Stephen Hawking writes about the dangers of nationalism, populism, job automation and climate change, the four of which have colluded to produce the apocalyptic cocktail known as the year 2016. Hawking’s approach is a little weird as his intro laments his isolated “elite” (his words) ivory tower, saying verbatim, “What matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react.” While I’m not on board with the reactions of the elite are now of utmost importance–especially considering that liberal celebrities, the current government, and the entire discipline of science wasn’t able to stop Trump from being elected or the UK from Brexiting–Hawking has some incredibly empathetic things to say about the way things are, and the way forward. Hawking is in partial below, in full via 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.
We need to put this alongside the financial crash, which brought home to people that a very few individuals working in the financial sector can accrue huge rewards and that the rest of us underwrite that success and pick up the bill when their greed leads us astray. So taken together we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.
It is also the case that another unintended consequence of the global spread of the internet and social media is that the stark nature of these inequalities is far more apparent than it has been in the past. For me, the ability to use technology to communicate has been a liberating and positive experience. Without it, I would not have been able to continue working these many years past.
But it also means that the lives of the richest people in the most prosperous parts of the world are agonisingly visible to anyone, however poor, who has access to a phone. And since there are now more people with a telephone than access to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa, this will shortly mean nearly everyone on our increasingly crowded planet will not be able to escape the inequality.
The consequences of this are plain to see: the rural poor flock to cities, to shanty towns, driven by hope. And then often, finding that the Instagram nirvana is not available there, they seek it overseas, joining the ever greater numbers of economic migrants in search of a better life. These migrants in turn place new demands on the infrastructures and economies of the countries in which they arrive, undermining tolerance and further fuelling political populism.
*Image via ejcc.org