Monday, October 31, 2016

Minding your own business, mind you!

I have used a number of times the metaphor of the drunkard seeking his lost keys under the lamppost (regardless of where he is more likely to have lost them) as an apt description of both our application of the scientific method (however vaguely it is interpreted) to understand every and all aspect of our reality AND our naïve attempts to understand intelligence (or consciousness, or mind more generally) as the mechanistic application of a number of algorithms that could be replicated by a machine (hence the term “artificial intelligence”). The poignancy of the metaphor derives from the fact that the greater clarity afforded by the lamp is of little use to the drunkard (because most likely his keys are anywhere else), the scientific method is of little use to understand some extraordinarily important aspects of reality (why is there something instead of nothing; how is it that the real seems rational to us, and we can understand a substantial part of its workings; why some things, or events, or states of affairs are recognized as valuable, and what does value consists in) and, as I’ve said many times, no algorithm is ever going to make a  machine intelligent (and thus the current research in AI is at best an exercise in deceptive advertising that will in the end disappoint those gullible followers that somehow have put their faith in it to help us alleviate the many ills of the human condition -on the other hand, it may alleviate the concerns of the equally gullible that think that it poses and existential threat to the continued existence of humanity, which is kind of a silver lining, I guess).

As any regular reader of this blog should be familiar enough with my opinion about the first tenet (the inapplicability of the scientific method to some disciplines -much as some of their deluded practitioners would like to) I intend to devote today’s post to the second, and to expand a bit why I think the very interesting and practically applicable things a lot of very intelligent people are doing in the burgeoning field of “artificial intelligence” will in the end come to naught, and be a monumental waste of time and scarce societal resources. I’d like to point out from the start that my belief in the dualist nature of reality underlies my faith in the inapplicability of algorithmic thinking to the simulation of the workings of the human minds (if minds are made of an essentially different “stuff” from the daily matter we are trying to replicate them with, it stands to reason that our chances of success are greatly diminished, especially if that different stuff behaves in some “mysterious”, “mushy” way that doesn’t lends itself to being replicated by more common, everyday matter), but I intend to develop an explanation of the essential misguidedness of current AI research that does not depend on such highly contentious metaphysics. That is, I hope I can plant some seeds of doubt of the soundness of current AI research understandable by those that do not subscribe to my view of mind being  a somehow fundamental component of reality on par and irreducible to its material substrate.

To achieve that, I’ll resort to an understanding of how minds work that has come out of fashion in these last centuries (that’s the advantage of not watching any TV at all and reading as many books by XIII, XIV and XV authors as by contemporary ones: you find very old and abandoned ways of thinking suddenly highly plausible and even congenial), but that would sound as eminently reasonable to any Greek, Scholastic and even Renaissance thinker: let’s consider the mind as divided in a part that more or less keeps us alive without us much caring or noticing (what used to be called our animal or vegetative mind), or Mind I (MI for short), a part that wills (MII), a part that feels (MIII) and a part that reasons (MIV). MI to III hasn’t received much attention from AI researchers, as it is supposed to be the “easy” part of how mental processes work, being mostly unconscious, automatic, requiring little processing power and being essentially the same for all members of the same species. I guess the assumption made about it it is that it represents the “lower level” that we have inherited (and most likely share) with our evolutionary ancestors, and probably we will be able to deal with how it works in detail once we have mastered the most evolved conscious, “higher” processes of the part of the brain able to compute, calculate, set goals, define plans and communicate with other brains.

It has to be noted that, somewhat paradoxically, our understanding of that “higher” part of the brain (what I’m calling MIV) has been heavily influenced by what we could automate and do without involving any consciousness at all. So starting in the XVIII century, when we were learning to formalize the rules of basic algebra (with abacus and similar devices) most rationalist philosophers thought that thinking was mostly made of additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions, and that if we got a machine capable of doing those wondrous things such machine would, without a shadow of a doubt, be conscious and able to talk to us and do all the other (apparently -for them- minor) operations that human minds did (like sharing its aesthetic judgments about a fine work of art, complaining about the terrible weather or discussing about the moral merits of certain courses of action proposed by contemporary politicians). Of course, we have vastly enhanced the capabilities of machines to add, subtract, multiply and divide without advancing much in having meaningful conversations with them about any of those subjects.

A couple centuries after that, we thought we had a better grasp of how languages developed. We not only had observed more regularly how it was acquired and mastered children, but had learned to compare and classify different types (like those belonging to the Semitic and the Indo-European families) and deduct how they evolved through time within the linguistic communities that used them. So of course we projected our increased understanding of structure and use of signs (symbols) into the whole realm of cognition and declared that all that there was about thinking was symbol manipulation, and the ability to play “language games” (not any language, mind you, but “symbolic language”, identified by being infinitely recursive, combinable, adaptable and having a somewhat flexible relationship with the reality it intended to denote) was the defining feature of intelligence.

Unfortunately the attempt to model language use in machines never took off as nicely as the previous experience with mechanical calculators (the abacus known since time immemorial having been complemented with shiny and newer gadgets like adding machines and slide rules for logarithms… ah, those were the times!) so we didn’t have to hear the likes of Noam Chomsky proclaim as loudly as Condillac and d’Holbach had proclaimed a couple centuries earlier that he had cracked the tough nut of what general purpose intelligence consists in, and that he had the blueprint for building a conscious, truly thinking machine (although no doubt he believed he had the rule for writing the software on which such a machine would run, already having the one on which our own wet and wobbly minds did in fact run). From the beginning of that era, though, we have inherited the litmus test of how we would identify a mechanical system as being truly (general purpose) intelligent: the Turing test, that posits that a machine can be considered intelligent if it can fool a human being into thinking that he is talking to another person after some minutes of casual conversation. Master language, have a machine able to talk to your everyman, and you will have mastered intelligence (not a bad diagnosis, by the way). Unfortunately, as we all know, things turned out not to be so simple.

Because, let’s not mince words here, to create a machine that “understood” language and was able to produce it “meaningfully” (damn, it’s difficult to speak of these things without getting all self-referential and having to resort to quotation marks all the time…) proved out to be damn hopeless, an almost unsolvable problem. Unsolvable to the point that we have essentially given up entirely on it. I’ve referenced in other occasions the Loebner Prize, where conditions had to be substantially tweaked to give the machines a fighting chance, and which still has not produced a winner that fulfills the original conditions set by Turing himself. What is more meaningful for our discussion is that the strategies devised by the participants are so utterly unrelated to any semblance of “understanding” language in any meaningful sense that most AI researchers have abandoned it as a meaningful gauge of the progress of the field, and do not pay much attention to whoever wins or not. Creating babble that vaguely sounds like language and can fool a not-too-subtle human judge may be great fun, and showcase a good deal of ingenuity and wit, but doesn’t get us an inch closer to building anything like an intelligent machine, or something that does anything remotely like thinking.

So raw computing power is obviously taking us nowhere near AI, and trying to teach a computer how to talk (at least using a rule-based approach for it) is not faring much better. But the world is abuzz as never before with the breathtaking advances in the field and how closer we are with every passing day to achieving a truly intelligent machine. How come? Well, we just found a new toy, and are still agog with its possibilities. Only it is not that new, as the basic functioning of it was already posited in the first blooming of AI in the late sixties, but only now has it bloomed (thanks to the massive improvement in processing speed and parallel architectures, which allows for much more complex networks to be modelled, a high level of complexity in terms of number of nodes and number of iterations being required for the whole thing to produce even mildly interesting results). I’m talking of course of neural networks and how they are at last being successfully applied to pattern recognition. Don’t get me wrong, I was as excited as the next guy when I first read On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins (back in 2004) and his Memory-prediction framework seemed eminently sensible to me. Yes indeed, that was what all that pesky conscience, and qualia, and the like were really about! Just an old-fashioned hierarchical pattern recognition schema, along with good ol’ engineering wiring diagrams to substantiate it all.

And indeed the addition of pattern recognition capabilities to increasingly humongous amounts of data (and an army of potential volunteers to “validate” the recognized patterns found in the data and thus make the network algorithms “learn” by the appropriate feedback loops) has produced some very notable results, from Facebook ability to recognize people in photos (or to know that a cat video indeed includes cat images) to increased speech recognition capabilities in information systems dealing with customers and digital assistants to improved automatic translators to eventually autonomous self-driving cars. Oh, and I forgot to mention machines that play chess, Jeopardy and Go better than the best human players (that would be Garry Kasparov, Ken Jennings and Lee Sedol, for those keeping the score). I may be a world class curmudgeon and find it still impossible to get Siri to understand me in any of the five living languages I speak (I haven’t tried in Latin or Classical Greek, but I guess my pronunciation in those is still more awful than in the still living ones, so I wouldn’t even try), I still despise the clunky translations offered by Google and have already written about the “demo effect” that vitiates any report of self-driving cars (and make me skeptical of the immediacy of their complete takeover of the worlds roads and streets) and I would never say any computer at all has ever “played” better than a human at any game, as playing presupposes a number of attitudinal states of affairs (approaching the game with the right mindset, enjoying it, immersing oneself consciously in it to the point of losing sight of anything outside it) that no machine has emulated. I’ll concede that I’ve successfully made appointments with a machine just by talking to it (a welcome improvement above having to type the desired hours in an inconvenient phone’s keyboard) and that software programs have reached a dastardly level of sophistication at producing winning moves in some well-regulated games, and some not so well-regulated.

So yep, pattern recognition has come a long way, and coupled with the increasing amounts of data we collect and digitize of our daily whereabouts it may help “automate”, or “algorithmize” many decisions that today are taken by people, many times without having a clear grasp of how they make them, or what rules they exactly apply (see this post of the always interesting Jose Luis Hidalgo on the issue: Big Data today for AI tomorrow). But I also think that we will find the limits of what such approach can solve very soon, and we will be disappointed of how quickly it peters out (i.e. it reveals to be another dead end like the automation of basic algebraic operations and chit chat generators). Before I expand on why I think so, I would like to resort to that old friend to reveal scientific statements, falsability, and propose to those still believing in the tooth fairy (sorry, in the power of pattern recognition coupled with big data and armies of free labor to educate the algorithms) the following challenges for a “strong AI” program, that humans have been so far woefully unable to solve:

·         Predict successfully the start date and duration of the next five USA and/or EU recessions

·         Predict successfully, one month in advance, the result (winning party, percentage of popular vote of each of the five most voted parties and number of seats in each chamber of each of same five parties) of the next five general elections in the following democracies: USA, India, UK, Germany and Brazil

·         Predict successfully the quarterly growth (or decrease) for eight consecutive quarters of the following variables: population, net immigration, GDP, currency value against the dollar and life expectation at growth; of the same countries enumerated on previous point, plus China

It can be argued that not only no human would be able to successfully overcome such challenge, but it is highly doubtful that any human may be able to do so ever (which would merit a post of its own: why supposed social “sciences” have such low expectations of themselves that they can never aspire to ever achieve the most modest predictive reliability). I tend to contemplate such argument with a lot of sympathy, but I’ve chosen those questions not because a human kid could give the answers (well, actually a kid could give them, what he could not do is give good ones, unless he was a very unusually lucky kid indeed!), I’ve chosen them because they are the kind of “knowledge” amenable to being achieved by crunching huge number of data points, thus finding correlations with explanatory and predictive power that the unaided human eye has been so far unable to find. Unfortunately, my contention is that such variables have not stayed secret so far because we lack the analytical power to capture enough variables and see how they evolve together and correlate them until we find the proper relationships that suddenly reveal the hidden laws of “psychohistory” (as Asimov called the endeavor). They have stayed secret for the same reason the lair of the Easter bunny has remained secret: they do not exist. No laws explain the relationship of those variables, and thus the effort of finding them is in the end futile (again, for reasons that would merit a post of their own).

OK, so the most “promising” field of application of pattern recognition (the formulation of psychohistory’s laws) may be not that promising after all. As we ourselves can’t seem to agree on the better way, or the major constraints to consider when designing how to live together and how to distribute the social product between the members of a given society, may be we can’t expect machines to implicitly learn such arts from us and enlighten us on the optimal way of doing it (as we just can’t define what that optimal way consists in). So not much to expect from AI in the field of economics, politics, sociology, and even psychology. That doesn’t mean there are not a plethora of other fields where it can develop itself to help us immeasurably: medical diagnosis, discovery of new drugs, human like androids to amuse the growing elderly population, the ubiquitous self-driving vehicles to carry us around safely and with minimal pollution…

May be, and I do not question we will see some minor advance in most of those areas, coming more slowly that what the hype would make you think. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll remind my readers that not that long ago (in 2014, may be?) I had written in my calendar the fall of 2015 as the date for readily available VR headsets with enough content to change forever the face of entertainment… one year after that date, where is my headset (or anybody else’s)? I hope you don’t mean HTC Vive or Oculus Rift or Sony VR, because they are slightly sleeker versions of the venerable Google cardboard … and honestly I don’t see any of them having a clue about how to keep the users glued (or strapped) to their screens for more than a few tens of minutes, let alone “change the face of entertainment forever” (given the hurdles imposed by the need to develop a whole new set of controllers and feedback mechanisms that really enable the “immersive” nature of the experience to shine through).

I expect more or less the same post-hype deflation for most of the technologies that AI proponents are touting as the advent of the “real thing”. And, as usual, I see I’ve already spent more than three thousand words without going in the meat and potatoes of what I wanted to talk about, which is the reason why such real thing is not coming. In this case, the reason is the vast amount of elements of intelligence (the “caring about”, or “minding about”, referenced in this post’s title) that are being left out in the prevailing research program. An astute supporter of such program could counter-argue that the caring about is nothing more than an adscription of value, and that such adscription can be equated to a certain pattern that the systems being developed will be able to deal with in a next iteration.

Again, may be (that’s the answer I tend to give when I’m utterly unconvinced, but don’t really think it productive to discuss more about the issue at hand). But I have the feeling that this “valuing” things is indeed at the core of how we reason, at the core then of what being intelligent consists in, and that any program that tries to circumvent it assuming it will be able to deal with it (or put it back in) at a later stage has gone seriously off track, so seriously as to warrant serious doubts about its feasibility. But I recognize such feeling merits a further development, a development that will need to wait for a next post.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Oooops, may be with a bang, after all!!!!

Forecasting the future course of events is famously and notoriously hard. Some clever people (Keynes) failed at it. Some slightly less clever failed at it spectacularly (Marx, regardless of the fawning article about his prescience recently penned by Louis Menand in the New Yorker: Salvaging Marx; regarding which I can not avoid pointing out that a) no, Marx was empathetically NOT a philosopher, as much as he would have liked to… too many descriptions of contingent reality and too few considerations of necessary truths in his works; b) no, Marx was empathetically NOT a subtle & deep chronicler of early capitalism, as he could only describe, in a most disfigured way, only a portion of what happened around him whilst missing a lot of the underlying currents of why society was choosing and coalescing precisely the set of values it did by mid XIX century; and c) no, Marx was empathetically NOT an exemplar thinker and human being, as he didn’t love Jenny enough to stay true to her, he didn’t love his children enough to abandon his daydreaming and idle theorizing and investigating in his office and get a real job, however deadening and boring, to adequately provide for them and he didn’t love workers all the world over enough to leave aside his petty squabbles with other socialist “leaders” and forge a truly universal , viable, not cult-of-personality oriented movement to actually improve their lives). I’m pretty sure I’m failing at it right now and making a lot of predictions which will never come to pass. Such is the lot of the self-anointed prophet, and the only way of never being wrong is never saying anything empirically testable at all.

All this was my as usual convoluted way of stating that I don’t make predictions about Western civilization imminent downfall because I see it as my duty (the first and foremost explanation of any behavior for a Kantian like me) or because I think it will somehow hasten the occurrence of events already foreordained and thus it will facilitate the advance of the world-spirit, or of reason knowing itself, or of human conscience realizing more of its potential and thus liberating itself faster. Probably I just do it for fun, and because it helps me make sense of the apparently chaotic reality we live in, and because guessing what may be in store for us creates an illusion of meaning and purpose about the everyday events that, without such illusion, would make of history just the unintelligible succession of “one damn thing after the other” in which from any set of facts anything could follow. I once talked about Collingwood’s understanding of history as the systematic effort to put ourselves in the head of the main characters of past deeds, and to think and feel as they thought and felt back then. Similarly, a good prognosticator is he (or she) who can foresee how the future actors may think and feel, and how the decisions they will make will look like from their very particular and idiosyncratic point of view, a point of view made by a dominant reason (a set of accepted desires, an understanding of what a life well lived consists in and a  criteria for bestowing social recognition) and by a shared cornucopia of ideas, common places, narratives and cultural artifacts (songs, movies, fiction books and even iconic clothes). All of which points to the fact that you shouldn’t take my predictions of doom too seriously, as a new golden age may be just around the corner as well.

However, in my last couple of posts I wasn’t exactly betting on a sustained improvement of the world’s economic conditions (except for some developing or already half-developed countries like China and India, which could still expect to see significant rates of productivity and total output growth just by implementing social technologies that the advanced West developed a good four or five decades ago). My hunch still points strongly towards a long period of stagnation in that same West, as the source of its original creativity (a dominant reason extraordinarily suited to elicit the maximum production of material goods and services from every single individual, not so much for making them happy or helping them live fulfilling lives) had already exhausted its historical cycle and had become inimical to that very same goal, so now all it could produce was rent-seeking (that will be sold as protection of innovation, albeit an innovation less and less capable of improving the average guy’s living standard), political polarization, repression along racial and class lines, a tighter grip on the total social product by a self-perpetuating elite and  increasingly suboptimal arrangements to deal with the increasing pressure of a changing landscape. I have already explored the most benign scenario of how such exhaustion may play off (think Japan, in which a population ages into oblivion without much fuss, and the decreasing total output translates into less per capita wealth so slowly that nobody really much cares), and in this post I want to explore the much more unpleasant alternative of how things may be sped up by a major disruption of the relations that underlie the functioning of our society.

There are so many alternatives from which to choose one such disruption that I’ll just list a few to give my readers a taste of what I’m talking about:

·         A nuclear device is detonated on a major Western city, after which martial law is indefinitely imposed for the first time in an advanced democracy since WWII, and there goes your democracy, rule of law and the like (if you think Government power over its citizens grew inordinately after Sep/11th after a bit over 3,000 deaths think about the same dynamic on steroids after 3 million). Once a “reference state” (most likely the USA, because honestly, what would you bet was the most likely target of most of today’s terrorist attempting such a coup, be they extremist Islamists, North Koreans, narcotic smugglers, crazy environmentalists or white supremacists?) suspends statutory guarantees (habeas corpus, the right to challenge one’s imprisonment in court, the right to be publicly judged and the like), free press and likely elections (who thinks about voting in a state of total war and with such level of carnage so recent) my prediction is that the rest will quietly and discreetly go down the same route without the need of such a heinous act in their own motherlands. We’ll expand on the effect of the lack of democracy later on, as it will turn out to be a common thread of most catastrophic changes.

·         All-out war breaks between two major powers. As only the USA and China qualify as such for the near future, basically that means a new Sino-American war, most likely around the annexation of Taiwan (that China will attempt as soon as it economic growth seriously stalls and it stops being able to buy its excess population with additional make-believe jobs, thus resorting to aggressive nationalism to bolster the legitimacy of the CCP). Of course for the USA to take the bait and retaliate seriously after such China movement it needs to have previously excited the anti-China feelings of its own excess population to a frenzied pitch, which doesn’t require really a great leap of the imagination seeing how easily they did it against Japan in WWII. There are a number of horrific wars that may happen apart from that one (between Russia and the EU, between China and Japan, China and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, India and Pakistan, etc.) but none of them have the potential to destabilize the global system and send markets crashing down everywhere, catapulting all of us in a new Dark Age (maybe the first one would be the closer to achieving it, which makes it even less likely than it already is).

·         Social revolution and breakdown of any semblance of law and order in a major Western power, devolving into civil war and major economic disruption. There are only two major powers in risk of breakdown (or rather, there are two powers were such breakdown seems more imminent, as if it happens and global economic conditions deteriorate in all the rest, sooner or later they will also become ripe for major upheaval): USA (see my post on potential outcomes after Trump loses the current election: the coming NAWNSP) and China once it stops growing above 5-6%, which is dangerously close to its current rate (that is the widely assumed rate needed to keep adding enough jobs to the labor force to absorb the masses pouring into the coastal cities escaping rural misery and underdevelopment). You may object to such analysis that the USA, albeit apparently riven by party and racial animus is a stable, well stablished democracy with more than two and a half centuries of pacific coexistence, that has weathered previous storms (like the protests against the Vietnam war and the racial riots in the seventies) and came out unscathed. I’m sceptic, as not all those centuries have been so peaceful (remember the bloodiest conflict they’ve experienced was their very own civil war in the second half of the nineteenth century) and there are two important differences between the present and any previous period of their history: the insane amount of firearms in the hands of a significant portion of the population (over 300 million guns, almost one per citizen, regardless of legal status) and the continued period of self-segregation and isolation in ever more self-contained “information bubbles” enabled by the rise of social media and the Internet. We will see the destabilizing effects of such tendencies after the loss of the election by Trump is confirmed and some of his followers accept as valid his delirious narrative of the cause being the illegitimate manipulation by a “rigged system” that has stolen what is rightfully theirs.

In any of those scenarios we would see an abrupt stop of life as we have come to know it, and a collapse of the rule of law, free trade and democratic rule. It has to be noted that in all three I see democracy being thrown under the bus to maintain the appearance of normalcy and basically to keep the shelves of supermarkets stoked and the economic engine purring. That is, what they show us is that the greater risks to our current social compact do not derive from the difficulty of aggregating the preferences of the many (something that has been difficult since the system was invented in Athens a bunch of centuries ago), but from the attempts of the few to keep its economic rules, even if that can only be achieved by sacrificing the political participation of the masses.

Not that surprising, as Dave Graeber has been maintaining for years that every time that capitalism has been presented with the choice between evolving towards a greater inclusiveness (relaxing the rules of competition or increasing redistribution for the sake of greater efficiency, say) or become more exclusionary and unequal in order to maintain the status quo it has chosen the second alternative. Indeed, the common thread that runs through much of the neoreactionary thought is that democracy has failed and should be rolled back, and what such rolling back intends to achieve is the continued functioning of the markets as we know them (nicely illustrating the validity of Graeber’s dictum).

I don’t know you, but if I had to choose between capitalism and democracy (as I see we will collectively have to do sooner rather than later: Sophie's Choice) I would probably give it a lot of thought, rather than blindly decide for the continuation of the first even if that meant renouncing to the second.

However, it may well be a false choice, as capitalism in its current (cybernetic, post-industrial, information-technology dependent) form requires a façade of democracy to draw legitimacy from, and to ensure the consent of the many that are not deriving any material benefit from it (that’s what a dominant reason is for: ensuring the acquiescence of the masses to a global system that is not specially favorable to them). I have few doubts that in the coming years we will witness a global weakening of democratic institutions, and an overall degradation of the until now widely accepted standards of what constitutes “common rule”. Such evolution will be greatly accelerated in case any of the disruptive events I described in the beginning of this post comes to pass, which would push the affected society even faster into openly totalitarian terrain. But such change is unlikely to revive the fading fortunes of our economic system, as an oppressed populace is no more likely (and may very well be even less) to participate in the currently imposed way of life as a free one. You may impose on them martial law, suspend elections, erect barriers to trade and to people’s movement, even convert current countries into homogeneous ethno-states, under permanent surveillance and strict censorship, but it won’t make them want to a) work more and b) reproduce again above maintenance level.

The reason they won’t work more is because our current system has already maximized the output that could be extracted from a given set of the population, a set whose optimal size may have very well been reached in the 70’s, and is already going down a blind alley of virtualization and immediate gratification for a minority that absorbs their attention and efforts during the most productive part of their lives and then discards them like empty shells when there is not much they can do about it. The reason they won’t reproduce is because under the current value system their life, although potentially rich in material possessions (although even that can not be taken for granted, being replaced by “virtual” possessions that is still unclear that can effectively play the same role) is ultimately poor in what makes human lives worthy of being lived, and a neo-fascistic, neo-nationalistic dystopia (doesn’t matter how racially homogeneous) is not going to get their juices flowing again and change the direction of their gonadal vote. Dominant reasons come only once, and that type of value package (it’s called romantic reason for all of you boys and girls not stepped enough in my terminology) was tried once, and found wanting.

A more interesting question than “can authoritarianism pull it off”? (whose answer is “obviously not”) would be “what changes in the set of values (in the dominant reason) would need to happen for the society adopting them becoming viable enough?” or “what should we change in the whole package to revitalize and re-energize the social system?”. I’ve attempted at various kinds of answers, from a (more or less) comprehensive manifesto (Anarcho Traditionalist Manifesto I and II and III and IV and finally V) to an idyllic vision of what an utopian future would look like, regardless of how we got there (Our sunny future I and second installment and third and last), so it’s not like I haven’t devoted much time to thinking about it. However, I also humbly recognize none of my ideas have the tiniest sliver of a chance to ever become even remotely real. What revolutions bring is misery for all and a global degradation of the material conditions of living of most. And revolutions is what we have coming our way, so better be prepared…

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Not with a bang, but with a whimper II

Blogging is a peculiar activity. Being something quite personal, and undertaken by a variety of reasons I guess there are as many ways to go about it as there are bloggers. The way I personally “go about it” is choosing a topic I want to clarify, mulling about it for a few days (I tend to concentrate on issues when I go for a walk at lunchtime, something I’ve taken a liking for of late) and then forcing myself to put it down on paper (although there is no physical paper involved, as I normally write directly on the computer) and see how it evolves when words have actually to be chosen, and sentences crafted to express the ideas I have vaguely shaped previously. Once I’m done (or, frequently, when the word count has reached an inordinate amount) I typically find that many ideas have been left out, that some sentences that I had already thought almost word for word never made it to the page and that a lot of verbiage and sometimes of unnecessary chaff ended up there instead (but it is damn difficult to separate the chaff from the wheat in what one has written, as even the more unrelated circumlocutions may have a certain tone, a whiff or heartfelt expressiveness, of oratorical persuasiveness that makes it awfully difficult to just erase them in order to clean up the argument…) Sigh, it is my hope that by practicing, and then practicing some more I end up being better at it, but my regular readers may legitimately wonder if there has been some noticeable progress, or my prose keeps as mangled and baroque and circuitous as ever.

The reason of such tortured reflection is that when re-reading the post I published yesterday, that was originally to be about how the social structures we take for granted (from the well-stocked supermarket to the commitment of the police to the rule of law and judiciary review) may dissolve and disappear, and how to plan for it, ended up being a rant about the failures of current capitalism to maintain a rate of growth comparable to the one prevalent in the last two hundred years, and how in the West we have mainly squandered four decades already. As that argument is one I’ve already made a number of times, and am sufficiently convinced of it as to not need further proof and clarification, I’d like to come back to the original argument and explore the different possible paths of societal decay we can expect to unfold in the next decades, be it gradual or sudden.

Back to the slowly boiling frog

OK, so in my previous post I (in so many words) settled that gradual decline looks like our everyday life, because it has been happening since the 70’s, even when we went through a stupendous (apparent) period of unparalleled growth in the 90’s that was then mostly erased by the dot com bust in the early aughts and then by the Great Recession that settled in after 2008. That’s how long decline periods look like: there are temporary bumps and upward turns, which are relentlessly followed by deeper troughs and reversions to the overarching downward trajectory. I’m not saying that the world will never, ever see an economic expansion again (we may be seeing one right now, feeble as it looks like for the majority of the squeezed middle class), only that they will be, on average, briefer than the recessions they will be sandwiched in between, and that their benefits will be, as has been the case so far, enjoyed only by the dominant minority. Because that was the other half of my screed: the little growth that could be showed has been very unequally distributed, so for the majority it amounts to nothing.

I also hinted at the fact that we may have reached a tipping point, as people is widely beginning to realize that the promise of ever increasing riches in exchange for ever increasing toil will not be honored. Both salaried workers and independent professionals (unless they belong to the best paid 1%) in their mid-forties and fifties should have realized by now that their standard of living is pretty much similar to that of their parents, minus the kids. That is, after reaching an age in which there is not much more dazzling professional advancement to be expected, they have to accept that they are making give or take very much like what their parents made. Nominally it is surely sounds like much more, but once you start setting apart a retirement fund -a must, given how shaky Social Security looks all the world over-, you factor in the increased cost of health care and the diminishing support to be expected from the state and take into account inflation (much above the measured CPI in some significant sectors like the aforementioned health care and in most countries’ real state: it is not uncommon to find successful professionals wondering how their parents could afford to buy and hold on to several houses while they can barely afford one, typically smaller) they should realize they are by no means wealthier than their pops were, and as they expected to be (a rational expectation, given that their parents did become significantly wealthier than their own parents, and that they grew up hearing stories of how their future would be even brighter, surrounded by nanny robots and flying cars). But the real situation is even direr, as not only they have not been able to amass more wealth than their parents, but they should see that their parents managed to produce the same amount of wealth while at the same time leaving more descendants (that could personally take care of them in their old age and impersonally pay for their needs with taxes to fund Social Security). In the West’s dwindling populations, most people have more siblings than sons and daughters, so they should realize that the generation that came before not only managed to produce in their lifetime almost as much wealth as themselves, but could do so while also successfully replenishing the work force in a way they have not been able to emulate (they can think “geez, I only recently finished paying the mortgage of our house -either smaller or farther from the city center and requiring a longer commute than my parents’-, and still have much of the college expenses and skyrocketing tuition of my single kid in front of me, can’t even start to fathom how I would make ends meet if I had three or four of ‘em as mom and pop had!!!”).

Funnily enough, it is not the middle aged, well-adjusted people in high-paying jobs the ones who are realizing to what extent they have been swindled (but swindled by who? As a swindle needs a willing swindler, and the nefarious deed has been in this case performed by an impersonal dominant reason, by society being organized in a way that nobody consciously designed but in whose design everybody unwillingly acquiesced). It is the kids. The ones we burden with derisive labels (“Gen X’ers”, “Millennials”), and which we scold if they are not career-driven enough, if they don’t seem eager enough to jump in the rat race, to pursue the highest grades, to constantly improve their SAT scores, to strive to get in the best (and most expensive!) universities; if they choose to stay in their parents’ basement playing videogames until they are thirty and find out they are unemployable and “unmarriable” (but seem to be happy enough just hangin’ out with their buddies -physical or virtual). And their “dropping out” (a tragically outdated expression if there ever was one, that got worn out before its heyday came) suits the minority in power just fine, as they were going to be replaced by robots and AI all the same, so better if it can be done while they stay busy and contented lest they start questioning the dominant order and the justice and fairness of a social arrangement that has no use for them (not as producers, and, soon, not even as consumers) and no interest in giving them a public voice or responsibilities of any kind.

But it is between them where the first cracks will appear. The weakest link of any civilizational level transmission mechanism is its reliance on enlisting the newer cohorts in the implicit project of keeping the system alive, which has to be aimed precisely to the the young. If a social order fails at instilling its value hierarchy, its conception of what a good life consists in and its definition of socially sanctioned desires (that is, its whole dominant reason) in the newer generations it will fade away and disappear, as ours is exactly doing. How can we notice if that is the case, and the whole society is indeed failing in this critical task of transmitting the dominant reason on which it relies? Well, if it were indeed the case we could expect to see a growing number of kids a) not working b) not reproducing and at some point c) not acquiescing to the minority between them that insist in keeping the whole charade going. I think that b) is uncontroversial, and is what originally called to my attention that may be our super system/ best of all possible worlds/ we never had it so good so shut up and carry on may not be all that it was cranked up to be (if our social compact, value set and life circumstances were so wonderful, so efficient, so conducing to the maximum happiness to the maximum number, why would so many people vote with their gonads against its continuation?). What about a)? not long ago Tyler Cowen pointed in his excellent “Marginal Revolution” blog to a very interesting article by Justin Fox in Bloomberg (out of prison, out of work) that presented the following graph:

What we see is that instead of the declining participation rate of men in the workforce being a uniquely North American phenomenon, it is a widely extended one, affecting all advanced economies. The only “exceptional” thing about the American case is how they made it extra hard (and much less voluntary) to an unusually large number by the implementation of a demented prison policy that condemned almost three million citizens, a figure in which minorities were heavily overrepresented, to a status of permanent underclass with no job prospects (but as it also robbed them of the franchise they had no way to express and seek redress to their grievances through the normal political process, being perpetually “out of sight & out of mind”). We will extract a few interesting consequences of the American experience in a moment, but first I’d like to dwell for a minute in the implications of such trend. I think it can only be understood as another defining sign of the exhaustion of our civilizational model and the growing chasm between the dominant elites (who still preach the gospel of desiderative reason: “produce as much as you can, because the more you produce the more you will be able to consume, your position in the social hierarchy will be dictated exclusively by how much you can consume, and the improvement of such position is the only desire you are allowed to harbor”) and the masses that have stopped believing in it, for different reasons (they see the system as rigged, they see it doesn’t matter how hard they work, they never seem to enjoy the same status as the undeserving heirs of the elites, the expectation of perpetual struggle and perpetual reinvention seems just too much effort for such a meager reward…)

I can still remember reading with horror a report from my old employer about “the future of work” which blankly stated that the stable structure of the job market was leading towards the following stratification:

·         A third of the workforce would be permanently unemployed

·         A third of the workforce would be occasionally employed, without any security, for short periods and no stability whatsoever

·         A third of the workforce would be stably employed, with full protections and benefits

Not so off-the-mark, huh? And that was published in the roaring 90’s of the past century, in the middle of the longest economic expansion in USA history and with the labor market offering something as close to full employment as in any other moment of the Republic’s life! I hesitated to believe it back then, but now have to confess that we are almost there (the USA has more NILFs and less unemployment, the more welfarist European states have less NILFs and more unemployment… in both we have similar total numbers of prime working age people not working, be it by choice or not). And an interesting point is that automation and technological advance have nothing to do with it. Apple developing a pair of wireless earbuds or Google’s self-driving cars reaching 2 million miles (or rather, repeating the same trajectory of twenty miles one hundred thousand times, which is quite different) are responsible for exactly zero of that 30% of the potential labor force that is out of work, regardless of them being counted on the official unemployment statistics or not. As I’ve already noted a gazillion times, there is not much technological innovation truly going on (as opposed to “going on in the press releases of the tech companies that expect to benefit from gullible people, including clever analysts with high stakes in the game, believing the opposite”), so it is not innovation or creative destruction or excess regulation causing the dwindling fortunes of the salaried employees, but the sheer forces of demography and social model exhaustion.

The other interesting point is how the people who still manage to work, be it in a high-powered job or doing menial tasks occasionally, deal with the stark contrast between their life and that of the growing number that is apparently not working and not much the worse for it (thanks to a family support structure -the traditional moving back to their parents’ basement- that although fraying at the edges still manages to insulate many youngsters from the worst consequences of a social order that has no need for them). Their reaction is similar to what we have seen in civilizational crises during most of history’s “times of troubles”: tribalism and homogenization of the ingroup values by contrasting them with a demonized “other”. When you identify with a value set (or with a dominant reason, which is but another way of saying the same thing, as the former is part of the latter), a set from whose dominance you derive important benefits in terms of social prestige and appropriation of an outsized fraction of the total social product, and you see that set decomposing and being questioned from within, your first impulse is to “circle your wagons” and try to defend it accusing “people from outside” from its weakening. Brexit, anyone? Ascendant white nationalism (aka Trumpism) in the USA? Increasing popular support for right-wing extremist parties in France and Germany? Rejection of the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC? All of them are manifestations of a threatened elite pulling the strings to extend its own survival by stoking nationalist (to the point of chauvinism), classist and reactionary sentiments between the unenlightened masses.

And this is why the USA case is doubly exemplary. What we saw there in the 70s was how the ruling (white) majority imposed almost martial law on the more easily identifiable part of their internal proletariat (blacks and, increasingly, latinos) by disproportionally prosecuting their less socially oriented behavior (so the possession and consumption of drugs seen as mainly used by blacks, like crack, were much more heavily penalized than that of those associated with the white population, like cocaine and cannabis), reducing the “social safety net” seen as disproportionately favoring that internal proletariat (through Clinton’s welfare reform, aimed at what was seen by whites as mostly black beneficiaries: “welfare queens” and the like) and at the same time favoring their more consumption-oriented behavior by easing their access to credit (a preliminary step towards the reinstitution of debt peonage), although that last step was probably taken too far, as the increased risk of that additional credit, redistributed between all classes, almost brings the whole system (elites included) to their knees in the subprime crisis of 2008 (which, however, most elites escaped unscathed while the average -proletarian- taxpayer ended up paying the final bill).

So this is what we can expect in the rest of the world: more inequality, a growing fraction of the media devoting more time to the construction of an imagined common identity that only admits of a segment of the population (the one that monopolizes Toynbee’s “dominant minority”: whites in Europe, Canada, New Zealand & Australia, ethnic Japanese in Japan, Han in China, etc.) and the demonization of all the rest (ethnic minorities, immigrants, or anybody claiming to propose an “alternative” to Dominant Reason). Such demonization is an absolute requirement for the formation of a widely accepted narrative of endangerment and threat that will serve to keep on extracting every ounce of effort and commitment from those who buy it. You thought that politics were becoming polarized and demagogic? You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet…

Of course, such polarization and demagoguery will in the end fail to revitalize a moribund social system. It has never worked and it will not work now. It may stem the “tide of history” for a while, but only for a while. In the end a dying, exhausted system, incapable of any creative response to its external challenges (and man, do we have external challenges we do not seem able to rationally address: from Climate Change and antibiotic resistance to cheap fossil fuel exhaustion and loss of biodiversity), may choose the pace and speed of its demise, but not the fact that in the end it will be displaced by suppler, more successful competitors. A growingly repressive, growingly intransigent, growingly exclusionary majority may slow the speed at which its value system is consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history, but such efforts will not suddenly make it creative and attractive again. It will pointedly not make its kids want to reproduce happily again, as if the last forty years were just a bad dream. It will not call back to the labor force the excluded 30% (which are from the mostly excluded, demonized groups), or motivate the 30% in the “gig economy” (the new name of the “precariat”) to suddenly go back to college, obtain an advanced degree in a STEM discipline and start contributing to the “knowledge economy” and earning a six figure salary.

Unfortunately, a dying system in which a majority clings to power by increasingly oppressing one or many excluded minorities is by nature pretty unstable. Even more so in an international scenario where multiple sovereign polities face the same dilemmas, trying to benefit from a zero sum game, in which the oppressed minority of one nation is the dominant (and oppressing) majority of its neighbor. So beyond a certain point the “slow decline” scenario becomes more and more difficult to maintain, and we move in a “sudden crisis” scenario where some player (with or without a state power structure backing him) does something incredibly stupid (but unfortunately such stupidity is only apparent in retrospect) that sends the whole edifice tumbling down, typically causing unimaginable amounts of pain and suffering in the process. But that is already an alternative perspective that will need to be explored in a subsequent post.