Address to Davos; Avoiding the New Dark Ages

Dear Friends in Spirit,

In preface, I offer for your consideration last year’s Address to Davos, in five parts, relevant to what follows:

In 2017 Predictions… , I remarked “But now we discover that a large portion of the U.S. electorate are prepared, by talent, inclination, and education, for tasks involving no more than low-level automation.” It is the tendency of all concerned, policy makers and Davos attendees, to think of solutions of tactical scope, such as monetary policy and trade negotiations.

But the simple discontent of the Rustbelt has resemblance to historical trends of the past. A number of comparisons can be made:

  • Cheap Egyptian grain provided by the rich Nile delta ruined Roman farmers. With the descent of the plebeians, the dictators rose.
  • The Luddites of early 19th century England smashed the machines that put them out of their textile jobs.
  • The regression of the Dark Ages was caused by a breakdown of economies of scale.

Of the three, which one is different? The third, because it was the breakdown of commerce, and of economies of scale  in the Dark Ages  that caused the loss of manufacturing know-how, not the other way around. All three examples have representation in the current crisis.  But there is a new element.

It would be simple to say that the cause of Rustbelt discontent is the export of jobs, as with the Roman farmers. It would be simple to refute “Luddites” with “previous waves of automation created jobs.” It would be simple to add that protectionism, by damaging economies of scale, will make, if not a new Dark Age, a dim one.

But history does not repeat. It rhymes. Automation, as it has progressed from mechanical timers, plug boards, then minicomputers, and to general purpose robots, is making human labor superfluous. This long awaited and highly thought of development has not been accompanied by a means for the equitable disposition of leisure. Nor has the human organism been optimized for it.

The human organism is the product of an environment in which life was, as Thomas Hobbes said, nasty, brutish, and short. Under those conditions, there wasn’t time to engage in vices, other than some elementary drinking. But it is actually relevant to note that one common theme of human leisure is to become insensible, out-of-it, by sleep, alcohol, or drugs.

So paradoxically, the way the organism is optimized to live is not the way we want to live. Apart from hermits, fanatics, and a few people who just want to test themselves, we want to live well. To some of us, that’s as much debauchery as we can afford. But to the rest, it’s working at a job, getting paid, and then to the escape of the mead barrel.

Mead has been around for about 9000 years. Humans still drink it. This is how little we have changed. The man-made environment is galloping away from this center.  Various solutions have been proposed:

  • Handicap all the gifted people. This was tongue-in-cheek proposed by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Return to agrarian hell, as per Pol Pot.
  • Various social theories that claim to optimize the behavior of man.
  • Artificial sensuality, as per Brave New World. Huxley seems to have anticipated the immersive video game. There is also an old sci-fi story, citation missing, in which the great ambition is to be permanently installed in a capsule that connects the nervous system directly to an artificial reality of fantastical desire.

You don’t like these?  The problem is much deeper than the simple theories of globalism. If I were to give you my private thoughts, that’s what you would take away. Better that you think about it, and become your own author of mankind’s future.