Technology at the End of History
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama penned his now famous essay, The End of History? This is a topic I’ve written about several times over the past few years, usually in the context of current unemployment and the divorce between human dignity and economic models.
As someone very interested in technology, computer science and politics, the emergence of technology in political analysis fascinates me. XRDS, a CS magazine I frequently read, had an essay a few months ago describing how algorithmic social choice theories might solve vote manipulation. Technology really can be in the service of democracy.
This was the thesis of an essay I wrote to win a scholarship from the Telluride House at Cornell. During my interview (with an English major, computer science PhD, and urban planner) I was taken to task on my pretty assertive belief that technology is the ultimate equalizer. The Internet, after all, is the purest democracy.
Is there anything wrong with my opinion, I was asked? Well, I certainly couldn’t get away with the hubris that “my opinion is perfect”, and luckily I did have a few concerns in mind, namely the ability to exploit technology to one’s benefit lies in the hand of the few, i.e. The ability for a technocrat to reap disproportionate benefits.
However, in the past few months, I was wondering if there is a graver consequence of modern technology, intimately connected with Fukuyama’s concept of the end of history. Imagine yourself in a world where the political government is perfect – in perfect accordance with the classically liberal ideas of free-markets, exerting little more influence than an independent court system that enforces contracts between private parties.
The political government, that is. Running in tandem to this government is a black-box technocracy that models the world as a complex system, and with incredible computational power, brilliant algorithms, and intuitive heuristics, achieves a top-down organization of the economy. This black-box is entirely unbiased, and has the simple outcome of optimizing the economy based on a set of weights determined by the people (income, equity, mobility, satisfaction with work, etc.) This computer could have some flexibility to operate among different cultures (that is in a more family-oriented society could optimize for employment in family units perhaps at the cost of greater income, or the like).
Before I go on, let me clarify, I have no idea whether such an algorithm could even exist. This is just a thought experiment to make my greater point. Would it be sad, ahistoric, aclimactic to live in this world? The theoretical satisfaction of our society would be maximized, god knows poverty might be irradiated, but would this life be a happy alternative to the current world, very much in the mires of history and ideological struggle?
With caution and qualification, I say no – this society would be no better. The ownership of our destiny would be ultimately wrested from our convictions and beliefs to an algorithm. Even if life is perfect, and scarcity is scarce, what pleasure is there from living in a world that tells you precisely what to do next and how to do it. Other than the orgasmic reactions this would have from Marxist intellectuals, what real happiness is there? My sentiments to this society are perfectly captured by Fukuyama’s nostalgia at what he considered to be the end of history – dispassionate victory that brought down the Berlin Wall:
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.
Yet, when reading Fukuyama’s gripping essay years ago, I had one big qualification, a fleeting hope for the end of history. Ideological struggle is romantic for those of us who sit in comfort and liberty. For the scholars who write in the dimmed halls of Harvard. For the precocious high schoolers who fawn on every dripping word from their history teacher.
But for the many who are in the throes of historical struggle, there is nothing poetic about history. For the Russians who were slave to the Gulag, the romanticism of Wilson’s To the Finland Station, is but a Western concoction of reality, beautifully written for the scholar.
Just as the post-Soviet world might feel anticlimactic to the likes of Fukuyama, in its end is very much an unabashed victory of liberalism (in his own words) that has lifted millions out of silence and poverty. Who am I to say that algorithmic perfection would be sad, after all, when I have fallen on the right side of inequality.
For the small actors in history, the girls murdered by Taliban and the dissidents silenced by Communists, the real victory would be a textbook of history blank after today.
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