Is Silicon Valley Charting the Future While All the World's Pols Play Small Ball?

"It is dangerous to mix godlike technology with megalomaniac politics but it might be even more dangerous to blend godlike technology with myopic politics. Our politics is becoming mere administration and is giving up on the future exactly when technology gives us the power to reshape that future beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, technology gives us the power to start reshaping even our dreams. If politicians don't want the job of planning this future, they will merely be handing it on a platter to somebody else."

Professor Yuval Harari

As we contemplate our present and future around the 239th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, are we being myopic? Is our politics focused mainly on marginalia while real change, big change, is being prepped elsewhere?

In a cover story late last month in the usually intriguing British magazine New Statesman, entitled "Who Owns the Future?: The Silicon Valley Prophets And A Runaway World," Israeli historian Yuval Harari argues that, following a 20th century dominated by political movements pushing profound change, the new century is ironically marked by political managerialism and arguments on the margins. Ironically not only in comparison to the not so long ago, but especially because revolutionary change is just around the corner. In this case, not from political visionaries but from technological imagineers.

Communism and fascism failed, while liberalism succeeded in the 20th century in establishing vast new education, health, and welfare establishments. The conflict over these revolutionary movements, violent and non-violent, Harari argues, left politics coming out of the 20th century enervated and wary, with the outcome of the great ideological wars mostly horrible. The relative triumph of liberal moves to create vast new establishments to uplift and ameliorate carried with it the pressing need to manage the new leviathans. And something else happened as well to tamp down political enthusiasm and imagination: The triumph of the market and the accompanying political counsel to do little other than help business and finance.

Geopolitical threats? Challenging, but manageable. China and Russia are playing familiar great power games. Terrorism has taken a minor toll. North Korea and Iran, with threats of missiles and nukes? "That's so 1945," scoffs Harari, author of the provocative international best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. (Tell that to Bibi Netanyahu.)

This is a particularly bad time for politics to go small-bore, suggests Harari, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, because new forces are being unleashed, the implications of which more than rival the fever dreams of Communism and fascism.

Now the grand visions of the future stem largely from the private sector, from revolutions in biotechnology and supercomputing leading to projected changes in the human genome, the creation of cyborgs and robots and artificial intelligences and a post-scarcity society in which most people consume rather than produce.

This last, also covered in the new Atlantic cover story on "The End of Work," posits the obsolescence of many millions of jobs, leading to the rise of the "economically useless," requiring radical new arrangements in society.

Also part of the foreshadowed technology-driven remaking of economy and society? The overcoming of old age and possible defeat of death, the engineering of super-humans, the advent of the "Internet of Things," and some sort of merger between human awareness and a new super-Neet to produce a higher level of consciousness.

How valid are Harari's assessments?

Allowing for a certain degree of Silicon Valley hype and journalistic exaggeration, they seem valid enough to consider.

Are pols really only into small ball driven by hack politics and megabucks? Well, for the most part, yeah.

Isn't gay marriage a revolutionary advance? Not really. It's certainly quite historic. But it only directly affects a relatively small number of folks, providing more a memorialization of further advance of their hard-won rights than a breakpoint in human civilization.

Isn't climate change a civilizational issue?

Why yes, it is. And the world is so far failing the test, refusing to take logical and achievable steps to avert a scenario in which the world becomes perilously close to uninhabitable for humanity.

Climate change is an example of an issue in which a few politicians -- like Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- have engineered dramatic action.

Not that Schwarzenegger or Brown is anyone's idea of a typical politician. That's one of the reasons I've always liked those guys.

Their sort of Think Big agenda -- on climate, renewable energy, conservation, clean transportation systems, water, stem cell research, and so on -- provides the exception that proves the rule. And of course, as Californians, they are near the Silicon Valley gravity well which further encourages thinking different(ly).

Speaking of which, again, is all this stuff Harari is talking about real or just so much hype?

Well, Silicon Valley has a history of "vaporware." And there is a present annoying tendency to act as though various largely trivial "apps" are big "game-changers."

However, there is also the rest of the history, of massive change.

It's not hard to notice that some extremely high-powered techies are getting to be like Tony Stark on a caffeine buzz. And the subliminal hmm of revving new tech is getting louder.

So what should the political and media classes do? Pay attention. Learn. And think, not tweet, about it.

As our small ball politics rolls inexorably into a presidential primary season already redolent with risible distractions, with the prospect of a general election between the inheritor of one non-great presidency squaring off against the inheritor of another non-great presidency ever present on the horizon, the same old song and dance is likely to continue.

Politics is seldom ahead of the curve on big change.

Just ask my old friend and boss Gary Hart, who tried to devise a post-Cold War politics in the midst of the Cold War only to be shot down from his presidential frontrunner's perch in a sex scandal spoon fed to the media just as hearings on the massive Iran/Contra scandal were getting underway.

The Cold War ended less than five years later, to the widespread shock of its most ardent promoters, as Hart's friend Mikhail Gorbachev dismantled the Soviet empire. Not that we ever got a coherent post-Cold War politics.

Will the prophesied wave of deep technological change make us happier? Harari notes that the earlier, pre-technological revolutions of the 20th century left society more atomized.

Looking at what was to come with the personal computing revolution 30 years ago, one of its pioneers then questioned what was beginning to unfold.

With Hart riding high after his near miss '84 presidential campaign, I put together a meeting between him and the principal inventor of the personal computer, Steve Wozniak. The Apple co-founder had been an enthusiastic backer and Democratic convention delegate for Hart and I wanted his support for Hart's think tank.

The meeting at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel began well. Since this was in the days before the mobile phone changed everything by turning half the world into shuffling extras in The Walking Dead, I slipped away to make some calls on a pay phone only to find up my return that Gary and Woz were a bit at loggerheads. The issue? Whether people with all their gadgets were happier than cave men.

The ultra-bright if a bit unworldly Woz took the position that cave men were really better off than we were with all the gadgets we had and were about to have. The gadgets were a distraction. Wolves seemed to be in the mix as well.

Which provided me with a distraction to get things back on track, noting that the cave folks had lacked an environmentally benign program for wolf control.

Yet the point, of course, remains. Are we happier today than we were four thousand years ago? (To adjust a saying of a certain former president.) Or are we better distracted?

I have neither an answer nor a quip. The one thing that is sure that we're quite different. Fortunately, we understand that.

If we fail to understand how we'll be different after the next waves of big change, we will be in big trouble.

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