Friday, December 02, 2016

"This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive" - Stephen Hawking

Hawking at NASA, 1980s
On December 1, 2016, Stephen Hawking wrote in The Guardian: "The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.
    This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive."

Hawking could have been discussing progress traps. He is on record as saying “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognize the dangers and control them."

Few other scientists have criticized science and technology in such uncertain terms, and one wonders why. Hawking has stature and knowledge on his side, and few would risk embarrassment by disagreeing with so fearless a contender with ALS, a disease that is usually fatal. But it is puzzling that he does not receive the resounding support of scientists and academics in general, in his questioning of progress.

Regarding the environment, Hawking writes in the Guardian article: "We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it."

It has always been the belief of this writer that if we understand progress traps, we can solve them. Whether we call them 'unintended consequences', 'ideological pathology', 'collapse' or 'escalation of commitment', these inversions of progress have recurred throughout history. So much so that the progress /collapse syndrome can be studied rigorously, its causes identified, and remedies designed.

It takes a suspension of belief in the sanctity of science and technology to take them apart, however. Or great courage, as with Stephen Hawking.

Joseph A Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Joseph A Tainter, Problem Solving: Complexity, History, Sustainability, Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Volume 22, Number 1, September 2000

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking Penguin, New York, 2005. 

McGilchrist, Iain The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, USA: Yale University Press. 2009