Friday, September 27, 2013

2H2K - February 2050 - And its Discontents: An Introduction

Abandoned Spanish housing estates (Photographs by Simon Norfolk/Institute) via The New Yorker
[Part 2/12 - Return to Part 1/12]

I like to date the beginning of modernity to August 3rd, 1492 - the sparking of the Colombian Exchange that Charles C. Mann writes about in his 1st and 2nd books so persuasively. This was the moment when the relatively densely urbanized Europeans made contact with the long isolated Americas, and set off a global trade in plants, animals, diseases, technologies, and ideas. Many of the founding works of modernity were laid down in the opening years of the Exchange: Michelangelo’s David (1504), Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513), Sir Thomas Moore's Utopia (1516), and Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517). It was the moment that gave rise to the densely urbanized world we live in now. And 2050 is the moment that will give rise to what comes next, what comes after modernity.

Global population is expected to peak in 2050 - not because of plague, or war, but because more and more of us are choosing to have fewer and fewer children. Despite what Malthusian Cassandras may say, we could easily end up with a smaller population by the end of the 21st Century then we had at its beginning. Global urbanization, however, is not expected to peak. That historical trend is expected to continue: 10% of us lived in cities at the beginning of the 20th Century, two years ago that portion surpassed 50%, and by 2050 it is expected to be 75% - but most remarkably, global population could end up nearing 90% urban by 2100.

Those trends coincide with yet another trend that many others are anxious about, but that I find to be hopeful: automation. "By 2040" Kevin Drum predicts we should have, "computers the size of a softball that are as smart as human beings. Smarter, in fact." I've been steeping in Kurzweilian hope and dread for well over a decade now, so Drum's prediction seems about right to me, partly because I don't think it means we will have thinking machines, much less spiritual ones. That is not to say it won't be hard to tell the difference between a very competent human operator on a corporate help-line, from a well coded computer simulation of one. I expect the future will be a series of pop Turing tests, and that most of us will fail. And while I understand why the optimism of The "End of Work" has given way to the pessimism of the "End of Jobs" I don't share the pessimism.

I think Drum is right, we should be looking forward to a radically different economy, one where very few people have jobs in the sense that we understand them now. As a loyal subscriber to the labor theory of value I have no doubt that work-arounds will be created. (Again, returning to 1973: If Richard Nixon was prepared to create a Guaranteed Minimum Income, some future US political generation will sort out how to support the Lawyers and other professionals who find themselves automated out of a profession.) I find that I have similarly optimistic feelings about the calamity of rising sea levels, I believe that it is a huge challenge. But partly because the threat is so physical - the flooding of our coastal industrial cities, I am confident that out political leaders will wake up to the threat before downtown NYC is transformed into another Venice.

That image of Manhattan flooded like Venice is beautifully described in Kim Stanley Robinson's scifi novel 2312. When Greg Borenstein and I first met and agreed to collaborate on imagining the future of cities, that was an image I insisted we avoid. When Greg asked me how that could happen - how catastrophe could possibly be diverted - my answer was a work-around: "A space mirror. Even if the Western Democracies are frozen in inaction, either because of  political deadlock or over caution, there is no way the Chinese are going to allow their industrial coastal cities to flood" I told him. "They will geo-engineer.") That said, I don't imagine that there are any silver bullets, or that there won't be unintended consequences.  Super storms, wild fires, desertification, habitat loss, mass extinctions, and ocean acidification are going to be tough problems that will take multiple, varied, and complex efforts to find solutions for. But that is what I expect the 21st century will be about, cleaning up the mess left by the 20th.

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