Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Transition State

Countries go through transition periods where political, economic and technological developments combine to cause sweeping societal changes. One such transition period in U.S. history was from the very end of the 19th Century to the start of the Great Depression. Here's a list of some of the key events in the transition:

  • A massive influx of refugees, primarily from Eastern Europe and Russia, which initially was an enormous social burden but laid the groundwork for the U.S. to become the world's leading manufacturer and the center of science and technology.
  • A vast movement of population from farms to cities, which again initially put huge burdens on the cities but ultimately provided the talent for them to become economic powerhouses.
  • The invention and adoption of cars and trucks, which replaced horse-drawn vehicles and expanded the distances that workers could commute and that goods and services could be delivered.
  • The start of the era of mass media, where radio could reach an entire city instantly with the same entertainment, news and sports, and where the transition from news once or twice a day from local newspapers to continuously-updated news began.
  • Mass production techniques, which were pioneered earlier in the 19th Century, became widely adopted and enabled manufacturers to manufacture goods more quickly and cheaply, with better quality.
  • The labor movement started as a response to long working hours, low pay and poor working conditions.
  • Fossil fuels became the primary energy source for the country, replacing wood, whale oil and other renewable fuels. The availability of cheap coal and petroleum-based fuels supercharged manufacturing and transportation, and helped to make electricity both practical and economical.
  • Electrical distribution, which began in a handful of big cities in the late 19th Century, swept across the country, making gas lighting obsolete, replacing steam- or water-powered engines with electric motors for manufacturing, and facilitating hundreds of new industries.
  • The first heavier-than-air aircraft flew, and while it would take decades for airplanes to become an essential transportation and shipment technology, they made long-distance travel much more practical for the people who could afford to use them.
  • Telephones became commonplace, replacing telegraphs and making instantaneous person-to-person communications possible for most people living in cities.
The bottom line is that, if you took someone living in 1880 and magically transported them to 1930, they would recognize very little. An enormous amount of good came out of this transition, but so did the Great Depression and two World Wars. I believe that we're going through a similar transition, which probably started around 1990 and is likely to change society just as thoroughly:
  • Climate change driven by global warming is likely to shift areas of food production further north and south in the respective hemispheres, and will raise sea levels, requiring massive capital investments to protect coastal cities and the abandonment of some coastal areas and islands.
  • We've begun replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, both as a response to global warming and in order to protect ourselves from supply disruptions.
  • Internal combustion engines in cars and trucks are being supplemented or replaced by electric motors powered by batteries and fuel cells.
  • The Internet has erased geographic boundaries and made commerce, information and entertainment available everywhere.
  • Mobile devices, especially smartphones, have made the Internet and all of its capabilities available to people all over the world, including third-world countries.
  • The combination of the Internet with vast and comparatively cheap IT systems is changing the nature of work and the types of work that are done by people vs. computers. Increasingly, work previously done by untrained, high school educated people is being done by computers and humans overseas, and the boundary between work suited to automation and work suited to humans continues to rise.
  • After a 50-year period when people moved from cities to suburbs, the population flow has reversed, and cities are once again desirable places to live, not just work.
  • The combination of greater urban population density, new transportation options like car- and ride-sharing, and the advent of autonomous cars, signals the beginning of a long decline in the automobile industry, as cars are increasingly seen as utilities to be used as needed rather than essential property.
  • We're only a few years from being a majority minority country, which will have dramatic political and economic consequences.
  • The application of computers to medicine is driving advances in genomics, proteomics and pharmaceutical development that are resulting in new ways to detect, diagnose and treat diseases, as well as ways to extend both the length and quality of life. That too has dramatic societal, economic and political implications.
  • A similar application of computers to materials science has led to the development of new engineered materials that are better suited to their purpose and cheaper than previous materials, or that can do things that no material could previously do.
  • At the same time, income disparity between the rich and everyone else continues to grow, and that disparity is reflected in the fact that children from high-income families have much better educational opportunities throughout their school years than children from middle- and low-income families.
If I were to summarize what's driving our current transition, I'd say that by far the two most important developments were Moore's Law and the Internet. Both of them predate the transition, but they've resulted in the ability to put intelligence into just about everything at an incredibly low cost, and the ability to connect everything, no matter where it is.

Are we going to have the same kind of global disasters that occurred during and after the 19th/20th Century transition? Not necessarily. We had a transition of a similar magnitude after World War II, and while we had the Cold War and many proxy wars, there was nothing approaching either World War and, in general, improved financial conditions. However, we still don't all the ramifications of global warming and may not know for decades, and the same technologies that improve communications and health care can be used to impose a surveillance state and create organisms deadlier than anything that's naturally evolved on Earth. So, we'll continue to be faced with a nasty assortment of unintended consequences. The outcome of this transition will depend on how many of those consequences we avoid, and how we deal with the ones we can't avoid.
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