Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Historians in 2255: the Simulacrum Society vs. the Savages

It is now 2255. Two historians review the recent past…

Historian 1 and Historian 2 have been trying to understand why the United States of America began its downward spiral in 2016. At first, when told about the country and its military spending, advanced technology, and two oceans to protect it, along with some of the smartest people in the world, they struggled to understand its collapse in 2166. 

2166 was the year of America’s Second Civil War, when nationwide militias banded together, refused the central government’s demands to give up their weapons, and went on the offensive. Many Americans tried fleeing to Utah, but people in Utah had been preparing for such an event for decades and refused entry (but not assistance) to most internal refugees.  By chance, Canada had built a wall several years ago, which now prevented Americans from fleeing north. After the militias were put down, the United States of America existed in name only. The country continued its core strength of security products—no other place protected and transported physical items so well—but there was nothing united about a country where cities and states revolving around academia competed each year with cities and states revolving around military culture, with both factions trying to increase funding each year for their own side at the expense of the other. 

H1: I really don’t get it. On the surface, all the data in the year 2000 indicated the United States would continue to dominate for centuries. 

H2: I thought the same as you, but once I did a deep dive, I realized America’s strengths were also its greatest weaknesses. At the same time greater clarity of direction was needed in a fragmented world, America’s checks and balances began working against it. Nothing could get done, and all change became necessarily incremental. 

H1: What’s the problem with incremental change

H2: In ordinary times, nothing. The problem with America was that it had already borrowed money from future generations to pay off senior citizens in ways that distorted federal, state, and local budgets. Today, we’re all under some centralized government—well, most of us are, while others prefer to live more simple lives—but back then, America had to deal with political factions on three different levels. It’s a great system to prevent centralization of power, but Americans didn’t realize that increasingly dangerous cyber-threats plus a reduction in the efficacy of its naval power meant its system of government was less effective than competitors. 

H1: Ok, so America’s engine of progress would have slowed down a bit. That’s the price people pay for checks and balances, isn’t it? 

H2: Sure, but what good are checks and balances if the politicians before you 1) made promises based on artificial financial engineering; and 2) used debt to give their constituents everything they wanted, but in unsustainable ways? 

H1: We’ve solved these problems today with everyone guaranteed a basic standard of living, so why was money such an issue back then? 

H2: Today we’ve realized there’s no point in an economic system that prioritizes labor arbitrage (i.e., currency manipulations, outsourcing, insourcing) when robots can do most of the work for us. Back then, humans were stuck in a winner-take-all system not only because of technological threats that made it harder for small businesses to grow without debt and costly third-party assistance, but regulations making it difficult for small and even mid-sized businesses to be truly global. How do you compete with larger, established players when your website can be subjected to a DNS attack, or when you need import-export permits and connections to make sure your goods aren’t “lost” along the way to the customer? 

H1: Wait, didn’t Amazon offer excellent tech services at a low cost to everyone, including small businesses? 

H2: Yes, and in doing so, it increased its own dominance because it had software to analyze the data coming from those third-party accounts. In effect, America’s technological leaders used data and AI to further distance themselves from their smaller competitors--when they weren't buying out or copying them. 

Think of it this way: today, we see no point in maintaining separate armies in each independent country or community. We realized the costs—both financial and otherwise—for smaller, developing countries to rise to the technological aptitude of larger countries were prohibitive and counter-productive to world peace. We also realized any war between advanced countries or their proxies would be potentially catastrophic—and by catastrophic, I mean world-ending—not only to residents in each country, but to everyone else. 

Once we agreed the usual models wouldn’t work because human decision-making wasn’t yet developed enough to predict or even prevent human error—the 2018 Hawaii false missile alarm being one example—the only solution was increasing cooperation between all nuclear powers and satellite owners. I’m not saying countries still don’t try to disrupt other countries, but we mostly agree that using resources that could improve residents’ domestic conditions is preferred to an arms race with no end and mutually assured global destruction. 

Developed nations did try to encourage less developed countries to boost infrastructure, but imposing the same regulations of a developed country on a developing country soon proved counterproductive. I read somewhere that a traveler passing through a developing country’s airport had a much easier process than a traveler to a so-called advanced country, which gives you an idea that technology wasn’t working in the way humans intended. There was even a story where humans replaced retail workers with machines but there were so many inefficiencies in the software, the human worker had to work more to help complete transactions, obviating the tech’s utility. Initially, developed countries relied on labor arbitrage to fix these gaps, but soon it became obvious having separate systems in each country that weren’t at least minimally compatible with each other made no sense. 

H1: I understand what you’re saying, but even today, we have tech issues. I’d like to think we won’t collapse just because we have technological issues. 

H2: Yes, but because we can manipulate our DNA, we don’t have similar social problems. If you want to be a different skin color, a different body type, etc., you can accomplish that—as long as you consent to 24/7 neurological surveillance so researchers can gather biological data that helps improve our systems. 

In 2016, unlike now, artificial differences separated humans, who put up artificial barriers to protect themselves. Almost every so-called legal advancement served only to increase segregation and inequality, which led to social strife. As lawyers were busy discovering new ways to segregate their clients’ interests from political unpredictability, people post-Snowden realized they had unwittingly sacrificed privacy for little to no increase in efficiency or security. The government tried to recapture credibility by becoming more transparent and encouraging open debates, but in an age where knowledge and the ability to absorb it logically was highly dependent on multiple factors outside the individual’s control, these attempts backfired. 

In short, governments in the 21st century found themselves outmaneuvered by the more nimble private sector, hamstrung by union and other rules prioritizing politics over customer service and merit, and generally at a loss on how to deal with the vestiges of prior administrations, which had made promises based on economic assumptions no longer necessarily true. Would China continue to buy debt denominated in U.S. dollars? Would the U.S. consumer accept a free trade paradigm where a strong dollar improved their quality of life while shifting production to other countries? How would “most-favored nation” status work fluidly in an age of multiple superpowers? 

H1: [chuckles] Ok, you’re getting too wonky for me. So the old ways weren’t working for everyone. Why didn’t the leaders change things? 

H2: If only it were that easy. Remember we said all political change was incremental? Once you include massive, multi-generational debt into the equation, change becomes even more tricky. In the United States, the majority of the federal budget was on autopilot after 2001. The way the government kept funding operations, including foreign overreach, was through a legal maneuver called appropriations, which were designed only for short-term use. Lacking fiscal discipline, even basic changes such as legalization of drugs and reducing the ROI on long-term obligations couldn’t be done uniformly, much less internationally. For example, why would a country like Singapore, which could actually control drug imports due to its small size, sign up for drug liberalization? In Singapore's case, the cost-benefit analysis fell firmly on the side of drug enforcement, whereas in America, police were outmanned and often outgunned against drug enterprises, starting as early as Miami in the 1980s. 

[Editor's note: America's comparatively strong dollar and its failure to eliminate cartels meant that civic institutions--and therefore progress and opportunities for arm's length collaboration--south of its border were hamstrung. For instance, how could any Mexican police department, even if funded properly, attract ambitious employees when it faced a stronger currency next door, more effective technology, and less employment flexibility (i.e., no "access to cheap skilled labour and a strictly anti-competitive use of lethal violence"), especially if cartels functioned as de facto welfare and jobs agents in local communities? Also, in the absence of effective local police, why wouldn't the logical progression be a military-industrial complex? Bonus, from Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security: "You almost had a shadow government that controlled huge amounts of economic activity in a totally unaccountable way." (Inside the American Mob, S1:E1, 2013)] 

H1: Why do you focus on drugs? Today, we can get any drug we like, and scientists are working on even better ones. 

H2: You have to remember that our economic system today is different from the ones around Earth in 2018. Today, when we are born, we all receive a pre-set allocation of BlockCoins that can last us our entire lives if we are reasonably careful. Different pods and different countries have rules on how we can spend these BlockCoins, but they are universally transferable, though prices are different depending on one’s location. Most countries provide a staggered number of BlockCoins until the age of 40 (the age limit increases as more anti-aging advances are made) to promote prudent spending. If someone runs out of BlockCoins today, they will most likely relocate to a less expensive pod or country or even go “savage” and move to a non-technologically advanced pod. As we know, under this economic system, women gained much more political power and wealth, and now dominate most high-level non-military governance positions. 

H1: I dislike the savage pods. They receive our protection and some  of our medical advances without contributing any biological data. Some of them come around when a child gets sick, and even I felt sorry for the savage who received CRISPR treatment for his son in exchange for a lens implant that unwittingly allowed a BlockCoin billionaire to secretly spy on sector B6. 

H2: Anyway, humans in the 21st century were faced with the opposite economic scenario, but in one way still surprisingly similar to us. They worked all their lives to gain enough wealth so they could finally pursue their passions and dreams in old age; in contrast, we go to school to learn what most interests us and then receive training to help us choose occupations based on our specific abilities and desires. 

What surprises me is that earlier humans also agreed to have their data mined—but without compensation. They paid for medical care, education, housing, and so on. Many people even went in debt for such essential items. 

The reason we are able to enjoy such a high quality of life today is because we voluntarily provide constant, real-time biological data to the pods and central research unit. Most of us accept the tradeoff between a lack of privacy and the goal of the perfect singularity, i.e., a human being with at least the same level of abilities as the most advanced machines. The data is anonymized before being sent to the pods and central research unit, but you and I are able to access results and CRISPR suggestions based on our individual data. I’m not sure anyone wants to visit North Korea now that they’ve upgraded their personal hardware to resemble various comic book characters, but they pose no threat because central military command can freeze and/or obliterate any specific area immediately with the unanimous consent of the revolving 7-member Security Council, chosen every three years based on the countries producing the most innovative breakthroughs in science, music, math, and engineering. Members with a conflict of interest must abstain from voting, but generally speaking, since everyone is born with the same number of BlockCoins, persons in all countries are somewhat valuable to other countries, so cross-border violence and aggression are counterproductive. 

My point is that because human beings delayed their passions and dreams until old age, they suffered from numerous neuroses. To assuage their neuroses, they engaged in terrorism, violence, illegal drugs and other diversions we find anachronistic. Such improper behavior necessitated large budgetary outlays for police and military forces, obligations which grew larger with each passing year. Funding such expansion required debt at levels that would never be paid off completely as well as non-financial complexity such as infiltration and surveillance

For example, it was not uncommon for a police unit to pay undercover officers to infiltrate or surveil a gang dealing in drugs. In other words, while the police were infiltrating drug dealing gangs and sometimes even running drug operations themselves, they were spending money trying to stamp out the same operations, which were busy expanding into other areas of business, even going so far as stealing donations to nonprofit centers for online resale. Illegal drugs formed the core of the revenue that allowed crime to expand, which led citizens to authorize more funding for crime-fighting, which then allowed more surveillance, less overall privacy, more segregation, and so on and so forth. At some point, humans realized they needed to decriminalize drugs, fix immigration laws to mitigate human trafficking, and not waste funding on self-defeating strategies, but until that moment occurred, citizens bickered over a lack of funding for other areas even as most local tax revenue was going to public safety operations

H1: Violence, debt, crime, not being able to pursue one’s passions until old age…and you haven’t even mentioned disease and sickness yet! I don’t mean to be rude, but why did these people even bother? 

H2: Many of them didn’t. Suicide rates and depression were highest in the most developed countries. You despise the savages, but they mock us, too. When they’re not calling us a “Simulacrum Society,” they’re comparing us to the pods in The Matrix (1999). 

H1: I’ve heard those criticisms before, and they’re evidence of the savages’ less than fully developed tastes and intellect. In The Matrix, the machines were using us, but we are using the machines. 

H2: Are you sure about that? If the machines took over, wouldn’t they be advanced enough to use neuro-data sets and AR/VR technology to make us think we were still in charge? Anyway, to answer your original question, why did humans endure under such counterproductive systems? A review of literature would lead you to the answer of love. No matter how low or damaged someone was, it was normal to persist in the belief that someone, somewhere loved him or her or would love him or her. 

H1: Ah, so gender relations were optimal then? 

H2: [Sighs] Actually, in America, they were quite low in 2018. 

H1: Surely you’re joking. 

H2: Humanity many centuries ago recognized that men and women comprised two sides of the same puzzle that needed union for happiness, but in practice, men and women could rarely get along unless the male met a female when he was starting out or not successful, and the female stayed with him even when she could have chosen someone more successful. The best case scenario was stated most aptly by comedian Chris Rock: “You can be married and bored, or single and lonely!” 

H1: I’m not going to say we’ve solved gender issues, but at least it’s much easier to keep occupied and motivated without a significant biological other. Very few humans today think love is the central goal anymore. We live too long, and it’s not difficult to find people who are okay with short-term relationships. 

H2: But that’s exactly why the savages mock us. They say we’ve discovered every innovation except the most important ones. Do you remember their last line in the most recent debate? “Give me a life difficult enough to value the important things, enough time to find them, and enough life to enjoy them—no more, no less.” They say the difficulty is the point. In the struggle is my salvation, and so on and so forth. 

H1: They have all kinds of ideas. One of them argued that although we can better analyze specific DNA sequences or identify harmful strands, we still don’t know the total impact of modifying one DNA sequence on all the other sequences ad infinitum. But of course the researchers have accounted for this issue and use AI to run simulations on all possible outcomes. 
H2: I think the argument was that AI only knows what data it receives under a specific rule set, so if a human being programs the AI with data only known up to x date, what if the human being is unintentionally eliminating mutations not in the data as of x date? 

H1: Once again, the researchers account for these possibilities by running all possible sequences. 

H2: But how can AI know what it doesn’t know? Are we correct in assuming biology follows very specific rules like chess or that the simulations can account for all possible mutations? 

H1: [Cocks eyebrow] Are you getting wonky on me again? 

H2: Fine. Back to relationships. The correct answer is, “I don’t know.” Some couples worked out, some didn’t. Our lives are far more predictable than theirs, but we are less likely to engage in permanent relationships or reproduce naturally. 

I remember reading an author discuss his time watching couples on the London Underground. He said he didn’t know what love was, but he could always see it when it was there. According to him, love wasn’t at all abstract—it was literally there in the quickness and shape of a smile, the subtle ways happy couples mimicked each other’s body movements without realizing it, and so on. Once he realized he could see love, that’s what he aimed to achieve. Right after he set the goal, he realized how silly he was. He could not accomplish such a goal on his own, and he could not predict when or if it would happen. There was probably an equal chance of him never seeing love in his own life as seeing it. 

Yet, realizing he could see love, that it wasn’t entirely abstract, encouraged him to spend more time on people and to try to see why they behaved the way they did. Why was that woman wearing that brand, that color? Perhaps she believed it helped present her as a better version of herself, and she wanted a better version of herself to attract a specific someone. Or perhaps she'd saved up for months to get an item because it meant she’d have an easier time being spoken to with respect? What did she intend to convey by choosing this color, this dress, over another? Was it just that it was the only clean laundry that day? One never knows with the savages. Maybe that’s the point. 

© Matthew Rafat 

Updated February 14, 2018: the conversation continues here

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