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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: Coincidence?

Update : 18 Oct 2021, 01:47 PM

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.

The conclusive part of this Special shall be published tomorrow. 

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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