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OP-ED: Coincidence?

  • Published at 03:07 am October 18th, 2021
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The nine global trends that have been emerging over the past 50 years

Technology brings great destabilizing changes in our lives and often we are not aware of the extent and significance of such destabilization. It is destabilizing as it results in our having to change our behaviour, disturbing our confrontations we have learned by day-to-day living. 

In the past 50 years we have been experiencing a tremendous pace of scientific and engineering change with dramatic impact on our lives that will not fully emerge in their fullness for decades. The approach of this article is to examine the key scientific and engineering changes and what these mean for our societies. 

Although it is fashionable to speak of cultures, ideologies, and religions as important factors in social change, the argument here is that in the past 160 years, it is scientific discovery and engineering based on such that has shaped the world. 

We live in the illusion that our governments, our corporations, and ourselves have some control. We do not. We live in the midst of false beliefs that make us feel better by either denigrating our enemies or congratulating ourselves for our prowess. 

Our systemic failure to understand the centrality of science results in an enormous waste of time and effort arguing over the irrelevant.

In this year 2021, we review the coincidence of nine trends that have been emerging over the past 50 years.

Infectious disease 

We begin with infectious disease as all are aware of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact. We have crowded the planet with people, (in 1860 about 1.2 billion, in 2021 about 8 billion) greatly reducing areas that humanity does not occupy. 

We have created new large urban areas resulting in new eco-systems that may be the source of dangerous disease. This brings us into closer contact with all kinds of species and increases the emergence of new infectious diseases. 

The Covid 19 pandemic is just the most recent. In the past several years, there have been several epidemics and experts tell us that this will continue, possibly accelerate. 

With the discovery in 1948 of the structure and mechanisms for gene expression through DNA and RNA, the framework for understanding genetics and evolution, as well as the ability to manipulate genes, was in place. Covid-19 is just the most recent example of the emergence of dangerous viruses. 

We do not know how this virus emerged. But it does not matter. Growing research in biology combined with closer contact of animals and people, create the conditions for new diseases to emerge to attack humanity. We face a continuing war to defend ourselves from this threat. We cannot even be sure of the long-run implications of new vaccines designed to tackle Covid-19. 

It is not a question of pessimism but rather scientific caution. The testing of the vaccines was done in a great hurry and no one has actually carried around the vaccine for more than 20 months. Long-run effectiveness is unknown. 

Economic growth brought many humans living closer to each other, increasing health risks. The discoveries of biology have helped in the use of viruses containing infectious diseases. But we must expect a continuing war. 

The nature of evolution is to get around blocking biological systems. Even knowing this, we will fail to prepare for future risks. 

Electricity and thermodynamics

The discovery and growth of electricity dates from the middle of the 19th century, symbolized by Clerk Maxwell’s discovery of the equations that explained how electric and magnetic forces were linked. The parallel development of organic chemistry and thermodynamics resulted in the invention of the internal combustion engine and means of fueling it with oil. 

Now we are totally dependent on electricity for both household and factory power. We do not want to return to candles for light. Equally, we are dependent on rapid transport based on the internal combustion engine; we do not want to be restricted to walking or riding horses or camels, nor sailing in boats. 

But the cost is to fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Can we slow this warming down? Can we manage the consequences? No one knows. 

But once the science was in place leading to electricity and the internal combustion engine, there was no way to avoid the consequences. There is a direct connection between the progress of science and the emission of greenhouse gases. 

It is no surprise that those who will lose financial power from the consequences are those who bribe and scorn the science that now recognizes the dangerous developments from a warming planet. Countries such as Bangladesh that are innocent of significant contribution to global warming are those who will suffer the most. 

Unfortunately, as one watches the behaviour of the wealthy countries, it becomes apparent that there is not going to be an effective reduction in the warming of the planet. It is also unlikely that there will be adequate assistance for Bangladesh. 

The rich countries will prove unable to manage the warming planet and will provide only limited support for the victims. 

Quantum mechanics and the transistor 

In 1947, the first transistor was invented at Bell Telephone Laboratories. This device, based on the way quantum mechanics controls the behaviour of particles, enabled the construction of electronic equipment of smaller size and greatly reduced energy consumption. 

Communications became much faster, more reliable, and available to almost everyone. As a result, we have our small mobile phones and small computers. We are at the beginning of absorbing the consequences. 

The impact on employment will be very powerful and negative as Artificial Intelligence supplants large numbers of jobs. We can expect growing losses on a net basis of traditional employment opportunities. 

The impact of rapid telecommunications and growth of computing power distributed to everyone is changing our societies in ways that we cannot yet understand. These developments permit the invention and propagation of fake facts -- a sense of the real truth is vanishing. 

Facts are made up; the world is described in ways that the speaker wants to insist is real. Freedom of speech is based on the idea that there are facts; we do not live in a world that we can invent. 

Historically, the US Supreme Court and philosophers such as John Stuart Mill rejected the idea that the propagation of lies should be forbidden. This makes sense when the flow of information is slow. 

But very rapid communications through Facebook or Twitter to millions of people enable freedom of speech to threaten our societies when we will not accept the idea of facts and evidence. Every political system is now being corrupted by the invention of false realities. 

The conflict in the United States over the 2020 election makes the point. The great advantages of micro-electronics are clear. We cannot imagine living without mobile phones or the use of our personal computers. But with this comes the undermining of the most sacred pillars of our societies. 

The internet 

More recently, high energy physicists at CERN invented the internet, a consequence of the desire to communicate written material of arbitrary length and complexity. This type of connection brought a tremendous change in the way society is organized. 

Many of our institutions essentially act as middle-men, collecting information and providing a service to others based on the collected information. 

Banks collect deposits and make loans, providing the connection between the saver and the investor. Newspapers collect information and package it for readers. Train, bus, and aviation companies collect information on where people want to go and organize transportation to carry people to the desired destinations. 

Schools are similar. Information is collected in textbooks and in teacher’s training. This is provided to groups of students who more or less all receive the same information. 

What is the new world? The power of the internet enables savers and investors to get together directly, removing the cost of running the bank and increasing the savers earnings; technically this is possible through the recently invented blockchain programming. 

Some believe that banks will go out of date. There are several ways to change the payment system, centralizing it into a handful of institutions, perhaps only the central bank. 

Currently it is possible to search for news of interest to the individual without the newspaper or magazine as an intermediary. Printed newspapers and magazines are disappearing, and we will find our news through favourite commentators with no editing discipline to stick to the truth. 

Ride sharing and similar schemes for using small jet planes reduce the extent of unused vehicle capacity of transport equipment, ultimately lowering the cost of transport. 

During the pandemic, children went to school over the internet. This seems to have had mixed results, but it was most successful at the university and upper secondary school level. This is surely the precursor of a major shift in university education with the traditional four-year undergraduate program being replaced with a more flexible arrangement. 

Shopping has already made a major transition, with large numbers of items available on the internet and the traditional retail store where we visited to decide what to buy vanishing. This will gradually evolve so that fitting and seeing yourself in clothes or shoes will improve. The post office is largely a means of delivering packages. Drones will soon connect the warehouse with the individual, making the post office obsolete. 

Much of our social life is connected with school, work, shopping -- all of which are changing dramatically. New forms of social life will emerge. The last impact is work -- the pandemic has shown how effectively we are able to work from home or from satellite offices. We are moving towards disconnecting the location of our home from the place that we work for a large percentage of the labour force. The very nature of the nation state is being eroded. 

Chemicals

Scientific understanding of chemistry has filled the environment with chemical poisons. There are tens of thousands of chemicals that have been invented for our convenience. One consequence is the negative impact on our health. 

If we remain on the present course, humanity will vanish in a thousand years. Other questions focus on the prevalence of micro-plastics now contaminating all water bodies. What will this do to our kidneys, livers, glandular systems? Nobody knows. 

Drug and alcohol abuse are common in the history of humans; science is making the development of new drugs cheaper and more diversified. The use of such drugs is increasing. Our societies have shown no willingness to face up to these problems. 

The companies that manufacture chemicals and plastics make up a false reality to convince us that there is no problem. The entry of chemicals into the environment with unknown impacts is accelerating and there is no effective monitoring.

Science brings social change. A remarkable development that few want to face is the changing nature of male life and the relationship between men and women. In the United States, the changes are dramatic. 

Men and women

Higher education is increasingly dominated by women. University students are 60% women and 40% male. The shift is taking place steadily. Many men are giving up on life, less willing to marry, less willing to attend school or work, while more content to spend life high on drugs or alcohol and not doing very much. 

A world where men’s strength was needed for work and women spent much of their life raising children is gone. The basic deal -- the man provides resources to the woman and her children; the woman is faithful to the husband and her life is making a home and raising children -- is vanishing. 

Women are working and earning, and soon will earn as much as men; eventually women’s role will increase to higher levels of authority. Already in Western societies, many educated women have children without a husband. The traditional family is breaking down. 

In Bangladesh, this process is not very far along but despite what most readers believe, the future is clear: Young Bangladeshi women are very aware of the rest of the world and gradually things will change here too. 

This change is linked to the fifth factor -- women have fewer children due to chemical poisoning of the environment. Keep in mind the structure of social insect societies where there are few males and their life purpose is limited.

Economics

The emergence of economics as an intellectual discipline came as the structure of production became more complicated and companies became larger. The growth of international trade and the complexities of managing exchange rates caused a more data-driven analytical means of analysis. 

There is a long, rising trend of the ratio of the value of international trade to the value of GDP. To support this trade, a system of managing currencies evolved. 

There have been four stages -- the gold standard that developed in the 19th century, effectively controlled by the Bank of England; a short transition period between the two World Wars best described as chaos; the post-WWII period where the US Treasury and the IMF managed a system of fixed exchange rates with occasional adjustments when a country fell into serious economic problems caused by excessive deficit financing of government operations (gold-dollar system). 

This changed in 1973 when the US no longer was prepared to continue the gold-dollar system and led the world towards flexible exchange rates. Each change in the system was caused by some crisis. 

Many economists believe that the international financial system is now headed towards a similar crisis. Most central banks have expanded their balance sheets to unheard of sizes and no one knows how this is going to work out. 

The dominance of the United States is declining while the willingness of the US to be a leader in a program of reducing tariffs and encouraging free trade has ended. Increasingly, the US political system produces wacky behaviour on economic matters such as the current inability to resolve the limit on government debt. 

Confidence in the dollar is declining in the face of an immature political system. The complexity of international transactions, the growth of the Chinese economy, the growth of money laundering (which supports growing illegal flows from criminal activities, corruption, tax evasion) are bringing the current international financial system to a crisis. 

The nature of war 

Science has had tremendous impact on war. Precision manufacturing, metallurgy, optics, and the internal combustion engine changed everything. But for a long time, the nature of conflict has been men fighting each other with physical violence amplified by new weapons. The age of truly strategic level violence arrived in 1945 with the use of nuclear weapons. So far there has been no further use of the so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). 

However, computerization of so many of our critical systems (energy systems; pipelines, ports and container shipments, financial systems, communication systems and records of government and enterprise) open up a new kind of WMD. 

The damage potentially caused by cyber-attacks on a society puts such attacks in the same category as other WMDs. The growth of biological science also raises the danger of WMDs based on viruses and other malignant organisms. Science now provides a menu of WMDs. We are entering a dangerous period. 

Bacteriological and cyber warfare leave no clear indicator of the attacker. Modern science has created a very dangerous world. It is perhaps already upon us. These are new areas where the way to manage and limit conflict are unknown. Strategic thinking about conflict will undergo a complete change in approach. The next decade promises to be unstable and dangerous.

Future technologies and science

A few comments on the directions that science is taking. Each of these presents its own potential changes to human life, each presents us with great challenges. Perhaps most important is whether our societies are prepared to make the resources available to develop and master scientific progress. Those nations that fail to develop a strong base of science will lag behind and fail to reach the promise of the future.

Medical science is on the edge of extending human life by significant amounts. Gene manipulation to remove dangerous genes and to insert improvements in human performance are in store. In such a world, a great many adjustments of our society will need to change. 

Education becomes continuous while marriage will vanish as a social institution. The nature of the good life will become more compelling, offering variety and excitement. Most disturbing is that this opportunity may only be available to the rich and privileged.

Space exploration is being made possible, with engineering enabling safe and complex space flights and exploration. This opens the potential for humanity inhabiting other planets, colonies so to speak. Will humanity devote the resources to spread out in the near parts of our galaxy? National space programs are now preparing to colonize the moon and afterwards Mars.

Fusion power will provide virtually unlimited energy without the production of greenhouse gases and without nuclear waste. What does this mean for global warming? Is this potential near? Will it really be cheap? 

Surveillance --  the ability of the government to monitor and track our lives -- will increase, resulting in individual freedom being greatly reduced. The surveillance state is upon us now. In one sense, such political developments dramatically reduce the opportunity to absorb scientific progress, hence bringing the future of nations that have strong surveillance systems to a close. 

Scientific progress demands freedom of thought and promotion on merit, not loyalty or corruption. The greatest danger facing China today is its reversion to a system where achievement is subordinated to loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. 

This undermines the great scientific progress China has achieved. The Soviet Union is the best example of the consequences. How such an interaction would work out is not clear. But we must face the complex changes in the existence of human rights and freedom. 

The social impact of the growth of scientific knowledge is difficult to predict. But there is great potential for change both favourable and unfavourable.

The interactions among these different scientific developments are quite clear. Changes in the scientific and social environment arise from such interactions. 

Our problems are not coincidences but arise from the simultaneous changes in our scientific knowledge. Our knowledge overwhelms us with threats and opportunities. We face a longer and healthier life. But we also face separation. 

We are now a single species but if the richest 10% can manipulate the opportunities to live longer and through wealth are able to separate themselves from the other 90%, humanity will split into two species. I call these species the serfs and the lords. The lords will have better protection against infectious diseases. The serfs will have more children leaving the lords to have only small families. 

Inevitably some children will be adopted by the lords to maintain the level of lord population. It is uncertain if the serfs have the will to keep up the population in the face of declining fertility. We will most likely fail to overcome serious consequences of global warming but the lords through wealth will manage with the help of a few serfs. The impact on the serfs will be severe. 

There are already many signs of such a separation. There is a lot of fiction about this possibility. Examining the nine trends briefly described above, one can see such a separation path is opening before us. 

For Bangladesh, as for all societies, success and survival will depend on action.

The education system must receive far more resources and teachers must be better rewarded in recognition of their importance. The teacher should be the real hero of society

Society everywhere must adopt a more scientific approach to problems. Wasting resources to pander to corruption or uninformed prejudice will bring disaster. A favourable outcome will follow from an improved education system focused on science and technology

Recognition and promotion must be based on merit and accomplishment, not payoffs, social status, political connections, or family. 

Any society faithful to these principles will survive, both lords and serfs. Ignore these principles and disaster will follow.

Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

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