people and don’t want this to be recognized. Unless they are shocked out of their routines, the EU and the UN will continue to be more bureaucratic and more centralized. Is this not the time for change if we can affect this by voting for the Exit?

Such an exit by Britain could be the death rattle for the increasingly remote 21st Century leadership and herald in a new and hopefully sympathetic era as Steve Hilton, an ex-strategy advisor to David Cameron, has been promoting in his book More Human. The real choice for Britain is not between economic security and economic risk. It is about the birth of the kind of sustainable democratic governance which will best guide us through an increasingly challenging and unpredictable technological era.

98. TRUMP’S MUCH-LOVED UNEDUCATED

Like much of the American electorate, I have been horrified that a buffoon is to be the Republican candidate for the Presidency. As far as I am concerned, the problem does not lie with Trump — who until recently was a minor player on the gambling, hotel and celebrity scenes — but with the pathetic performance of the Republican Party’s broken leadership, which has been overwhelmed by the frustrations and incomprehension of large numbers of its members. Indeed, how was it possible that such a dunce could trounce the 16 other self-appointed personalities?

My interpretation of this phenomenon is that a large number of Trump’s Republican supporters suffer from second-rate educations and feel themselves cheated and deceived by an elitist and out-of-touch Republican leadership, corrupted by money and Wall Street. The perception of Trump by the less-educated is more than just naïve — it goes against their own economic interests. Alas, all too many adults do follow paths which are against their own well-being: Despite all the warnings by doctors, experts, and the media, they smoke, take drugs, and consume alcohol at levels which can seriously affect their health. So warning them that an unstable leader could bring on disaster is unlikely to change their emotional inclinations. I do recognize that one of the failures of modern education is that in some ways it fails in its role of protecting us from ourselves.

There have been previous revolutions which have been driven by large numbers at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, desperate for a way out, but who have been unable to appreciate that a second-rate leader could not help to improve their status. In 1932 the Germans democratically endorsed an unstable leader who temporarily restored their confidence and provided them with jobs. The ultimate results were WWII and the Holocaust.

In the United States the “education” of those at the bottom has not been in schools (generally not up to the job) nor through the rapidly vanishing press (which they don’t read and don’t trust) but via radio, television, and the internet. Trump proudly declared that he loved voters with little education. They were the ones who most acclaimed him! To be sure, only a quarter of Americans have a college degree or its equivalent, while 15% of the population never finished high school. This poorly educated minority view Trump as an un-coached celebrity whose success they admire and whose simplicity they embrace. That he is not concerned about facts, religion, or even “the truth” make him seem “familiar.” Such supporters have had little exposure to either ethics or psychology. Over the years of watching screens, they have developed seriously restricted attention spans. This enables them to be responsive to such simply repeated phraseology as: “Make America Great Again.” There is no need, as far as they are concerned, to provide any details of a program which could lead this to fruition. All too many are finding it increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Educating the electorate is not a short-term proposition. The Social Media, such as Facebook, appear to be transforming people’s outlook and their political responses.1 The formats of the media do not engage the electorate to ask questions. Curiosity is no longer regarded as necessary and has also suffered from social media over-exposure. Even reporters on television are finding “follow-ups” increasingly difficult. The media have become focused on getting ratings as opposed to passing on information. Hardly anyone has asked Trump, for example, in what ways he is a Republican or believes in “Conservatism.” Nobody asked him if he would regret the possible destruction of the Republican Party!

By way of contrast, I do believe the Obama Presidency set an awesomely high profile for the less-educated. Unwittingly, Obama has made the uneducated feel inferior and has contributed to their anger. The President’s ability to communicate, to control his emotions, and to display his intelligence, all combined to turn unemployed middle-aged males toward someone who exhibited none of these qualities. The poorly-educated but highly-resentful express their discontent by validating a leader with whom they could somehow associate. Not only did the less-educated find they could understand Trump’s language, but he also “played dumb“ to appeal to them in particular. He understood that their anger is directed not only at the bankers or Wall Street but also at the educated elite who have never genuinely considered their social predicaments.

To prevent a repetition of this situation for the next generation, I believe one of the few things we can do nationally is to place much greater emphasis on education at the primary and secondary school levels. This means shifting federal funds directly into teaching and apprenticeship. Education should aim at sustaining and promoting, not only the life of the individual, but also enhancing that of the community. Education should encompass the concern of every citizen with the common good and thereby embody this as the principal hope of improving our future. In contemporary USA and the UK, few people believe education is our highest purpose and, as computers and the social media play an ever larger role, we have little idea about how the minds of our young are being shaped. Most children are taught in bureaucratically run academic institutions which fail to develop their potentialities, their talents or their aspirations. They are mostly taught according to the demands of a market economy, that is, getting a job or making money. A broader education focused on promoting curiosity, understanding, and communication is essential but will not be created until education becomes an absolute priority — along with sustainable food, water, shelter, health-care and survival.2

Teaching needed skills is essential if a whole group of young workers are to regain the pride which their parents once possessed. Even the current formal education can make a difference in increasing the levels of sophistication of the electorate. Perhaps this might persuade Trump to campaign against it! Curiously, church attendance for people without high school diplomas is much lower than for those with college degrees.3 Evidently, every added year of education considerably increases the attendance of religious services.

The celebrity culture, however, which the media continues to promote, is hardly compatible with the future of electoral democracy. How to make this understood to future generations will not be easy on a planet so manipulated by biased and greedy media moguls. However, the challenge ultimately is above and beyond grade-school education: it encompasses our entire social system which is now being uprooted not only by globalization, but by the advances of automation, robotics and fast changing technological developments. Given such instability, even the less capable must begin to recognize that candidates, such as the intellectually vacuous Trump, could never improve their long-term prospects of moving out of poverty.

1“Facebook and Politics,” The Economist, May 21, 2016, p.35

2See: Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium — Optimistic Visions for Change, (1997) pp.226-245

3Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic, (2016)

97. Technology: Introducing Structured Advances

Technology is transforming our planet and frankly, I am overwhelmed on many fronts by the wonders and rapidity of technologically-driven “advances” in automation, bio-technology, communication, education, medicine, employment, the environment, and even privacy. There are moments when I empathize with King Alfred shouting to the waves to halt their advance! Nor am I alone in my concerns: Youthful constituencies in both the US and the UK have been expressing their anger at the inequalities, the narrowing of opportunities, and the environmental dangers we are facing — all in large measure resulting from technology’s global transformations.

I cannot overlook what is driving the nightmare scenario of endless GROWTH, fueled by the demands of technology’s paymaster, capitalism. The focus on growth of the standard of living, of production, of the GNP, and of the global population is now wedded to the growth of technology. The truth is that none of the current generation of politicians dares to propose an end to growth. None even mentions the dangers of a ten billion population level in the 21st century.

Planning is rejected at nearly all levels because of a misled belief in the freedom and advances which are offered by “the market.” Apple, Microsoft, and the larger community of “Silicon Valley” are all eager to create further advances in automation, communications, connectivity and the resulting profits! As the current front-runners of technological advance, their executive boards are convinced that given sufficient data and instant connectivity, their products will prove to be effective in creating a more beneficial outcome for society.

Is technological innovation the handmaiden of progress in the 21st century? Innovation frequently results in startling advances and profits, but it does not always produce results which give a long-term advantage to the good over the bad. The Financial Times has suggested that Silicon Valley technology has been distorting the operations of the market by restricting the basic information necessary for the efficient allocation of resources by industry. Data, on which the advertising agencies depend, are being offered by Google, Facebook and others at vastly reduced rates. Evgeny Morozov, who has developed a rather sinister scenario, suggests that these companies “will eventually run the basic infrastructure on which the world functions.” He concludes that “They would be thrilled to do this.”1

The accelerating pace of change, particularly in the fields of automation and robotics, is also threatening our sense of personal worth. All too many of the now unemployed workers have come to regard computers, robots, and machines as being stronger, more capable and faster than themselves. As these workers become discarded in a competitive environment, they are told to become more flexible and “compatible” with the new technologies.

It is important for us to try and step back and confront how technology is now changing the human spirit itself. Automation and mechanization are making us less connected with the natural world, more fragmented as human beings, less well balanced, and increasingly escapist in our behavior. Due to the internet, today we can focus on specifics, but have trouble picturing the whole. Innovation has become a driving factor in the digital world in which volatility and dynamism have become linked. Technology is cramming ever greater numbers of electronic components into everything from household products to automobiles and will soon enter the human body.

Society has become fixated on the idea that our technology advances in order to solve problems. We also tend to think of the development of technology itself much as we do of an evolving eco-system, but we tend to see “run-away technology” as having an independence and direction which was not given nor intended by its creators. The notion of separating technology from human needs and intents is itself remarkable. We may not be aware, however, that what we are becoming could be the result of what we created.

“New technology equals new perceptions. As we create tools, we recreate ourselves in their image,” observed one sharp observer.2 Technology can thus turn into a way of arranging our world so that we no longer experience it. It is significant that we are currently extending the scope of our possible awareness through the analysis of the 95 per cent of the spectrum (ranging from infra-red to gamma radiation, and x-rays to ultra-violet) which we cannot perceive with our naked eyes. Alas, the best minds in technology have no idea whether we are headed towards a techno-utopia or a dystopia. That is one of the many tech challenges which we have to answer.

The truth is that as members of an evolving civilization, we hold no genuine vision of where we are headed. It is generally accepted that the real future has always differed from rational extrapolations of what exists. New tech tends to evolve as the consequence of scientific breakthroughs, from the light bulb to the transistor, which could not have been predicted. Scientists are generally interested in discovering the truth, not in ushering in new technologies. They usually tend to dismiss statements about future developments as “speculation.” Such a perspective encourages their leaning toward the short-term. Engineers also prefer to focus on the more immediate problems at hand: Their employers, their colleagues and their training all encourage them to design systems that can be made from existing technology.

Science and technology are intimately connected. New technology that produces new instrumentation is necessary to establish the validity of most recent discoveries. These tools tend to become increasingly complex and expensive as the research becomes more removed from the powers of unaided human observation — as evidenced by particle accelerators, microprocessors, space exploration, and both bio- and nano-tech. It has generally been trial-and-error experimentation, not the planning of a genius, that has brought about most advances from digital watches to GPS.

To build structures to complex micro-specifications, a kind of supra-molecular chemistry is being developed for “molecular meccano” or nano-scale construction. One important aspect of such supra-molecular assemblers is that they will be able to replicate themselves much in the fashion of the giant macromolecules of DNA and RNA which are at the basis of all life on earth. Eric Drexler, one of the most brilliant of the technology analysts of the 20th century wrote that: “Advances in the technologies of medicine, space, computation and production … all depend on our ability to arrange atoms. With assemblers (that is molecular machines that can be programmed to build almost any molecular structure or device from simpler chemical blocks) we will be able to remake our world.”3

Can we tolerate this technological transformation of the world? Scientists may be able to produce proteins from chemicals, super-strong materials from carbons and silicates, tailor-made genetic alterations to fight specific viruses, as well as ever more sophisticated aphrodisiacs, but our social structure, which until quite recently was tribal, is so delicately balanced that it may be overwhelmed if we push relentlessly for advances in micro-technology. Regrettably technologists, like those who want to meld computer chips with the human nervous system, seldom seem to address the possibility of improving social institutions. The problem is that their technological meliorism lacks social vision.

Automation would appear to be one of the most threatening technologies now facing us. It takes the most extraordinary forms from drones to the new generation of half a dozen different types of robots. All of these point to a future that does not need us, rather than focusing on machines which support the well-being of humans. Capitalism strives to promote automation guided not only by popular demand but also for ever greater efficiency bringing more profit.

The collective performance of human employees does not improve much over time, while robots keep on becoming ever more efficient. Automation had progressively mastered increasingly complex tasks. This makes it harder for manufacturers to justify hiring workers even in jobs that require special manual and intellectual skills. Half of all current jobs in the United States could potentially be replaced in the next two decades. Personally, I believe that even if automation can carry out some functions more rapidly and efficiently than humans, it still makes better social sense for us to continue to carry on with those functions, even if we do them less well or are not as profitable.

Tomorrow’s technicians may also come around to believing that human beings, as currently constituted, should be modified. After all, engineers have used technology to improve technology, just as experts have used computers to produce better computers, and bio-technicians are using biology to improve plants and livestock. Is there a rational reason why humans should be the exception to this chain of betterment? Eventually, “mind” (or Artificial Intelligence) may well emerge in bio-mechanical machines which may prove to be a difficult challenge for civilization.

Today automation, no longer limited to factories and assembly lines, is being integrated into every day life.  We are increasingly automating the military, health care, transport and housekeeping. Two Dutch experts have compiled a comprehensive overview on automation and robotics whose table of contents overwhelmed me.4 The challenge of evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of Mechanoids, Humanoids and Androids on our sex lives, stopped me. For the time being I shall leave human-robot interaction to the pages of science fiction.

A global debate on the use of military drones has obviously been avoided for far too long. So has the private use of drones — with one million drones, each weighing up to 25 kilos, having been sold in the United States. Such drones pose a serious threat to security as terrorists could use them on sport events and public crowds. The Economist pointed out that “Technology can also keep drones out of trouble. Some drone makers are installing “geo-fencing” software which programs a drone’s GPS to prevent flights near sites such as airports and nuclear power stations as well as restricting the speed and height that they can reach.”5 The development of common legal and ethical principles for the responsible use of drones is essential.

A basic condition for humanitarian law is that someone can be held responsible for undesirable consequences at all times. Robots are likely to test the boundaries of our antiquated legal frameworks. There is a need for timely government action on the gradual robotization of automobiles and traffic. The US government has funded much of the advances in science and technology since the beginning of the Cold War in 1950, but it has not matched this with controlling the consequences. Technological development was mostly driven by the US Defense Department’s push in areas ranging from satellite communications to molecular biology, transistors, the internet as well as drones and automation. Today’s governments hardly feature in giving a direction to technological developments. I believe it is urgent that governments obtain automatic shares and a percentage of the profits from the patents and intellectual property they protect on automation and technology.

The “Silicon Valley” mindset has propagated a belief in techno-optimism which promotes that driver-less cars will prevent gridlock, that mobile phones will spur growth in the less developed nations, and that robots will look after the old as the aging population mounts. Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are struggling in a media rivalry over whose technologies will come out on top. Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, for example, is experimenting with lasers, drones, and satellites which could connect remote areas of the globe. Apple’s iPhone has now reached an impressive 2.5 billion people. The problem is that while capitalist-driven technology can increase and multiply consumer desires, it can also lower the number of employees who could pay for them.

Corporations pushing beyond the personal computer to the personal robot could serve to swell the ranks of the unemployed. In economics, the ultimate human goal must be the ability of all to find gainful employment. Capitalism is now failing in this respect. No elite of scientists, inventors and investors should be permitted to fleece all of mankind as they are doing now.

As technology encroaches on a world increasingly dominated by machines, people have begun to ask what are its limits? It would seem there are none: Technology is speeding up the rate of human evolution itself. Bound as we appear to be to technology, we can no longer pretend to be free. We are manacled. The philosopher Martin Heidegger, was already asking in the 1950s: “Is man a defenseless and perplexed victim at the mercy of the irresistible superior power of technology?”6 He concluded that it was impossible to brake or direct its history.

New Directions for a Technology Dominated World

Technology may promise marvels for tomorrow, but we should not let it run away at such speeds as to destroy everything we once valued — starting with our environment. Do we really want technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering, nuclear energy and communications which will overwhelm the achievements of the past two centuries? The speed of change in the electronic industries, the speed of communications, and the flickering images of the digital screens already seem to have reduced our patience and ability to focus.

Social architects “must begin to combine technological ingenuity with sociological awareness, and governments need to design institutions and processes that will help integrate new, artificial agents into society,” writes the author of Robot Futures.7 To do that, however, we must aim for a society structured around long-term changes rather than one having to cope with continual short-term crises. Socially, we must collaborate and urge governments to prevent an uncontrolled system (or an elite of billionaires controlling it) from dehumanizing us. How are the electorate and its representatives to prevent the potentially dehumanizing effects of automation? Who will decide how to shape limits on biotech brain research? Even if much is desirable, how could controls on the shaping of automation over the coming decades be achieved? Are the codes of information technology and the codes of molecular biology not likely to be progressively intermingled? (The genome of every cell contains 3 billion bits of coded information, so such efficient packaging by nature is too ingenious not to be copied.)

We don’t need philosophers to tell us that our brains do not seem able to direct the complex decision making process involved in resolving the challenges of an out-of-control technology. Despite all the expert briefs, the discussion papers and the endless reports, we have been unable to draft any workable strategies for change. The fact is that, as a society, we must rethink our basic assumptions about changing the world. This demands an entirely different ethos, one not founded on the advances in science and technology, not driven by capitalist consumerism, and not centered on possessive individualism. To achieve such a paradigm shift, people may have to transfer their focus from the material world to the miracle of their own internal consciousness, possibly onto the as-yet-unfathomable universe, or even on an evolutionary system which generates perpetual change. Yes, controlled change is a genuine and positive possibility and I firmly believe democratic politicians globally should start to grasp this.


1Evgeny Morozov, “Tech Titans are busy privatizing our data,” The Observer, April 14, 2016

2John Brockman, The Third Culture, (1995) p. 377

3Eric K. Drexler, Engines of Creation, (1986) p. 14

4Lamber Royakkers and Rinie van Est, Just Ordinary Robots: Automation from Love to War, (2016).

5“Keeping the skies safe,” The Economist, April 23, 2016, p. 70

6Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, (1960) p. 52

7Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, “All too Human” , Foreign Affairs, July 2015, p. 28