Every era casts illness in its own image. Society, like the ultimate psychosomatic patient, matches its medical afflictions to its psychological crises; when a disease touches such a visceral chord, it is often because that chord is already resonating — Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies
Red Queen to Alice: My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Think about one big issue that humanity has solved completely. I mean eradicated off the face of the earth. Polio is one condition we have succeeded at taming. However, maladies evolve with the evolving human condition. Graver illnesses particularly illnesses of the human mind take over. The truth is every human action, much like Newton’s third law, has an equal and opposite reaction. Technology widens inequality and creates a different set of problems. This article looks at the cyclical nature of the physical world and uses it to describe the state of the world today.
The human race is the most powerful species on the planet. It has created tools that have exponential capabilities. The biggest hurdle to our survival is our own mindset i.e. the way in which these capabilities are employed. Use them for good and the human race survives. If we presume a prisoner’s dilemma, we guarantee mutually assured destruction.
The Effects Linger On
It’s been a decade since the financial crisis of 2008 led to the demise of Lehman Brothers and a long running test of the resilience of the worlds financial system. The most profound aftermath of the financial crisis is a post traumatic stress to our mindset. Today, we are busy predicting when and how the next financial crisis will come into being. Thus, recovery contains the seeds of the next conflict. The Standard and Poor (S&P) 500 is trading at a price to earnings (P/E) ratio of 25.37. Barring 2009, the P/E ratio hasn’t been this high since 2003.
The balance sheets of the Federal Reserve, The European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Japan are flush with debt purchased to keep the respective economies running through ‘quantitative easing’. Put it simply, these central banks printed more currency (money) and lent it to their respective governments by purchasing government bonds to inject liquidity into the financial system.
The financial crisis gave rise to decline of liberalism in many countries. It also saw the emergence of the biggest experiment in cross border anarchy — the Bitcoin. Bitcoin throws the current financial system into question. People are still confused about Bitcoin. That is because they view it as a currency or a security but not for what it really is. It is a working proof of concept of a decentralized financial system. Bitcoin’s value lies in the debate it has spurred and the vision that it has spawned. Let us understand why.
Big Data, Small Outlook
Television killed more than the radio star. One of the biggest excuse I have heard from friends for having given up on their reading habit is watching television. Its just an excuse because the real reason is ‘binging’ not just watching television.
Until 1995, the only television channel in India used to be Doordarshan aired by Prasar Bharti Network (a government enterprise) which eerily reminded me of its US equivalent PBS. In 1995, private channels and cable made its foray into Indian homes. At about the same time, the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited introduced access to the internet using modems and dialers. I can still remember the ring tone of a dial-up connection.
Although globalization was a much earlier phenomenon, the advent of cable television and the internet brought the concept home. Millions of housewives would gather around the television set in the night to watch the latest episode of their daily soaps .Suddenly, people started looking at the price of Oil or correlated assets such as gold and the US Dollar on CNBC. A phalanx of western media outlets brought a regular fare of liberalism, free speech and 24/7 global news coverage to almost all middle class households in key urban centers.
The world was getting smaller and ever connected outside but it was growing exponentially in the human brain because of the information explosion that swept a large part of educated India. There was too much content for the human brain to handle. This trend has just seen an exponential increase. At one point, only Singularity would be the answer i.e. the point where information can be efficiently handled only by Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Expansion of media outlets, each with their own sources of funding, with disparate views enveloped human consciousness in a cloud of opinions leaving many people-like me-thoroughly confused but also incredibly enlightened at the same time.
One of the biggest drawbacks about 24/7 media today is that it feeds us junk food for instant gratification. We consume it because we want to disengage and have fun after a hard days work and to try to identify ourselves with false, superior identities. There is nothing wrong with having fun once in a while but overconsumption has very bad side effects. Our craving for short term excitement makes us lose our focus on long term existential threats such as climate change. We think nothing is changing even though we can feel it. We think existential threats may not materialize during our lifetime — a thought we know as kicking the can down the road. We are so focused on everyday sensational headlines that we forget the real issues. We look at the symptoms and.m forget the root causes. This mindset is very similar to the stock markets where quarterly results or daily market swings obfuscate our long term fundamental outlook.
The battle for dominating our time has compounded our short term vision and resulted in hyper short-term thinking. Amazon unveiled a suite of 70 new products including a Bluetooth clock. Netflix releases new content at mind numbing speed. Apple and Facebook also want to capitalize on the network effects. All of this excesses mean something has to give. Of course, the alternative is to have a chip in our brain. This alternative will spawn its own set of problems making conflict endemic to our civilization. Violence is not just overt but can take many subtle forms.
Clash of Differing World Views
It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” ― Samuel P. Huntington
The physical world hasn’t changed much in that it moves cyclically just like the cycles of nature. The inability of people to earn two square meals a day due to various reasons i.e. technological disruption, financial crisis etc. manifests itself in the form of extremely corrosive identity politics. Perhaps, it not equality we are after. It is a fair distribution of wealth and an end to unfair rent seeking. These words may sound like a communist manifesto. They aren’t. Unless we find a better working financial system for all — revolution just seems the logical outcome.
As far as I know, there is no index measuring how angry the middle class around the world feels. As geopolitical uncertainty brings forth more economic uncertainty, the global middle class is in a constant struggle not just to build wealth but just to survive.The day the middle class can no longer continue living will be the day of overt violence i.e. the overthrow of the current world order.
Creation brings, within itself, the seeds of destruction. That Is how the physical world always plays out in an endless cycle. Today, the battle for the human soul is raging on. Climate change, exponential technologies and an arms race threaten the future of humanity. Jeremy Rifkin — author of the Third Industrial Revolution — talks about aggregate efficiency and talks about reducing waste and using renewable resources to save the earth for the future generation. Spiritualists such as Sadhguru talk about the near impossibility of leaving a better world for the future generations. Whatever the language, the message is loud and clear — it’s time for the world to band together.
We cannot turn back the cycles of nature. The clash of civilizations may be inevitable. However, we have a higher order of business-the future of homo sapiens as a species.
If destruction is inevitable, we have to make sure that the transition from destruction to rebirth is as painless as possible.