I watched a very interesting discussion yesterday. It was the first of a number of speakers who has been invited by the TED Talks organisation with the intention of trying to understand the current political and social divides that have given us Brexit, President Trump and is threatening to overwhelm us in the near future with the possible electoral success of the far right in France, Italy and maybe even Germany.
The speaker was Yuval Noah Harari who is a historian who writes interesting “Big History” books such as his highly successful book “Sapiens” and has just published a new book “Homo Deus” that discusses the next hundred years of our species’ existence on Earth in terms of the rather foreboding development of Artificial Intelligence that will make most human work redundant. Robots, he states can do manual work now (such as make cars) but in the future they will be able to do most everything else. He even predicts that doctors will be replaced by apps that will know our full medical history and have up-to-date knowledge of every drug and medical technique that no human doctor can ever hope to know!
Chis Anderson the head of Ted discussed the problems that have arisen from the upheavals of 2016 and said that the series of talks was intended to see how we can somehow bridge the massive divide that seems to have come about with an almost even split between the two main contenders in both the Brexit referendum in the U.K. and last November’s Presidential Election in the U.S.A.
Interestingly Harari posits explanations for the rise of nationalism as a backward reaction to globalisation and the frightening power of technology. To people who feel dispossessed and angry at the closure of factories that have been the staple industries and ways of life of so many places for so long. (Think of Detroit and cars and the Rhondda Valley and Coal Mines).
He states that al history is a fiction and that we tell ourselves stories that allow us to exist in the fiction of the tribe, the nation-state and recently in the the supra-national organisation such as the European Union. The world becomes difficult when we lose faith in the fiction and we often return to an earlier story that we feel harbours a better past for ourselves.
The problem is that the past is just as much a fiction as the present. The “Little Englanders” are harping back to an era that has been overtaken by technology-driven economic change. “Making America great again” has to take into consideration that the Detroit factories have been bulldozed out of existence or remain as bleak ruined reminders of a past age when they had true economic and social power.
The world is thus divided between those who have embraced internationalism and have moved on to a new fiction of the oneness of man and the need to unite across national boundaries to avert the threat of war and to tackle the huge problems of climate change and environmental disaster (such as the disappearance on a daily basis of vast swathes of the rainforests) and those who have returned to an earlier story of the “nation state” where borders are all-important and we co-operate only when it is to our particular advantage.
On the question of how to bridge the divide I felt that Harari did not really have any answers.Like many of us, he can define the problem but does not have a magic wand to suggest an answer.
We live in what the ancient Chinese would call “interesting times”. Wars, famine and massive changes happen in “interesting times”. These times come about when new technologies force us to reinvent ourselves. We go from hunter-gatherers to living in communities that farm. We spend thousands of years as agricultural labourers and then a new technology makes us surplus to requirements and we leave the land and head for the overcrowded industrial cities.
As Harari states, we have always been lucky because there has always been an alternative, new source of employment. From farmworker to factory-worker to services industry employee. But the rise of automation has left us with nowhere to turn. As he states tellingly, the many thousands of garment industry workers in Bangladesh cannot become software engineers and move to Silicon Valley!
The important point he makes is that the huge “elephant in the room” of Climate Change and Environmental decay will not go away. We cannot afford to go back to an earlier fiction because no nation can sort these problems by itself. We do need to go forward by international co-operation or there is every possibility that we will hasten the extinction of our really interesting species.