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A Chalet in Davos

A Chalet in Davos

The World Economic Forum at Davos (where the planet’s richest and most powerful people meet to hobnob about the affairs of humankind) has come and gone.  Somehow Ferrebeekeeper’s invitation got lost in the mail–so I missed this year’s conference, but all of the talking heads from the media seem to agree that the event was notable for its extremely dramatic and noticeable LACK of new ideas.  Let’s take a page from upper management and “bulletpoint” the important structural analytics coming out of this year’s Davos Forum:  then we can see if we can take these broad trends and come up with some actual ideas to move humankind forward from the great recession and the vast economic hollowing out which followed.

Um...looks fun?

Um…looks fun?

OK, so according to “The Economist”, the watchwords of the conference were “economic inequality”.  The world economy as a whole actually seems to be growing quite nicely, but generally speaking, only the people in charge are realizing these gains while the vast majority of humankind is unemployed or stuck with stagnant wages.  It is ironic that the political and financial elites are worried about this, since they are the ones making it happen (and are reaping the direct benefits) but large scale changes are sometimes hard to perceive—and even harder to affect.   The answers as to why the world is splitting into a hyper-wealthy elite and a poor…um…everyone else seem to boil down to:

  • Computers and automation are becoming exponentially more powerful and useful
  • Technology is also becoming cheaper
  • A second wave of industrialization is seeing middle class jobs replaced by robots and software (working class manufacturing jobs are already largely gone and only the most servile “entry-level” jobs remain)
  • Capital is becoming even more important—labor is becoming even more irrelevant
  • People with capital own the newly efficient means of production with which they make even more capital. Repeat the cycle….

The elites at Davos noted these changes, but had only superficial answers (like slightly raising the minimum wage).  Privately, economists and bankers worried that regulatory backlash might threaten some of the gross economic gains, but since, the political elite are allied with the interests of the so-called 1% this is a limited problem.  That seems to be about as far as anyone got in analyzing the world’s economy.

income-inequality

OK, we have summarized the conclusions coming out of Davos, what now?  Frankly, I tend to think the rich/powerful people are kidding themselves if they think they are immune to the true impact of these sweeping changes.  Assembling spreadsheets, crunching numbers, and issuing inhuman orders are things which I am extremely, extremely bad at…so maybe I am in no position to talk…but it seems like computers would be even better than Russian oligarchs, government bureaucrats, or Wall Street titans at managing the world.  During the first wave of industrialization, the landed aristocracy looked down their lorgnettes at factories, joint-stock companies, and the changing social dynamic. Anyone watching Downton Abbey knows how this worked out (spoiler: only the very savviest and luckiest aristocrats could stay important and solvent for long during the tumultuous market and political changes).  Today Carlos Slim may own everyone in Mexico, but his great granddaughters might well be humble dental hygenists like everyone else.  Indeed, some people are already talking about creating computer software to run companies with true efficiency.  These deathless hyper-effective algorithms would initially serve the elite, but I suspect that we would all quickly become their servants (assuming that we are not already).

The Future?

The Future?

Some people believe that we will soon move toward a world where individual and obviously human-crafted objects will take on a new importance: the future will all be about personalized nannies and Etsy (a website where you can buy exquisitely hand-crafted objects).  I’m extremely good at making things, and I don’t think this will happen at all.  The majority of people are worse than ever at ascertaining what is beautiful and worthwhile (just look at the abominable derivative garbage which makes up the fine art market).  Plus do we really want supecomputers to run the world while we make quilts, fancy cakes, wooden gnomes, and lovely saltshakers for each other?  I don’t even want that and I can make amazing cakes, gnomes, and saltshakers….

The Future?

The Future?

My answer, as always, lies above.  Earth seems like everything to us, but it is microscopic in the vastness of space.  Only beyond our atmosphere can humankind find the necessary raw materials, the boundless wells of energy, and, well, the space to spread our wings (not to mention the fact that, if we stay here, we will kill ourselves with our collective appetite—assuming the bozos at Davos don’t kill us all off first).

The Future!

The Future!

In conclusion we should be working much harder at aerospace, nuclear engineering, materials, and bio-innovation. What our leaders and betters should be working on is a way to make the wealth of all the world useful for discovering effective new atomic energy sources, building new materials necessary for space elevators and space habitats (like my cherished Venus colony). New incentives and new regulations will be necessary.  It worries me that none of the talk from Davos centers on how technology can truly help humankind (instead it seemed like rich people were worried about the envy of the poor). Maybe somebody can help me write a computer algorithm about space pioneering?

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

My first job when I left college was working as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—“the nation’s attic” where great hoards of objects from our collective past have been (and continue to be) carefully squirreled away for the edification of future generations.  A miniscule percentage of the museum’s collection is on display and the rest gathers dust in enormous WWII era aircraft hangers outside Washington DC where all sorts of jackhammers, graphite urns, failed rocket cars, threshing machines, whalebone bustles, (and everything else) are stored.

I honestly couldn't find any photos of vintage machines that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw...

I honestly couldn’t find any photo of a vintage machine that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw…

On my first trip to the storage facility in Suitland, I eagerly ran up to the nearest Quonset hut to peek inside. The giant building was filled with pointy overly complicated machines which did not make any sense to the untrained eye.  One typical device had been hauled outside to be cleaned.  Looming in the sunlight, it looked like an extra from a Steven King movie.  It was about 8 feet tall and was made of gray steel with big dangerous foot pedals and alarming fly wheels.  A person operating the monstrosity would lean into a whirling maw of metal gouges, hooks, and razor sharp metal spikes.  Since it dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, there were no safety features: a moment of inattention would cause the machine’s operator to lose various fingers, hands, or feet.  I was transfixed—what amazing purpose did this hellish device serve?  The senior curator and I shuffled through the index cards till we found its acquisition/accession code:  it was a machine from a long defunct factory in Waterbury which was designed to make tiny metal buckles!

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Whenever I lament the state of the contemporary world economy, I think back to that hulking buckle-maker and I imagine what it would be like to work on it ten hours a day (pretty much like dancing a complicated quadrille with a demon).  Thank goodness that horrible…thing… is in a museum and my livelihood does not involve years spent slaving over it in fear and tedium!  Today, automation becomes more and more prevalent and the majority of the world’s goods are being made by fewer and fewer people.    Industrial jobs are being outsourced to poor workers in the developing world, but even in China, Bangladesh, and the world’s worst sweatshops, the excesses of the industrial revolution are gradually being tamed.

I am bringing this up because I want to look forward into the economic future.  Even today, we could work 15 hours a week and have the same standard of living, but we don’t because, well… nobody knows.  Your pointless job of ordering widgets, looking at meaningless spreadsheets, and pushing awful HR papers around will be gone in 50 years and belong in a museum’s never-looked-at storage room (along with that gougetastic buckle-maker of yesteryear).   But what stupid thing will we be doing instead?

Assuming history isn't cyclical...

Assuming history isn’t cyclical…

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