The Future of the World
A debate between an optimist and a pessimist.
Posted Jun 12, 2017
Many of my clients, colleagues, friends, and I wonder about the future of the world. We do it just for the fun of conjecture or for a serious reason. For example, some people wonder if they want to bring a child into the world s/he’ll spend the next 100 years in.
So it might be instructive or at least interesting to explore possible futures. To that end, here’s a debate between the optimist and pessimist within me:
Pessimist: There will be good jobs only for the brilliant few. For example, a widely cited Oxford University study predicts that 45% of jobs could be lost in the next decade or two alone. And read this article laying out how even many professional jobs will be lost.
Optimist: Technology has always created more jobs than it cut.
Pessimist: This is different because in the past, one technology replaced another. Now there are many ways to replace workers with computers. That trend will only accelerate.
Optimist: People won’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, the hand gives them the next-generation smartphone, cures their diseases, maybe even creates CRISPR people, whose genes have been edited to improve their intelligence, altruism, etc.
Pessimist: History shows that the HaveNots always rise up: from the American Revolution to the French Revolution, from the Intifada to the African-American city burnings.
Optimist: Education should mitigate that.
Pessimist: Again, you’re Pollyanna. We’ve spent a fortune trying to educate-away violence and we’ve hardly done so.
Optimist: We have made a lot of progress. Steven Pinker has documented that there’s less violence today worldwide than at any time in history.
Pessimist: But we’ve yet to see the impact of automation and globalization on jobs. When people are desperate, they’re unlikely to invoke kumbaya. Charles Darwin asserted we’re hard-wired to compete.
Pessimist: So we’re hard-wired and soft-wired at times to compete and to cooperate. But the world population is 7.5 billion and growing. Are you willing to bet that all 7.5 billion will be all peace and love in a time of few jobs and environmental degradation, including lack of food and water in much of the world? For example, a single disgruntled person could take a deadly, highly communicable biovirus like smallpox and, in an international airport parking lot bus, open his briefcase and release a vial of the stuff. And those people would scatter around the world spreading the deadly disease. Or what about a couple dozen terrorists who agree that at a precise time, each will, at each of the most densely populated places on earth, park next to a train station, set a timer for an hour at which a compact nuke in the car will detonate, and hop on the next train?
Optimist: Anyone can concoct scenarios but in the millennia of history, no one has attempted such things. Do you really want to bet against thousands of years of humankind’s track record? Sure, progress has been two-steps forward, one step back, but compare today with life in any previous century; lifespan, transportation, health care, whatever. Even compare life 20 years ago with today’s: Google has brought the world’s knowledge to the masses. Ever more people are educated. Women and minorities have gained significant power. Lifespan is longer worldwide.
Pessimist: We’ve never had a perfect storm of massive loss of good jobs, environmental degradation, and availability of compact weapons of super-mass destruction.
Optimist: No one can be sure of the outcome but with 100% certainty, I’ll live a happier life focusing on the positive, on our long track record of progress.
Pessimist: You’d be wiser to heed Intel founder Andy Grove's admonition: Only the paranoid survive.
What do you think?