They’ve got David Houle on Coast to Coast AM tonight, a futurist. The just of his take on things is that we’ve exited the information age and are entering what he calls the shift age. I disagree that we’ve exited the information age even though I agree that we’re also entering an age of major shifts. The information age is just cranking up, it’s nowhere near the peak let alone past it.
He uses the analogy of the industrial age. While agreeing that the industrial age is a good analog, I believe he is missing a major point. Most heavy industry has left this country and moved to where labor and energy are cheap. The industrial age hasn’t ended, it’s just left the United States and moved into China and India.
Here is where the metaphor is more applicable. In the industrial revolution, as machine power replaced human power, there was a great displacement of labor. The machine power meant things could be manufactured less expensively but it displaced much of the labor force. New people were needed to maintain, design, build, and deploy machines but the displaced labor was not trained to do these things. So you had unemployed people at the same time you had unfilled openings until people could become trained in the new technology.
The information age, instead of replacing human physical labor, power, with machine power, replaces human intelligence with machine intelligence. We are experiencing exactly what we experienced in the industrial revolution, high unemployment even though there are also many unfilled positions. Displaced workers are not trained in the new technology and it will take time and an investment in education.
We are a long way from a mature information age. Only relatively simple tasks have been automated. There remains much more human labor to be replaced with machines. The rate which that can happen is limited by the lack of people trained in new technology.
As people get trained in these new technologies and the new technological positions are filled, we’ll see a great acceleration in productivity and a reduction in the cost of doing most things which will result in higher levels of prosperity. The new jobs will be more challenging and less mundane.
Energy is a problem that needs to be solved, artificial brawn and artificial brains requires considerable energy. Hydraulic fracturing, “fracking”, will provide a short-term fix for this in the United States and probably in China, but to date Europe is resisting this because of ecological concerns (which are entirely valid, we should have concerns here too). This may mean little or no growth in the European economy while the US economy grows, but it also means they won’t be dealing with the issues of contaminated groundwater and radon contamination of natural gas supplies that we will as the result of fracking, and the sustainable energy sources they put in place won’t crash when the tight oil runs out.
Our decision to place economic concerns above ecological concerns means that we will probably see some of the manufacturing that has moved overseas return as foreign labor markets saturate while our energy costs, relative to foreign supplies drop. That’s not to say they will drop in real terms, it is to say they will inflate faster where fracking is not employed and supplies of conventional “loose” oil run out. European investment in renewable energy sources will benefit them in the long run as tight oil exhausts.
I speculate that as we clamp down on freedom more and more in this country, creativity will suffer and that’s going to dampen our productivity. How far this goes really depends on how much loss of freedom and infringement of privacy the American citizen is willing to tolerate. So far it seems we’ll tolerate quite a bit because there isn’t a constitutional amendment left that hasn’t been gutted.
Child labor laws that restrict child labor under 16, have also spelled the end to craftsmanship because they prevent effective apprenticeships. Take away the ability of a child to learn a craft when their brains are still highly malleable and their parents still young and functional enough to teach it and chances are they will never learn it. This is already reflected in society with mass produced crap replacing high quality hand built items. How often do you find something like a nice carved wood railing or a hand carved cabinet? When you do it’s because we’ve either got some guy who is 110 years old still practicing his craft, or we’ve imported a craftsman or product from nations where it is still possible to have apprenticeships.
As I see it, we have four big problems we have to solve. Food production has to be sustainable. Current petrochemical dependent methods requiring oil based fertilizers, oil based pesticides, oil based mechanized harvesting, and oil based transportation is only sustainable as long as the oil lasts. The way we use water for agriculture is not sustainable, we need to get away from sprinklers and turn towards controlled drip irrigation. We need to plant crops appropriate for the climate instead of trying to turn desert into swamps.
We need an educational system that prepares our population for the new high tech jobs that are available. Our quality of life would also improve if we found a way to allow apprenticeships again so that crafts could be passed down from generation to generation.
We need a sustainable energy to replace fossil fuels. This likely won’t come from any one source. We need to ramp up every sustainable source as fast as we can and eliminate our reliance on oil. We will need oil for chemical feedstock and if we burn it all up for energy we won’t have it for those needs.
We need to put individual responsibilities back to the individual and get them out of the hands of big brother. Stop putting in more cameras, stop mandating a gazillion ridiculous safety requirements that insurance company lobbyists keep pushing for, wrestle healthcare out of the insurance industry and put it back in the hands of health care professionals. We need to pass some serious privacy legislation that stops Google and other big data miners from collecting huge amounts of information about each of us.
We need to stop wasting resources squabbling over limited resources remaining on this planet. We used more oil in the Iraqi war each year than Iraq was producing, The only people who benefited from that war was the military industrial complex.
If we continue down the path we’re on, it’s just a matter of time until starvation becomes widespread, and a huge population crash results. If we seriously invest in renewable energy now, before the tight oil runs out, then we have some chance at sustaining our population beyond that point.
We need to invest more in pure science, the kind of science that increases our real understanding of the universe we are part of, that which can lead to real breakthroughs that can help us do things like mine the asteroids for resources in short supply on this planet, or find ways to make interstellar travel possible. There are many new things still waiting to be discovered.