Address to Davos, Part 3

In the hypothetical emergence of a primitive tribe from the jungle, the tribe members optimize their existence according to their own personal sense of hedony and well being.  It may not be  particularly encouraging to the onlooker, but neither does it affect the state of the world in a very negative way, other than the welfare bill. And if one of the goals of the fourth and successive industrial revolutions is increased leisure, the tribe is in the vanguard of progress.

Introspection might reveal that your discomfort with the couch potato fate of the primitive tribe is the result of widely shared cultural prejudices, springing from the same well as the Khmer Rouge and ISIS drives to perfect societies at any cost. With the window-dressing of specific beliefs peeled back, there are two poles.

  • The couch potato society is one pole, permissive, undemanding, and unconcerned with the aesthetics of existence.
  • The opposite pole is ruthlessly composed of perfect virtue, where virtue is an arbitrary standard of some time, place, and people who say what it is.

The two poles, couch potato and virtue, are connected by a continuum.  Depending upon your personal cultural standards, you can pick any starting point along this line, and by weakening, strengthening, or removing prejudices, progress to a reductio ad absurdum at one of the poles. For most of us, the starting point is closer to the couch potato pole, which we look upon with sad but tolerant eyes.

But at various times and places, and currently in the Middle East, the starting point is closer to the pole of virtue.  The surviving western correspondence  is the Protestant Ethic , transformed to a secular cultural prejudice and, according to Max Weber,  part of the combination that gave rise to capitalism.

So  we are freighted with prejudices and concerns about humanity that extend beyond the individual to the society as a whole, and perhaps species, connected by a continuum to  ideals of virtue that vary according to the time and place. We share the continuum with Khmer Rouge and ISIS. They are mad and we are sane, but for the greater part of history, the lines of distinction were drawn differently.

Karl Popper’s piecemeal change, conceived in the context of a malleable society, guards against this instability, but at a cost of reduced power and scope that was not apparent in 1945, when planetary limits were  the theoretical of Malthus. Piecemeal change now means between 6 and 23 feet of ocean rise. Some futurists predict other changes unrelated to planetary stress, but competitive in severity, such as the technological singularity, which has a median predicted date of 2040. Preceding this event, Klaus Schwab’s “The Fourth Industrial Revolution…“, may be accompanied by an acute breakdown in the distribution of wealth in the developed countries.

The specialty of this blog, by which I think it has a valuable distinction, is open source intelligence; predictions, not prescriptive solutions. The preceding discussion sums to the prediction that Karl Popper’s piecemeal change, which has served so well to protect the individual from extremes of thought, will be inadequate to deal with the future stressors on both humanity and the planet. The replacement will be global optimization, where “global”  is a math  not the globe of the earth, but mathematically,  “everything considered.” The alternative future  is widespread breakdown.

Global optimization is dangerous. It allows all the sins of the 20th century isms, the Khmer Rouge, and ISIS to boot.  Perhaps some theorist with Popper’s humanity will devise a way to make it safe. But at the very least, it requires a shared understanding of what is to be optimized. Currently there is none; it lies spread out on the continuum between couch potato and virtue. We do not even have consensus on the relative importance of:

  • The individual’s subjective happiness.
  • The regard of society for the individual.
  • Culture and other characteristics that might have value greater than zero. This cannot be assumed.

These questions may cause private unease as well. Perhaps quantization  of  human welfare offends. It has already been done with No Child Left Behind and sea level rise predictions. But even if the eventual decision process is a qualitative blend, the exercise of a purely quantitative approach forces a confrontation with the continuum that spreads between the poles of couch potato and virtue.

Next: The future, ethics, and choices.





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