Here and There – 2045

Despite some squabbles as to whether it began in 2000 or 2001, by the time 2001 was under way, everyone agreed we were living in the 21st Century.  It was a memorable year.  For many this was because, on 9 September, al-Qaeda terrorists carried out a series of attacks in the United States.  Using hijacked passenger aircraft they brought down the Twin Towers in New York, crashed an aircraft into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, while a third attack was aborted as passengers successfully crashed another aircraft into a rural field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.  Nearly  3,000 people were killed.  America declared its ‘War on Terrorism’ and invaded Afghanistan where the then leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was believed to be hiding, and new and universal security measures were introduced.  These included more extensive screening of passengers and luggage at airports.  This was the same year in which a series of anthrax attacks took place in the USA, by anthrax spores sent through the mail, as well as several other terrorist attacks and insurgencies across the globe.

On the other hand, this was the year in which the Apple Computer Company released the iTunes program. This software saved music and video files on to a computer. It was used to store and organize individual’s digital music collections, (and eventually allow them to rip songs off from CDs), and to upload their music and video collections on to other devices, like an iPod. In 2003, Apple introduced the iTunes Store which made it even easier for iTunes users to add to their digital music collection.  Oh, and Wikipedia went online.

Over in Italy, the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy was re-opened to the public in December 2001. The tower was built in 1360 closed in 1990 for repairs and re-opened 11 years later after a team of engineers, architects, and soil experts believed they had successfully stabilised it without altering its famous tilt.  It was an outcome achieved at considerable cost:  the repairs cost about $27 million,  but the experts assessing the outcome estimated the 12th C building would last at least 200 years before toppling over.  Or, at least, they hoped so!

What was big in culture?  For many people it was the release of Peter Jackson’s film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, based on the first volume of The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J R R Tolkien. It premiered on 10 December 2001.  The film was acclaimed by critics and fans alike, praised as a major achievement in the fantasy film genre. It received recognition for its visual effects, performances, Jackson’s direction, screenplay, musical score, and faithfulness to the source material.  Let’s face it, it was stunning!

Less highbrow, this was the year in which another film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) was released.  Based on the first book in J K Rowling’s series, it followed Harry’s first year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as he began his formal wizarding education.  I’m not embarrassed to say that the Harry Potter films were also fantastic, in every sense of the word, too.

Despite receiving less popular coverage, this was also the year in which Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, was published, a study by Barbara Ehrenreich based on her time working as an undercover journalist, in an investigation of the impact of the 1996 US Welfare Reform Act on the working poor in the United States.  She identified many of the difficulties low wage workers faced, including the hidden costs involved in such necessities as shelter (the poor often had to spend much more on daily hotel costs than they would pay to rent an apartment if they could have afforded the security deposit and first-and-last month fees) and food (the poor often bought food that was both more expensive and less healthy than they would have done if they had access to refrigeration and cooking appliances).

She also attacked the view low-wage jobs require only unskilled workers.   She found manual labour entailed highly demanding feats of stamina, focus, memory, quick thinking, and fast learning.   Many were associated with constant and repeated movement, increasing the risk of repetitive strain injury, with days filled with degrading and uninteresting tasks (such as toilet-cleaning and mopping). She also described managers interfering in worker productivity, as they forced employees to undertake mandated but pointless tasks, making the overall low-wage work experience even more miserable.  She concluded low-wage workers, some the recipients of government or charitable services like welfare, food, and health care, were not simply living off the generosity of others. Instead, she suggested, we live off their generosity:

“When someone works for less pay than she can live on … she has made a great sacrifice for you … The ‘working poor’ … are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.”  — Nickel and Dimed, p. 221

All that was 22 years ago.  Today, al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the US have been replaced by the Russia’s aggressive incursion into Ukraine, and the war that ensued.  There are many other wars and incidents taking place in 2023, as there have been for the last 22 years.  Different players, different locations, but the same old story:  despite the hopes of Freedom House, wars are ever present, and declines in democracy and accompanying conflicts appear to be increasing. Geopolitics over the past 22 years has seen little positive change.

On the other hand, some areas of technology have leapt forward.  If iTunes appeared in 2001, so ChatGPT is the big news of 2023.  ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is a so-called large language model, launched as a prototype on November 30, 2022.  In 2023 it has drawn attention for its detailed responses and articulate answers across many domains of knowledge. Its uneven factual accuracy has been identified as a significant drawback, but it keeps inproving, as do other similar systems.  Large languages models (LLMs) are computer systems that use ‘deep learning’ to produce human-like text responding to an initial request.  Some of the materials generated by systems like GPT-3 have reached the point it is difficult to determine whether or not they were written by a human, an outcome with both benefits and risks.  David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher, has described GPT-3 as “one of the most interesting and important AI systems ever produced.”  If it is true that GPT-3 is capable of producing  original prose with fluency equivalent to that of a human, it’s not surprising praise is accompanied by concern.  What about academic integrity?  How will universities and schools determine plagiarism.  This is a real change, and one that’s unlikely to go away!

Are there other similarities between 2001 and 2023?  We aren’t saving the Leaning Tower of Pisa in 2023, but we are saving towns in Australia, California and many other places from fire and flooding.  As for culture, while earlier fantasy universes continue to flourish in cinemas, we have Dungeons and Dragons and the Super Mario Bros. movies to look forward to, a couple of ‘new’ cinematic worlds for us to explore.  Need I add there’s not much change in the cinematic world:  new names, same old stories.  Perhaps the Mission Impossible series will be over, at last, (Tom Cruise has to stop soon!?), and surely Indiana Jones has finally set aside his hat and whip, but who knows?  Could Dune be the next long-running series?

What about the employment issues described by Barbara Ehrenreich?  Nickel and Dimed might have been written today.  Workers’ low wages characterise most economies and remain a massive challenge in the US.  In Australia, where we like to think we are immune to such outcomes, wage growth is continuing to slip below the level of inflation.  Many costs are rising, leading to a declining standard of living for a growing sector of the population.  Equally, many employers and managers remain as exploitative, uncaring and foolish as they were in 2001.  Moreover, it is still the case that the more affluent are the thoughtless recipients of labour of the working poor, whose activities are, in effect, “to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor” to them.

In many ways, it seems to me that 2023 isn’t that different from 2001.  Even all the hype over ChatGPT doesn’t impress me.  The incentives for most people to work hard at analysing, thinking and writing have been eroding for a long time.  We’re saved from thinking as social media, old fashioned media (newspapers and TV), and even those old favourites – gossip and deliberate lying – do that for us.  If there have been any major changes over those twenty-two years, they are that we seem lazier, more willing to follow, and more divided than before.

Let’s be daring and leap forward by another 22 years and explore what will be happening in 2045.  I know, you’re going to point out that we can’t do that.  The future is unknowable, just as 2023 was unknowable in 2011.  True, but while the details are clearly unknowable, I am going to suggest the broad outlines are rather easier to imagine, even to predict.

We can begin with politics.  We can be confident there will be a new Xi Jinping and a new Vladimir Putin to worry the Western world, which will still be in thrall to a declining USA, itself even more inward looking than it is now.  It’s likely existing fragmentation will deepen.  Despite population decline, an increasingly technologically advanced China will still be seeking to control its region and expand its economic reach; a frustrated Russia will still be trying to grab back territory, sustained in its belief it can re-establish itself as a world power.  Income from oil might be significantly reduced, but the Moslem world will still be seeking to fend off ‘infidels and unbelievers’.  I can’t predict exactly who will be doing exactly what, but Huntington’s ‘Clash Between Civilisations’ offers a useful template:

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

I didn’t agree when he said this in 1993, but it seems so today, and still might be in 2045!

It would be foolish to predict what technologies will be emerging in 2045.  The promise of holography still seems uncertain.  Smart systems will get smarter.  Technology will be doing even more that we used to do.  And we’ll need help.  Leaning towers and occasional floods will seem trivial compared to the environmental changes that, inevitably, will have created a hotter, more unpredictable world, with raised sea levels, violent weather patterns, and continuing climate change.  Steps towards a more equable world will remain inadequate.

The issue in comparing 2001, 2023 and 2045 that interests me the most comprises work and class.  I believe most people will still be living in the world Barbara Ehrenreich described 44 years earlier.  She hoped that “someday, low-wage workers will rise up and demand to be treated fairly, and when that day comes everyone will be better off”.  To date, as George Sciabba wrote:  “one American child in five lives below or near the poverty line; that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of our economy’s productivity gains since 1980 have gone to the top 10 percent of the income distribution; that the top twenty-five hedge-fund managers earn more than all the nation’s kindergarten teachers combined; that 100,000 Americans will die for lack of health care over the next ten years in order to give a large tax cut to Americans with incomes above a half-million dollars; and so on and so on, down the long and shameful catalog” (What Were We Thinking, Commonweal, January 2023).

I’ve decided to live dangerously, and claim it will be the same, if not worse, in 2045.  In large part this is because we have been seduced by two words: ‘fairness’ and ‘freedom’.  The evidence for my grim view comes from the US.  Despite our hopeful beliefs, it is no better in Australia or the UK:  it’s just the facts are easier to see in America!  The key to this is the pernicious idea that we have freedom of choice.  No one makes you shop at Walmart or Woolworths, or work there.  If you don’t like where you live, you’re free to move.  If you don’t like what you’re hearing, change the channel.  If you don’t like Fords, buy a Toyota or a Daihatsu.  This model of life, ‘citizens as sovereign consumers’, is baked into the views of many consumers that, whatever its other virtues or defects, capitalism relies exclusively or primarily on free choice and that regulations or taxes or public provision, even if justified, diminish freedom.  This isn’t quite as extreme in the UK or Australia, but we’re getting there.

Is that fair?  From a strictly moral point of view, no one deserves a reward for being born luckier than someone else.  We have fallen into the trap of believing the successful, those in the elite, deserve what they have.  However, modern genetics, neurobiology, and psychology have demonstrated that character and talent is either inherited or formed by early experiences. It seems diligence, decisiveness, initiative, together with intellectual or manual abilities, are in large part of one’s ‘natural endowment’.  However, from a moral point of view, surely no one deserves a reward for being born luckier than someone else.   What about the obvious principle of fairness: “from each according to her abilities, to each according to her need?”

Today, class continues to dominate.  At its heart, societies comprise two groups, the elite, the  managerial, technological and political class, and the rest, in some kind of ‘working class’.  It’s not news.  250 years ago, in The Wealth of NationsAdam Smith, wrote:

[In disputes between masters and workmen,] it is not difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen.…

[T]he masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.         

As for Barbara Ehrenreich’s view that low-wage workers will rise up, demand to be treated fairly, and everyone will be better off?  The way things are going, that won’t have happened by 2045.  I am predicting little or no change.  In fact, I’ll make one more prediction:  the Leaning Tower of Pisa will still be leaning and will still be standing! Plus ça change …