Rewriting human history. how our history determines our future
an alternative thought experiment by Nikola Danali
Chapter 12: Political History
Never has our future been so unpredictable, never so dependent on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest; powers that seem sheer insanity by the standards of other centuries. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Authority over rules is real authority. That’s why lobbyists flock when Congress writes laws, and why the Supreme Court, which interprets and defines the Constitution to write the rules, has even more power than Congress. If you want to understand the deepest faults of systems, pay attention to the rules and those who have power over them. Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems
Politics is a history of rules. The rules for how we live and do things together. It frames and regulates relationships between people. It is the foundation upon which we transcend being individuals and become a community, tribe, nation, or civilization. It is what allows humanity to be more than the sum of its parts. This is why we can get all the other stories right, but if we get the politics wrong, we are unlikely to survive as a civilization, perhaps even as a species. And all stories become political sooner or later.
Take the technology. Technology drives change. And, by definition, change turns the world upside down. So it takes a blue-collar noble and turns him into a pauper. It takes the king and turns him into a ceremonial figure with no real power. It takes the pastor and turns him into a worker, a member of the middle class, or sometimes a capitalist. And so, ultimately, technology as a change-maker is about politics.
This is not a disclosure. Whenever we have had technological change, we have had both social and political change. Karl Marx was one of the few who pointed out that our socio-economic system and therefore our politics derive from the mode of production. So it was with the industrial revolution, when we replaced natural with artificial power. And this is what happens with the artificial intelligence revolution, when we replace humans with artificial intelligence.
So if you think a few dozen men [they are almost always men and almost always white.]Controlling more technology, more data, and more wealth than any government has ever had is just technological change, think again. It is deeply political because it is ultimately about the distribution, or rather the concentration, of power. More power than we’ve ever had in the history of the world. In fewer and fewer hands. And power is always political. As Elon Musk said about beneficial artificial intelligence at the Asilomar conference:
Liberty consists in the distribution of power and despotism in its concentration.
And people haven’t noticed that this trend has coincided with an exponential explosion of technology. Therefore, technology itself does not necessarily have a positive impact on democracy or living standards. It is the rules within which technology operates that specify how we distribute surplus and benefits that ultimately increase or decrease the concentration of power. And politics sets rules.
Peter Diamandis often talks about the imminent arrival of the world’s first trillionaires. And I have no doubt that he is right. But I can’t see that as necessarily being a good thing for many other than those trillionaires themselves. In fact, it is an obvious sign of the further concentration of power, which Elon Musk was talking about. But at the same time another, more important trend is taking place.
In the past, capital needed labor to perpetuate itself and multiply. Just as much as labor needed capital to earn wages. This long-term interdependence gave the labor force bargaining power and allowed for a fair distribution of the economic surplus thus produced. Which in turn gave us the most prosperous period of capitalism in which both capital and labor benefited from the above arrangement.
A new era begins today. An era where, with the rise of robotic automation and artificial intelligence, the super-rich can control not only capital, but labor as well. So human labor no longer necessarily needs capital, at least not at the price that AI and robots will pay. But that price itself is constantly decreasing, while the cost of living is increasing. So the incentives are clear. And trends are unlikely to change. To the point where trillionaires can literally create private armies of robot workers and soldiers to do their bidding.
Change doesn’t get more political than this.
We are in a race between technology and politics. And technology is winning. With a long shot. The reason is that technology history is now much more popular, easier to understand, more viral and visible in its impact and importance.
So what do we do? Where do we start?
We begin by rewriting the history of politics, what it is, how it works, what its benefits are, and where it might take us. We recognize that technology is not enough. That human history is as much about politics as it is about science, technology or economics. Always has been. That, for example, politics of the future is technology as much as technology is the future of politics.
More importantly, we can get the technology right, but if we get the politics wrong, we’re all doomed. The sooner we wake up to that basic truth, the better our chances. Because if current trends continue, humans are likely to revolt much sooner than machines. They already have. Only next time the rebellion may not be in the voting booth.
That’s why my undergraduate textbook defined politics as “who gets what, from whom, under what conditions and for what purpose.”
In other words, politics is a history of rules that create and regulate (or destroy) civilization. A story about how even losers win so we’re all better off. In some ways it is like football. we must accept the rules to play together. If we manage to do this in the context of exponential technology, the benefits could be so profound that they could border on utopia. Alternatively, if we don’t, the costs could lead to dystopia.
Take the world cup. We have global competition among many participants with mutually exclusive goals. But as long as we all agree on the rules of the game, we can achieve an optimal outcome that will be accepted by all. Now this result will never be the best for everyone individually. However, it is best for all of us together. So Brazil can be very unhappy to lose to Germany. Just like everyone else who wasn’t first. But we’re all better for playing together, and that’s impossible without rules. [That is why the first steps towards resolving any conflict include establishing a shared story about the rules. After we have this story conflict becomes resolvable and, in the long run, everyone benefits, including those who didn’t quite get what they wanted.]
This is what political history can and should be about; design rules that create win-win scenarios. Because in a world of powerful artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and synthetic biology, win-lose outcomes drive the losers to crash the game, which is a lose-lose outcome for everyone. Humanity can no longer survive such results. Our individual stories are extremely closely related to each other’s personal and collective stories. Our planet faces too many existential challenges that require “one for all and all for one” solutions. In other words, to ensure our future survival, we can no longer ignore the fate of the losers. We need to move from zero-sum win-lose stories to win-win stories. This is the right story of politics because it is our ability to work together that sets us apart and has brought us to where we are.
Evolution wisely knew that analytical thinking alone won’t get us very far. Sure, it’s an ability that seems to set us apart from other species, but as we know, what gave us the power to rule the world was something else entirely.
It turns out that our glory is not critical thinking. it is our ability to work well with others. Lisa Crone, History or Death, p. 39