Friday, January 3, 2014

Optimism vs. Pessimism about the American Future

The Optimist: new digital and robotic manufacturing technologies will drive down the cost of making just about everything, with higher quality and greater energy efficiency, too. Manufacturing will return to the US because labor costs will no longer be much of an issue, and everyone will enjoy cheaper, better stuff. Instant communications will continue to drive down shipping and warehousing costs, and manufacturers will respond ever faster to what people actually want.

The Pessimist: when robots replace people in all manufacturing jobs, what will people do? Robots that load trucks or pack shipping containers will eliminate yet more jobs, and self-driving trucks and taxicabs will eliminate whole classes of employment. The army of the unemployed or underemployed will only grow bigger as these technologies spread. In this new world, will anyone other than artists, economists and the designers of robots have meaningful work? In the past we have always found new kinds of work when the old kinds became obsolete, but can that go on forever? How many people can be pet accupuncturists?

The Optimist: a raft of new technologies is making worries about energy supplies obsolete. Fracking has unlocked a century's worth of oil and gas in the US, and by 2020 we will be energy independent. Our reliance on the Middle East will end, along with our need to be involved in Arab politics. Meanwhile the cost of solar power is plummeting and we are getting ever closer to producing all the oil or gas we need from vats of algae. Coal and nuclear power will soon be history, with other fossil fuels not far behind. Energy will be cheap and nearly unlimited, with dramatically less greenhouse emissions.

The Pessimist: anybody heard this one before? If we become energy independent, it will only be by subjecting huge new areas to all the trouble that fracking has already spawned across the country: earthquakes in Oklahoma, polluted drinking water in Pennsylvania, crime and social disruption in North Dakota. Solar and wind power are promising but will not replace fossil fuels for generations, if ever. If alternative energy really does become cheaper than Middle Eastern oil, the Saudis will just cut their price and throw the whole system back into chaos. Not to mention that there is already so much carbon in the air the planet will keep getting warmer for 50 years no matter what we do.

The Optimist: the internet has made vast knowledge available to everyone; a Kenyan farmer with a cell phone now has better access to information than President Reagan did. The amount of data available online continues to grow exponentially. Whole new industries are figuring out how to mine this information, and who knows where this will lead?

The Pessimist: more data, less wisdom. More trivia, less real human contact. More "friends," less friendship. And is better targeted advertising really what the world most needs?

The Optimist: the war on terror is winding down, and we are seeing a steady turn against the excesses of that era: torture, spying, preventative warfare.

The Pessimist: true, but the infrastructure, both legal and technological, is still in place, and it will take just one big terrorist attack to bring it all back with a vengeance.

The Optimist: we are seeing a new birth of freedom across American and the rest of the west. Gay people have real rights for the first time since the decline of Athens and Sparta, and the new generation is finally figuring out what equality for women means in practice. Racial prejudice is steadily declining; the US has a half black president.

The Pessimist: if we really do achieve equal rights for gay people, it will come at the cost of freedom of speech for the religious; people can already lose their jobs for repeating out loud the well-established teachings of their churches. This is a formula for future backlash and a generation of conflict. Women's greater equality has brought along with it a decline in marriage and a rise in single parenthood, which is proving to be a disaster for children. Racial prejudice is indeed fading, but instead of an equal society we are getting one divided along economic lines: billionaires of every race will dominate the world and spit on the peons of every nationality.

The Optimist: As the great crime wave of the 80s fades, we are moving against draconian prison sentences for nonviolent crimes and toward legalization of marijuana.

The Pessimist: If we are easing off the war on drugs, it is because we are admitting defeat. Drug overdoses have passed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death, and we are losing whole communities to the ravages of crystal meth and prescription opiates. Meanwhile, avant garde chemists create new drugs faster than governments can ban them, and some of them will no doubt be worse than anything we have ever seen before.

The Optimist: rapid medical progress is continuing, and the great biochemical knowledge we have spent billions accumulating is finally starting to yield real dividends. New treatments for cancer are very promising, as are new drugs for depression.We are also figuring out that a lot of 20th century medicine did no good, and the savings from doing fewer coronary bypasses and knee repairs can be put to better use.

The Pessimist: the decline in vaccinations is bringing back diseases that we had nearly eliminated. This proves a general rule: whenever we develop a technology that ought to make us safer, human stupidity will cancel out the gains. We need better drugs for heart disease just to fix the harm done by sitting around all day eating potato chips. And if we do manage to live longer, that will just put more strain on Social Security and Medicare, which we already can't afford.

The Optimist: biology is on the verge of great breakthroughs that will transform our world, especially in genetics. In a decade we will start bringing extinct species back from oblivion; in 50 years we will be designing animals to order.

The Pessimist: great, purple catdogs and miniature llamas. Meanwhile we are destroying the world's remaining wild places, cutting down its forests, emptying the oceans. Will anything we make be as wonderful as what we have destroyed?

The Optimist: Meat will be grown in vats, ending the abuse of farm animals.

The Pessimist: Yum.

The Optimist: science is remaking our world and freeing our minds from ancient superstitions. As our machines reach toward the stars, our understanding comes to encompass the universe and our place in it. Religion is declining, rationality increasing. Freed from the ancient constructs of patriarchy and ethnic hatred, empowered by robotic servants and instant access to information, we will create new societies where people are truly free to shape their own lives.

The Pessimist: for some people, science is exciting; for others it is frightening. This applies not just to Bible Belt conservatives, but to stylish Europeans upset about "frankenfood." The waning of tradition has led to faddish obsessions rather than philosophical creativity. Without gods to adore, people worship celebrities; without temples, they mount arcane rites in stadiums and concert halls. The freedom to create our own careers has led mainly to anxiety and a nagging sense of failure. So far the main political products of atheism have been communism and libertarianism, and this points to how successful people without traditional guidance would be at constructing their own societies.

The Optimist: in fifty years we will all be much richer and more free than we are today, and with that freedom and power we will build new human networks to spread knowledge, work for a better planet, and create a more human world.

The Pessimist: maybe our contact lens computers and purple catdogs will be cool enough to distract us from the steady erosion of meaning and purpose in life, the loss of real connections between humans, the collapse of community, the woes of the drugged out underclass, and the vast distance between the masses and the billionaires who take vacations on Mars. But I doubt it.

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