The Fragility of Progress

 While this section of the discussion is not intended as an exhaustive analysis of historical developments, it is an attempt to explore some the potential fragility of progress that has taken place over the last 500 years. For while progress is dependent on the resources of the physical world, it has also been argued that progress is also dependent on a collective ‘state of mind’ continuing to believe that the future will be better than the past. Today, we might recognise that the stability of the global economy is often dependent on a similar state of mind, i.e. the general assumption or hope that year-on-year growth must continue into the future. Based on this optimism, people and corporations are willing to invest money in future ventures, which they hope will return a profit. Of course, such economic optimism has always been somewhat fragile when viewed in terms of the history of boom and bust cycles that have so often led to recession and depression.

Note: Today, many hope that the last major financial crash of 2008 is finally behind us and the global economy is slowly returning to growth. However, others believe that the crisis in the global economy is not over, but merely taking the form of stagnation. For global trade and investment has remained sluggish and many national economies continue to slip in and out of recession, aggravated by the excess liquidity of quantitative easing (QE) and the level of total debt, i.e. government, corporate and household. In this context, some argue that these conditions are simply leading to the next collapse, where the fragility of confidence might again disappear overnight.

History suggests that more than any other component of the human ecosystem, a loss of confidence in the economy can quickly spread to affect social and political stability. For this confidence is often predicated on growth to meet the demands of a growing population and its expectations, which then requires the use of evermore resources, which are subject to supply and demand cycles. Therefore, should a key resource like food become limited in supply for whatever reason, prices may become unaffordable and optimism starts to evaporate, which then affects social and political stability. However, within the overall complexity and implied fragility of progress, it is possibly easier to make some initial judgement of technical progress in isolation, although it is recognised that the implications of deploying a new technology is rarely, if ever fully understood. For example, the progress in computer processing since the early 1950’s has been linked to Moore’s Law, i.e. a doubling of capacity every 2 years or so. However, what was not so obvious at the start was that this development would lead to computer chips (1971), the internet (1983), the worldwide web (1990), mapping of the human genome (2003), Facebook (2004) and AI Deep Learning (2011). For all of these technology developments have undoubtedly had a much wider impact on human society than first realised and has triggered change in the nature of social interaction, political debate and even global economics. We might also recognise such developments have helped support the increase in the human population, which has fuelled the demand for growth in all facets of the human ecosystem, rather than sustainability. In this context, we might understand why industry has extracted evermore resources from planet Earth in the most cost-effective way possible often with little regard given to the environment. The start of this unconstrained period of exponential growth might be linked to the industrial revolution (1750-1850), which led to an exponential demand in energy usage, which had to be met by an equivalent exponential increase in the extraction of fossil fuels, i.e. coal, oil and gas. Today, many question whether there is a finite limit to fossil fuel resources along with the wisdom of using them, if they cause pollution and possibly global warming.

Note: Energy will undoubtedly be a key factor in the direction of future developments, which today is predicated on the use of fossil fuels, i.e. coal, oil and gas. While these resources must be finite, there is reason to assume that supply will not be an immediate problem, i.e. within the next 100 years. If so, this would possibly allow enough time for technology to develop alternative energy solutions. However, this position does not advocate a disregard for resource usage or the pollution by-products that undoubtedly damage the environment, simply a prioritising of the problem.

While the issue of global warming has been outlined in another discussion, it will initially be assumed that the increasing demand for energy will not necessarily be an insurmountable problem for future generations. While the preferred energy solution might be debated, e.g. nuclear versus renewables, either or both might support a transition away from fossil fuels over the next century or so.

Note: Today, we might estimate the total global energy usage is in the order of 1021 joules/year. As a comparative benchmark, the energy released from Uranium of the size of a grain of rice might be in the order of 1010 joules, such that we would need 68,000 tonnes of Uranium, or some equivalent such as Thorium, to meet the yearly energy demand. Another comparative benchmark is the amount of energy received by the Earth from the Sun, which might be estimated in the order of 1024 joules/year, where all the plants on planet Earth absorb about 1018 joules/year. As such, we might realise that solar energy has the potential to provide all energy requirements if we knew how to efficiently convert and store all this energy.

In hindsight, we might accept that while energy has provided an ability to develop and expand the scope of the human ecosystem, it has often been done by simply viewing the ‘natural world’ as a resource to be exploited with insufficient regard for sustainability or other lifeforms. For in the apparent relentless pursuit of economic growth, humanity has cut down forests, dammed rivers, built thousands of miles of roads and rail tracks in order to support its ever-growing urban infrastructure, which now ‘houses’ something like 2 billion people, i.e. 25% of the global population. As such, we might recognise that many of these lives are now almost totally dependent on the technology required to support this urban infrastructure. However, on the flipside, many now recognise that the price of this progress has been the destruction of so many natural habitats on which all other wildlife is dependent. In the past 500 years, it is estimated that 1,000 species of wildlife have been driven to extinction. Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions and previous climate change, these extinctions can be directly attributed to the expansion of the human ecosystem, while at the same time helping to increase the global human population from 500 million to 7,400 million.

Note: A comparative measure of population might be presented in terms of biomass. As such, humanity would weigh in at around 300 million tons, while all its domesticated animals would add another 700 million tons. In contrast, the combined mass of all surviving wild animals, including elephants and whales, is estimated to be less than 100 million tons. In terms of numbers, there are less than 80,000 giraffes compared to 1.5 billion cows, 200,000 wolves compared to 400 million dogs and only 250,000 chimpanzees compared to 7.4 billion humans.

As such, we might recognise both the benefits and dangers associated with an ever-expanding human ecosystem, supported by exponential increases in resource usage and energy consumption. However, it may not be resource scarcity that poses the greatest danger, but rather the implications of the loss of so much diversity in the natural world on which other lifeforms are dependent.

Note: It might be recognised that exponential growth may ultimately come to endanger humanity by any number of unforeseen or unresolved consequences, which humanity might then attempt to solve, only to end up making matters even worse for a large percentage of the global population. The unpalatable inference of this last statement is that a powerful minority may not necessarily sow the seeds of its own destruction, although this is still a possibility, but simply prioritise its life-style over the existence of some larger majority.

In part, the remainder of this discussion will simply raise a number of issues beyond technology, i.e. social, political and economic, which might also come to have a bearing on future developments. For example, we might recognise that people have come to consider the idea of individual freedom and equality as fundamental rights within a modern nation-state. However, these rights are somewhat contradictory in scope because individual freedom to pursue self-interest can lead to increased inequality in monetary terms, which can then lead to further inequality in social status. Such contradictions can also underpin the philosophical divide between individualism and collectivism, which can then further divide political opinion. However, we might place any form of political governance on a spectrum ranging from totalitarian repression through to benign democracy. While most might prefer to live in a benign democracy, totalitarian governance continues to this day, not only because it cannot easily be overturned, but because it often offers a degree of stability and survival protection to those who do not oppose the state. This said, from the perspective of progress, we might want the nation-state to support more than just survival; for most aspire to live in a prosperous economy that provides the opportunity to earn a ‘living wage’, either through employment or by the ability to start their own business. However, to benefit from such opportunities, people also need education and the support of banking and insurance systems plus health and welfare systems for when life does not go to plan. Within this growing complexity, we also have to recognise the need for police and military services in order to provide security both at home and abroad along with a judicial system that hopefully ensures fair justice for all. However, such benefits do not come for free, as the nation-state requires us to obey its laws, even though we may disagree with some, and to pay an array of taxes such that the state has the necessary income to provide the services outlined. While we might see the apparent benefits of the present-day human ecosystem that protects us from the harsher reality of nature governed by the Darwinian idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’, we may still need to consider the following question.

Is the world a better place for all this development?

The answer to this question will depend on the division of winners and losers. Clearly, even in the context of humanity, not everybody will have been the beneficiary of progress, although the lives of many millions have been improved over just the last 50 years. Whether this question is completely meaningful in terms of the natural world and wildlife requires some wider consideration, even though we might initially assume that much of humanity does not want to see this environment destroyed. Therefore, for the moment, we shall limit the response to the question above in terms of humanity and try to make some initial assessment based on statistics, which we all know never lie. 

Note: In 2000, wars are estimated to have caused the deaths of some 300,000 individuals, while violent crime killed over 500,000. From the impersonal perspective of statistics, these 800,000 deaths only amount to 1.5% of the 56 million people who died in 2000. It might also be highlighted that in the same year, 1.25 million people died in car accidents, while another 850,000 people committed suicide. In this context, statistics suggest that the average person is more likely to kill themselves than be killed by a terrorist or by an act of war.

Obviously, some care is required in extrapolating these statistics to imply that humanity has undergone any form of profound change in its nature over the last 500 years. For, as indicated, the cognitive evolution suggested to have taken place over this period has mainly been triggered by external factors in society and the development of technology. In this respect, the statistics above may be more accurately attributed to the increased power of nation-states to curb internal violence rather than any fundamental change in the human condition. Likewise, external violence between states might now be curbed by the economic implications of war, while still being a causal factor in many instances. Therefore, there might be a certain fragility in the assumption that violence will continue to decline in the future, especially if certain key resources become limited in supply or affordability within the global economy. Again, the adage that we are only four meals away from anarchy might be a stark reminder of the knife-edge on which future predictions might be made.

But how might we make judgment of the modern world?

History suggests that the development of the human ecosystem has also imposed many changes on humanity itself, such that many are now controlled by the ticking of the clock within the confines of urbanisation. While these features of the modern world have brought benefits to many, much of humanity may have paid a high price for these benefits. Today, the pace and events of our lives are often controlled by a clock, no longer on the wall, but embedded in our psyche. Likewise, mass migration to urbanised cities has also seen the erosion of both family and community life, only to be replaced by the expanding apparatus of the nation-state. For some, who have known no other life, such change may not be obvious or necessarily appear detrimental, while others who have prospered, such change was a price worth paying. Even so, some assessment of the scope of disparity between the winners and losers is required.

So who are the winners and losers?

While there may be some obvious losers in the process of modernity to-date, it is possible that many of the perceived winners have also lost some aspect of their individual freedom, as their continued prosperity requires conformance to the norms of society. This conformance may take many forms from the need to work excessive hours and the loss of family life through to the imposition of political, cultural and religious norms. While the nature of the political nation-state, e.g. totalitarian or democratic, may exacerbate the adherence required, we might also realise that the economic success of the nation-state may also be another factor in perceived ‘happiness’ of its citizens. However, trying to extrapolate the idea of happiness onto a collective society might, at best, only be a statistical approximation and possibly not the best way to judge future stability of that society. Therefore, we might consider a more basic measure of the winners and losers in our ‘ brave new world’ in terms of the inequality of wealth and power, which might also infer an inequality of personal freedom. At this point, we might again reflect on the wisdom of Seneca’s words, which were previously outlined in the context of an earlier discussion of economics:

“What difference does it make how much is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already. You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”

However, while accepting the philosophical wisdom of these words, it was never clear that they really accounted for the nature of the human condition, such that we might return to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a better generalisation. The diagram right is a reduced form of this hierarchy showing only the apex of power being dominated by 1% of the population under which another 4% hold positions of esteem with the remaining 95% simply seeking to survive in one form or another. Within this hierarchy, wealth is extremely biased towards the top, while inequality is biased to the bottom. While a larger percentage of those ‘surviving’ may not be in immediate danger in the modern world, although many still are, it is suggested that the 95% figures represents the current status in terms of economic survival. It might also be argued that this state of affairs has actually become worst over the last 30 years and may get much worst in the future due to AI automation.

So what is the wider inference in this diagram?

If AI automation also leads to increasing unemployment, a larger section of the 95% who are only surviving in economic terms will simply fall below the poverty line with the obvious inference of less wealth and greater inequality with the rest of society. However, there is a more worrying inference in AI automation, coupled with advances in robotics, should it reduce the dependency of the top 5% on the bottom 95%. In the past, the top 5% were always dependent on the bottom 95% to carry out the all menial tasks in any society, both physical and mental, such that we are led towards a very uncomfortable question.

Will the top 5% always require the bottom 95%?

In this ‘brave new world’ we might only be left with alphas and betas as the role of the gammas, delta and epsilons would be carried out by an ever-wider spectrum of AI automated systems. Of course, there is an assumption in this extrapolation that might be questioned further, if AI automation develops to the point that it is no longer subservient to humanity. If so, we might recognise that this could be the ultimate fragility of progress, at least, if judged by way of the longer-term existence of homo-sapiens.