The Technium

Making the Inevitable Obvious

Cringeworthy in the Future

The New York Times asked me (and others) to suggest some things our descendents might be embarrassed about in the future. Things we do now, that might make future generations cringe. Good question! My reply is this short list, which I may add to later as I think of them. Their full list was published here as Future Cringe on Jan 27, 2023.

Having your first name decided by your parents will be as unfashionable as having them pick who you marry.

Believing the amount you pay in taxes should be private.

Eating dead animals.

Not being able to have two spouses at once.

Fearing human clones. (They are serial twins.)

Wrapping food in plastic.

Thinking you needed permission to visit another country.

Getting off the summer from school.

Carrying a screen around in our pockets.

Imprisoning people for life.

Having daylight saving time, changing clocks twice a year.

Objecting to face recognition by machines.

Wanting to live in space.

Accepting bombs in war as OK.

Dying from cancer.

In the far future, we’ll be embarrassed that people insisted to have their deceased bodies buried in the ground.

China’s Immigrant Energy, Underappreciated

There is a significant parallel between China of today and the US a century ago. The parallel is this: Both US and China were/are formed and propelled by the Great Immigrant Experience.

The US’s great rise in modernity was energized by the tremendous flow of immigrants from elsewhere around the world into its coastal cities. The welcomed migrants brought cheap labor, the unstoppable ambition of very motivated people, vibrant civic urban life with new foods and customs, a diversity of backgrounds and new ideas. It also brought the problems of a clash of cultures, language, prejudices, and expectations. And immigrants came in great numbers. As the US became a nation of immigrants, this melting pot, this collider, this fusion became both the identity and the engine of the country. It is hard to imagine the superpower of the US arriving without immigration.

Now this same intense, vast energy that shaped the US, is shaping China.

But in China, this immigration is disguised because it is internal immigration. All the movement is domestic so to speak. Great oceans of migrants flow from villages at the far ends of the roads in Yunnan, Inner Mongolia, or Guizhou, and stream into the coastal cities. From the homes where they begin these migrants speak mutually unintelligible languages. The differences in native languages between Inner Mongolia and Yunnan and Guizhou is vast and incomprehensible. They would not understand each other in the cities as they move about without the interlingua of Mandarin.  Further afield, migrants from Tibet and Xinjiang don’t speak any kind Chinese at all at home, and among the older people they don’t speak Mandarin at all. (My Uyghur driver in Kashgar, Xinjiang in 2016, who did not speak very good Mandarin, told me that he and his wife had decided that their kids should learn Mandarin in school. He had not.)

These immigrants are pouring into cities, thrown to work and live together with strange people with strange accents from Quinghai, Gansu, or Guizhou. Take that marvel of manufacturing, Shenzhen. It is a modern city with a stupendous opera house, magnificent libraries and museums, and 12 million in population, bigger than NYC. None of its 12 million adult inhabitants were born in Shenzhen! None are native; all 12 million are immigrants. Thirty years ago it was just a fishing village; all its current inhabitants (except for a few thousand) are migrants who have just moved there. It is a mega-city of immigrants. And youth: Shenzhen is stocked with millennials. (By age, it’s the hippest city on Earth.)  All the 100 other large cities in China with over 1 million population are likewise full of internal immigrants. All the modern stuff that China creates and exports is being made by these immigrants.

The country they left behind is a land of empty villages. Some, like the cute wooden villages in Guizhou may endure as living museums, like the Cotswolds in England. Others in the arid and dusty yellow losses of Gansu, will be abandoned forever, and those places will return to the wild. The children of the hundreds of millions of internal immigrants will make this new country their home, and they in turn might move into suburbs. Right now this first generation of immigrants are forging a new culture, and new identities. And like in the US of yore, these migrants are welcome and encouraged. It would not surprise me if the percentage of immigrants in China exceeds what it was in the US during its immigrant peak.

I’ve proposed a national motto for the country: “China: Not Done Yet.” Not only are the Chinese still constructing every meter in every town and city (the whole country is a construction site), they are also constructing a new culture, much like the US did in the last century. What these half billion young immigrants are doing in the city besides working 996 is assembling a new Chinese culture, one that harnesses the energy and diversity of its far-flung migrants. The culture of China’s immigrants today is not their grandparent’s Chinese culture. It is rapidly evolving, with often new assumptions. The young can be ashamed of the things their parents and grandparents did, and vice versa. Sure technology and modernity are huge shapers, but much of what is also shaping the new culture is the cosmopolitan experience of immigrants.

Right now China has massive internal migration, but little external migration. They haven’t needed to open their national borders, but that could change in the next generation. The fertility rate of China has dropped significantly below replacement level, not helped by a reversal of their one-child policy. Just this year they officially reported more deaths than births, which means that the actual population is shrinking, not just the fertility. By the end of this century China’s population will be plunging drastically, perhaps dropping in half. They might be “only” 500 million Chinese in 2100. This drop off is not just China’s predicament. It will be common in the coming decades, however China is ahead of the curve. Like most other countries, they begin to solicit external immigration. If that days come they will need to cultivate an outwardly immigrant friendly culture to succeed in acquiring outsiders. If they used their experience with internal immigration, China could be a magnet for outside immigrants as the entire world competes for immigrants later this century.

Today China really benefits from its Great Immigrant Experience. Yes, a lot of its problems are also created by this experience, but that is always the price. Like in the US a century earlier, they gain hybrid vigor, big dreams of “anything is possible,” the cross-firing of diverse views, and the excitement of making something new and unbounded together.

12 Assumptions for Extraterrestrial Life

I have some strongly-stated, loosely-held hunches about the probability of life elsewhere in the universe. My certainty about these beliefs is quite low, but it is much higher than my belief in the alternatives.

1) Life is rampant and common throughout the universe.

2) This ubiquitous life is single-celled and elemental, and remains at this level for very long periods. Most planets with life never advance beyond the single cell.

3) While life on some planets is seeded from outside sources, most life spawns independently. The conditions to hatch elemental life are relatively common.

4) Most life is DNA-ish, that is a double helix-based on DNA or DNA-like molecules. DNA is the most remarkable molecule in the universe. There may be other life-supporting molecules that can be designed, but none (or few) other than can self-assemble and self-create.

5) Any natural non-DNA-ish life follows the same patterns of distribution as DNA life.

6) Multicellular life is relatively rare. The evolution of higher organisms requires goldilocks conditions to be maintained for billions of years. The mild variability and persistence of favorable planetary conditions is relatively rare — compared to single cell life. But even “relatively rare” events in a vast universe will yield hundred of billions of examples.

7) Advanced civilizations are relatively rare compared to multicellular life (and to life), but are countless in number.

8) Since most life begins with DNA, the evolution of life on a planet converges onto a limited set of shared development sequences until it reaches the threshold of self-direction. Once evolution begins self-direction, including migrating to new material substrates, its evolutionary path diverges widely. Naturally evolved life tends to be similar across galaxies; consciously designed life tends to be unique.

9) Sufficiently advanced civilizations can synthesize, manufacture, or create any resources found naturally anywhere else in the universe. There is no material, or energy source that cannot be synthesized at home if you have the know-how.

10) The only reason for an advanced civilization to visit another planet is to see if there is another civilization which has invented things it has not, and perhaps could not invent. Invented resources are thus unlimited in scale and scope, and can be discovered only in unique places in the cosmos. Interstellar travel is essentially not travel through cosmic space but travel through possibility space. You visit another planet to visit other possible minds to see if they have thought of fabulous technologies your collective minds cannot reach.

11) Every day a few probes of these billions of interstellar civilizations visit our planet scoping out our technological state. These technological probes appear briefly in order to see us, and disappear once they have inspected our inventory. So far we have little to offer; nothing that can’t be found on millions of other planets.

12) Most life capable of meaningful interstellar travel is indistinguishable from technology.

Overcoming Bias Against Bigness

A generation ago a very popular book among progressives was E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful. The 1973 book eloquently argued for “small”, that is, human scale things, and railed against big institutions, big systems, big solutions. This small book was a rousing sermon for anti-bigness, but it was not alone. Fifty years ago anti-bigness was not a fringe sentiment. It was the emerging consensus. Young people on the left were suspicious of big systems like capitalism, the military, the education system, and of course big business. Over time progressives became very wary of big stuff, and today the left of any age is completely allergic to any large scale solution, particularly ones that involve big technology. In fact today, the left holds big tech as public domestic enemy #1.

At the same time, conservatives began to question bigness, particularly big government, and big non-profits. In their view the public domestic enemy #1 was the official US government, primarily because it was big. Traditionally conservatives have backed big business, but today as those big business lean more liberal, they find lots to dislike about them too. They will consider breaking up big business primarily because they are big (and liberal).

Paradoxically, the prime issue among progressives in this era is climate change. Climate is big. Climate problems are huge, and fixing climate change requires really big solutions. But if you are allergic to bigness, then your solutions can’t be big. That is why most progressives don’t champion big systems solutions for climate, such a geo-engineering. In their view the remedies all come down to individuals changing their personal behavior — recycling, reducing consumption: We can only change the climate by summing up a billion changes in individual virtue.

With the same logic many other seemingly big problems are reduced to individual good behavior as well, and not just by progressives. Conservatives preach that any social problem (abortion, crime, poverty) can (and must) be solved by individual virtue and responsibility. There can be no big systems solution. All kind of other social issues such as housing, transportation, education, likewise come down to personal responsibility and “family values” rather than big systems.

Across the board in the US there is a strong bias against bigness. Big projects of any kind, from building railways to raising education standards to providing health care to sending people into space, are deeply suspect and usually rejected — because they are big. Big means big budgets, big disruptions, big complaints, big potential side effects, and possible big failures. Big plans to build solar farms, or solar recharging stations, or levies at river fronts, or high rise residential housing are routinely denied — because they are big. Some optimists have called this hesitancy a reluctance to build, but it is not quite that. We as a society seem quite eager to build — as long as it is small. We’ll build billions of smartphones which fit into your pocket. They run on a huge, global network, but it is invisible, so no one seems to care about its bigness. We will soon build millions of electric cars (small) but not nuclear plants to power them (big).

Big, grand projects have become uncool. People who think of themselves as smart don’t support big grand projects. It’s seen as something for the naive. If they do succeed, their abundant negatives are believed to overwhelm any positives. But more commonly there is a belief that grand projects simply can’t succeed. And that bias is not really so crazy on the surface because we do indeed have a society system that makes it really hard for big projects to succeed. There are so many stakeholders, laws, constraints, reasons to say no and NIMBYs that in addition to the ordinarly difficulties of running a large project, it really is extremely difficult to overcome these secondary hurdles and make a big project work. That knowledge makes anyone sane second guess their desire to make something big.

In the past decades other countries have done big. China in particular gained a well deserved reputation for accomplishing grand projects, a historical skill they have maintained. Long ago they built the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, which would have been BIG projects even today. China’s new highway system is slightly bigger than the US, and they have a high-speed super-train system that is 13 times as big as Japan’s. They have also built cities as big as New York City in only 30 years, and far more futuristic.

It is unclear whether the conditions that allowed China to build big and fast will continue, but overall there is far more public backing for bigness there than in the US and Europe. I have no idea what it would take to shift American sentiment to embrace bigness. Perhaps a string of successful big-ish projects like the Webb Telescope, or an extensive solar charging system, might begin to alter expectations. Maybe we need the same kind of awareness raising we apply to other prejudices to combat the prejudice against bigness.

All the challenges ahead of us as a species are global in dimensions. We’ll need global climate management, global financial agreements, global conflict governance, global migration protocols, and global resource management. By definition, planetary designs are way way big. Our success as a species is going to depend on us embracing big projects, our biggest yet. Big may never become cool again, but at least we should get comfortable and competent with big.

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