As time progresses, people inside western society are growing further and further apart. The last 5 years have been a cultural shit-show and it’s looking like the 2020s will continue to get worse.

I can sense myself being polarized. Concepts like defunding the police, abolishing prisons and universal basic income were not mainstream culture even a year ago. I’m also not sold that capitalism is paying its weight anymore.

These are radical ideas. They are about drastic systemic changes, and they live in contrast to an opposite set of opinions which are also as dramatically about re-architecting huge systems which allow humans to flourish.

It’s not healthy for culture.

What I think is happening:

A longer, deeper dive:

  1. Technology used to generate more opportunities for everyone

    Globally, we need to add new jobs at the same rate (or more) as the birth rate globally. Older generations of technology replaced and augmented muscles, but the stuff we’re making today replaces brains. A modern technology company can run on significantly less people, and have significantly more impact than one without a tech focus.

    Not all jobs can be automated, but a lot can, and a lot more will be automated in the future. We built social safety nets, but in the UK and US at least, those are frayed and breaking. Today, if you’re not born obscenely rich, you need a job to lead a fulfilling life and we’re not making enough new jobs.

    Just taking America into account, and excluding 2020 as an “abberation” (lol), for the last decade ~4 million people are born per year and there are ~2 million new jobs being made a year.

    Further reading: MIT Review: How technology is destroying jobs / Kurtzgesagt - Rise of the Machines / CPG Grey - Humans Need Not Apply.

  2. Technology concentrates

    The biggest tech companies have the resources to create almost any other sort of business. Is Slack getting popular? Microsoft can create a competitor and offer it for free to existing subscribers. Is your shop selling a product on Amazon? they will create a cheaper Amazon basics brand to undercut you and then buy your company.

    It should be weird that that Google sells ads, but also offers fibre internet, internet via balloons, wants to run taxes themselves, is trying to undo aging, offers a million free services, operates YouTube, creates the software which powers most phones, sells phones, sells computers, sells computers to developers in the cloud, has built AI systems that beat humans at Go and Starcraft and the company still has time to achieve breakthroughs in quantum mechanics.

    That’s just a sliver of Google. Amazon, Microsoft and Apple all have the same fundamental fluidity at heart too. It’s easier to build on existing software, it’s not like re-tooling a factory.

    The ability for modern technology to concentrate power and resources has created obscenely wealthy people. In 2012 it was bad, and it’s getting much worse.

    Further reading: EU Antitrust on Amazon / US Antitrust on Google / Antitrust speculation on Apple / Oxford Law: The New Brandeis Movement: America’s Antimonopoly Debate / Why Software Is Eating the World / DW: Inequality in Germany / Financial Times: How the pandemic is worsening inequality

  3. Connectivity isn’t actually that great

    A phone in your pocket can give you access to all of the worlds information instantly.

    It also gives you access to all of the disinformation and everyone’s opinions (right, wrong, justified, callous or wasteful). I think all social media companies are fundamentally built to connect, but are optimized for engagement. You get the biggest open funnel for new users, and then build features to get them to keep coming back. Friction gets followers, and having strong opinions on the internet is what constantly gets you feedback from others.

    Can you ever build a website for that many people to connect and not have it be a net negative for the culture of the participants?

    Further reading: Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now / This Is Your Brain Off Facebook / The Welfare Effects of Social Media

  4. There’s too much of everything, so we are forced to try and filter it

    Want to find an article on the internet to backup up your feelings? There’s almost always something somewhere. That makes it easy to feel gratified, but also means that people end up with completely different realities. It’s like there is an infinite number of perspectives on the same event.

    These realities are dangerous because there is often not much shared space for mundane common beliefs. In one reality, world leaders are being controlled by a secret cabal with sinister aims - in another they are inept, and a deep cause for concern for the state of politics.

    That said, there’s interesting research that exposure to opposing views can be polarizing too. So, it’s kinda lose-lose when handling the scale of access to opinions.

    Further reading: The truth behind filter bubbles: Bursting some myths / Wikipedia: Filter bubbles / The WIRED Guide to Online Conspiracy Theories

There’s no single group to point the blame at.

However, there are incentives which drive companies, teams and individuals to slowly re-enact a constant tragedy of the commons that continues to unsettle the terrains of our lives. Constant growth requires it.

Solutions to these sorts of problems require substantial systematic changes. These changes get more drastic as the world is constantly being whiplashed between diverging ideologies: raising the possible ceiling of personal achievement vs lowering the furthest someone could fall. It feels like a lot of the time with our political systems you only get the choice of “not that person” and never really someone who could actually do the long-term systematic work necessary.

I think there have always been people working on improving things, seeing anti-trust discussions, unionisation, concepts like ‘small tech’, ideas like degrowth, all help to reign in some of the dangers of the concentration of wealth and power that technology is responsible for. Hopefully, we can work through it.