digital chaos theory: we live in a world we no longer understand
As a techie, my job would is basically science fiction to the oldest generation still with us today because essentially, I turn math into intangible solutions for real world problems. Even weirder, in fewer than half a century much of my family transitioned from ancient professions like medicine, finance, and law into this bizarre branch of applied mathematics. On historical scales, it’s such a new occupation that being the second generation in it is often pretty much as far back as you can go. In grad school, my professors would often say that software architecture today is what cathedral construction was in the Renaissance, still more art based on experience than science. So it’s little wonder that automation snuck up on much of the world with rather drastic, world-changing results, and will rapidly continue to reshape our societies in unpredictable, often economically painful, and confusing ways. I don’t even have to turn to academic research on this, all I need to do is have some very simple conversations at the dinner table to see the vast chasm between how those in older professions and techies like me see the world.
So it’s little wonder that now, when we’re effectively in unchartered waters when it comes to just about everything in life, something as powerful as the globe-spanning telecommunications network we call the internet has been harnessed for both good and ill with extremely uneven results. People pine for the return of jobs that are gone forever and don’t know what new ones will be created for them in the future, or if any are on the horizon, and lash out to find a convenient culprit they can understand and easily punish. Fake news dominates social media as its algorithms unwittingly cater to partisan desires for cozy echo chambers, and its users have little desire to stop their fix of ideological Novocain. Senior citizens in power, whose understanding of the technology reshaping our world is sparse to non-existing, desperately want to turn back the clock to the good old days where they didn’t have to worry about things like globalization and automation. As the reality of the connected, longer living world finally hit them, they’re trying to run nations by nostalgia, fiddling while Rome is undergoing creative destruction.
Even in half of my lifetime the changes have been drastic to put it mildly. In high school, adults would tell us never to talk to internet strangers, the joke was that all men online were men, women were men, and the kids were FBI agents in the middle of a sting. Online dating was almost taboo, and if your significant other and you met on the web, you had to come up with a cover story about bars or mutual friends because dating sites were for losers. And no matter what, you never got into a stranger’s car after only talking to them on IM. Fast forward to today and Tinder is being blamed for destroying the romantic relationship as we know it because it’s so popular, dating sites are responsible for so many marriages, they’re being studied for their long term viability, and meeting people online is now normal. Our grandparents and parents send breathless links to fake news sites by Macedonian trolls able to create an official looking media outlet with a cheap blogging template. And we literally pay online strangers to get into their cars for a night out.
And even relatively new constructs like social media aren’t immune from all sorts of bizarre changes. Remember when Facebook was where you went to hide from your racist relatives’ and family friends’ rants about immigrants, gay people, and how those who publicly call out racists and bigots are the real racists and bigots, instead of being hit with them in the face the minute you open your timeline? Remember when the worst that used to happen if you were the target of online harassment is a bunch of pizzas showing up at your house, instead of a freaking SWAT team ready to shoot you in the blink of an eye smashing through your front door? Or when a person you met at a party once didn’t almost always send you a link to find out everything about her, including things you may not have wanted to know to stay in touch? It boggles the mind that in college, I could still meet someone on MySpace and know next to nothing about her, but today, if I meet a person in meatspace and not give out a Facebook page, it’s almost a faux pas, as if I’m paranoid and hiding something, or being a digital hipster.
So despite benefitting from this new order and growing up with it, I really can understand the feeling of emotional whiplash many are experiencing in the age of the ever more automated and specialized workforce, and a social order unlike anything ever seen before because never have there been this many people on Earth living this long with this much technology. It’s scary, and for many people asking experts to explain what’s going on doesn’t help much because what we say sounds like technobabble to them. As I’ve been moving forward in my career, a happy day for me is when I found that ideal analogy to explain a problem to a customer or non-technical manager to get more time to implement a proper, long term fix since it makes everyone’s life so much easier when everyone at least understands what’s going on. When that ideal analogy or easy explanation is missing, or hijacked by trolls, con artists, snake oil salespeople, and opportunistic politicians, it’s comforting to think that you can just take your ball and go home. But you can’t.
You see, much of the fate of the economy and employment is no longer in the hands of the people. We have enormous influence on these things, true, but our will is now being executed by machines. These machines lower the cost of doing business, calculate optimal investment strategies, and allow us to model economic scenarios on a vast scale with little interest in individual people. At this point, globalization is like the weather. It’s going to happen regardless of what you do because the livelihood of billions and trillions in wealth depend on its ability to continue. We’ve, in effect, created a system too big to stop, something bigger than ourselves, and something on which we’re dependent to a very significant degree. Trade wars and closed borders are now recipes for runaway inflation, higher cost of common goods which will translate into a higher cost of living, and fewer jobs, since so many of them today depend on global connectedness to exist. Turning back now is similar to demanding that a probe halfway to Mars turn around and return this very instant. It physically can’t due to physics and design.
And maybe that’s what we need to work on before anything else: admitting that the world is changing very quickly in ways we don’t understand and we are in the middle of a historic transition that will be studied in schools and written about in textbooks for hundreds of years. Maybe we’re getting way ahead of ourselves trying to figure out the future while so many insist on a way crawl back into the past, and just like the first step to solving problems is to admit you have them, our first step should be to admit that we’ve built a new world way too fast and foreigners, immigrants, and whoever is called a liberal nowadays, didn’t do this to spite those who have been left behind on purpose and out of malice, jealous of how great things were for today’s new order holdouts. Maybe if enough of us can finally agree that the old ways have found their political and economic limits, and we need to move on, swiftly, we can get the buy in we need to push the minimum changes necessary to deal with the post-industrial revolution…