“The future ain’t what it used to be,” observed Yogi Berra, capturing as only he could the ambivalence of change.
Berra’s wry observation aptly describes the mood in the US. We are mired in a Tale of Two Cities narrative, a clash between the seemingly exponential growth in software-driven commerce and the reality that humanity adjusts to change in a linear fashion, our government even less so.
Recovering prices for financial assets are offset by protracted wage and income stagnation. Americans in their twenties and thirties face a longer, steeper path to accumulate wealth. It will take them years longer than their parents to repay college and graduate degree debt, only to find their chosen careers to be in a state of constant upheaval. Meanwhile Gen X’ers in their mid-forties and fifties face the flip side of that daunting economic calculus, juggling finances to pay for their children’s education, their housing, and their parents’ post-retirement health care. Increasingly too, Gen X’ers are single parents, bearing the additional financial and psychological challenges that solo parenting brings.
Yet all is not gloom. Most Americans have benefitted from the creation of mobile computing, e-commerce, and medicine even as their personal balance sheets have strained, and as traditional pathways from manufacturing and managerial jobs to middle class security have receded. Technology has changed forever how we connect, communicate, and spend. Its blessings have been widely shared and have been from the consumer’s perspective, so far, deflationary in a good way.
The leaders of “best of time” enterprises are in powerful positions to spread their tech-infused gospel. From Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley vistas they see oceans of abundance, an emerging global village, the coalescing of a post-Westphalian community: borderless, universalist, secular, aspirational, and interconnected. Xanadu with a communitarian spirit and an unwavering belief in personal liberation. They disdain religiosity even as they spread an equally encompassing belief in the transformative power of zeroes and ones.
Betwixt these competing visions is the paradox of our time: a teenager or twenty-something has an almost unlimited ability to find and buy items anywhere in the world, or transmit their thoughts and photos around the world, instantly. Yet their path to earn a living, to accumulate wealth and start a family — to what we used to call adulthood — is highly uncertain. Professional success requires far more time and money with a far less certain payoff. It is a deeply confusing and disorienting time.
So, how might this paradox be resolved?
At a conceptual level, technology is redefining our ability to understand and model our existence. We are able to see with much greater precision how our bodies and our minds work, and to deconstruct how we interact and work on a daily basis. Armed with this knowledge, we should be able to build capabilities that supplement or replace our biological vulnerabilities, improve how we work and live, and help us make better use of our time.
However, we have a governmental structure built for the guns and butter imperatives of the Cold War/Great Society era. Our economic arrangements presuppose a world where most people live 70–75 years, with the first quarter century to grow up and acquire skills, the next 35-40 years to work and raise a family, and a decade or two at the end to enjoy the fruits of that labor. This structure, and the political and commercial leaders that emerged from the post World War II years, created sufficient wealth for America to deliver broad economic opportunity, and in time, to extend civil and economic rights more broadly.
After communism’s fall, America’s leaders fell into the thrall of Wall Street and the seemingly limitless possibilities of financial engineering. It worked for awhile, masking the risks of financial interdependence and inadequate political and business leadership, only to be exposed by the twin blunders of the Iraq War and the Great Recession.
Now, our government — and the politico-financial leaders that benefit from it — are at a loss to explain how Americans will continue to enjoy personal security, economic opportunity within a global market for labor and capital, and a rising quality of life.
We are in the early stages of a number of parallel scientific, demographic, economic, and societal changes. These trends overlap and unfold at differing speeds. Our ability to fashion a prosperous, relatively peaceful future, in the US and around the world, depends on how well we understand and manage the following counterpoints:
- Targeting versus Surveillance
- Affiliation versus Identity
- Design versus Manufacture
- Rules versus Algorithms
- Longevity versus Finance
- Terror versus Resilience
The tensions inherent in each of these trends drives innovation but strains existing political arrangements. Breakthroughs accelerate creative destruction, driving growth and prosperity. However, they also change the ranks of winners and losers, shifting political allegiances and the risk of political strife.
It may be impossible, even undesirable, to harmonize countervailing forces completely. Yet ensuring that the forces of change do not spin out of control is a delicate business, since scientific, commercial, and demographic changes unfold at different rates.
Truly revolutionary change would bring bloody results, as revolutions inevitably do. A far better outcome for America will be to fashion a measured upheaval, a more Burkean transition that modulates disruptive innovations in one realm with moderating arrangements in another.
America has struck this balance before, amidst rampant westward expansion, commercial growth, economic collapse and the Cold War. Can it happen again? We shall see.