Forget Star Trek; a new Dark Ages is approaching
Now we’ve entered a new decade it’s worth glancing around the world and taking stock for a moment. What are the meta-trends that will define humanity in the decade ahead and in the years after that?
First of all, we see nearly everywhere the triumph of mindless populism. At first Brexit seemed like an anomaly: a nation voting for massive self-harm merely because a handful of pathetically obvious charlatans and habitual liars told the simple-minded they could have free ice-cream forever if only they voted for backwardness, isolation, xenophobia, and a life based entirely around turnips (because that’s pretty much all that will grow in the UK’s damp gloomy climate).
Trump, later in 2016, revealed the awful truth: Brexit was not an anomaly. Our wondrous communications technologies and a screen in every hand have enabled blustering idiots to grab the eyeballs of the credulous in every nation. The ignorant, the foolish, the uneducated, the dull-witted, the venal and the resentful are all now merely an electron away. Political success is guaranteed if you keep your message simple, pitch as low as possible, and repeat your half-dozen soundbites relentlessly. Promise the dull-eyed drooling mob free ice-cream forever with no consequences and victory is assured.
While US citizens generally know so little about the world that they are entirely ignorant of what is occurring elsewhere, the fact is that Trump is not a US phenomenon. He is merely one example among a great many of the triumph of populism, the triumph of simple-minded lies, the triumph of backwardness and stupidity. This, above all else, is why it really doesn’t matter who is elected to the White House in 2020 (it will, in fact, be Trump again). The world is changing; the USA is merely changing along with it.
Hence we see Babis, Modi, Orban, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Duterte, et al reading straight from the Donald Dumpf Playbook. In Poland PiS and in Germany AfD and in Austria the far-right and in France Marine Le Pen’s ultra-right party with the flexible naming scheme are all likewise gaining ground in the same manner, and Putin and Xi and every other de facto dictator is likewise embracing populism-nationalism and religionism in order to further tighten their respective grips on their nations.
Where does this leave us?
We are entering a period of history in which every nation will believe every other nation is to blame for its misfortunes. We are entering a period in history in which global challenges are being ignored in preference for promising the simple-minded a diet of free ice-cream forever. We are entering a period in history in which nuclear-armed nations are increasingly belligerent and confident while simultaneously being led by people whose mental and emotional capabilities are at best very modest and more often utterly inadequate in every way.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that this cannot end well.
Meanwhile, back on the topic of wondrous communications technologies, we’re increasingly bombarded by instant sensation that’s instantly forgotten as the next sensation hits our overloaded brains. Many people these days simply bob up and down like unthinking corks, lifted by every new wave of sensational sound-bite, meme, or video clip and then crashing down into fear and confusion before being lifted moments later by the next wave of sensation. We are afraid of everything and we understand nothing. We are increasingly living our lives without comprehension and without reflection. No wonder the blustering howling populist demagogues find it so ridiculously easy to harness our simple-mindedness.
Everywhere the media is in competition for eyeballs and the easiest way to win is to out-sensationalize the competition. As the media now exists in a 7/24 world, the time between mindless sensation grows increasingly short. This morning’s must-see horrific airplane crash is already stale and forgotten by lunchtime and superseded by the pedophile teacher scandal which in turn is washed away by dinnertime in favor of us all gawping uncomprehendingly at carefully-edited clips from a war zone showing whizzy tech weapons and scattered body parts. Before we go to bed the orange moron in the White House is bravely tweeting insults and threats at a crippled three-year-old on life-support and when we wake up there’s already a new deluge of horror and madness waiting for us on our ever-present devices.
That’s the low-level view. Perhaps more important is the higher-level picture. Up until the industrial revolution, most people lived more or less in the place they were born. The average person lived and died within a five-kilometer (three mile) radius of their birthplace. Few had the luxury of being able to ponder questions deeper than “I wonder if Fred is trying to have sex with Mary” or “I wonder if the rains will be favorable for the crops this year.” In such environments, clever people quickly learned to keep their mouths shut and their heads down. Religionism was rampant and consequently any deviation from the One True Way would not fare well. Thus progress in all areas (technology, social moeurs, legislation) was glacially slow.
Then came the industrial revolution and for the first time in history there was meaningful demand for clever people. Education became the path by means of which the less simple-minded could escape the claustrophobia of the village and utilize their natural intelligence. As the industrial revolution proceeded society needed more engineers and scientists and people who could dream up newer and more marvelous inventions. Capitalists pressed for changes to old repressive laws, and a middle class emerged which ultimately led to demands for greater equality and opportunity. It was a slow process, but for the very first time in human history, clever people didn’t all have to keep their mouths shut and their talents carefully hidden.
That’s why, in essence, we have all the technological marvels we enjoy today. Most people have zero idea how anything they rely on works. Most of us stroke phones and turn on switches and steer cars but we have no comprehension whatsoever of how any of the things around us actually work. We are, at best, monkeys stroking our precious screens.
Which means it doesn’t take much imagination to see how our entire technological civilization will come crashing down if we turn the tide and once again punish people for being clever.
Think it can’t happen? Well, surprise: it already is happening.
A significant part of the US economy depends on highly educated immigrants. Eighty percent of PhD students doing hard science subjects like physics and mathematics in the USA are foreign-born. Several European countries also have a preponderance of foreign-born students in the hard sciences. Likewise the health care systems of the USA and the UK are very dependent on foreign-born talent. And the tech industry in both countries is extremely reliant on foreign-born talent. As tech in one way or another contributes a massive percentage of the GDP of both nations, you’d assume that the USA and the UK would be welcoming foreign-born talent with open arms, encouraging them to study and then remain in their new countries.
In fact the opposite is true. Both the USA and the UK are pretending that intelligent educated foreigners are not an asset but instead a problem. Both are restricting all types of visa and making it increasingly difficult for foreign-born talent to enter and remain. Which means, of course, that the USA and the UK will decline as technological nations. The mindless idea that Fred Dimwit, with a qualification in woodwork and a habit of slashing people he dislikes with razor-blades, will suddenly become a data scientist or neurosurgeon is appealing to the drooling howling mob but has no bearing on reality.
Other nations will follow suit. France, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic will go the way of Hungary and Turkey and Russia: blaming clever people for their self-created problems.
What this ultimately means is that we’re leaving the brief moment in history when clever people could thrive and we’re returning to Situation Normal for our species: a deep mistrust of intelligence in favor of worshipping simple-minded “answers” to complex problems. It’s not difficult to see that a modern equivalent of the Inquisition is just around the corner.
Of course this tsunami of mindless populism carries with it its own eventual demise, because without educated clever people to keep things going, infrastructure will eventually fall into decay and collapse. We’re likely to have an intervening period in which clever people are essentially servants of the foolish, and for a while this will present the illusion of stability, just as it did in the Soviet Union, just as it is presently doing in the USA. But it’s just an illusion, for underneath the surface conditions inexorably worsen, clever people are increasingly persecuted and from an increasingly early age, and the rapid collapse of real education means that few if any will have even an option of acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to sustain a technological society.
Thus in the end, populism ushers in a new Dark Ages.
We’ve seen this before: after the Roman Empire finally guttered out, it took nearly 1,400 years before we began to replace what had been lost. The Romans had a sophisticated economy, legal system, and many of the modern conveniences we presently take for granted such as central heating, clean running water, city-scale sewage disposal, and even a form of air-conditioning for the hot summer months. By 700 CE all that wasn’t even a memory, and Europeans were reduced to living in conditions unseen for nearly a thousand years.
It’s not difficult to imagine life in a post-technological world. Every apocalypse movie and TV series gives us a cartoon-like glimpse of what awaits us, only without the actual squalor and disease and unimaginable human suffering.
We will return to a world of foreshortened lifespans, a world in which a scratch can spell a slow lingering death. A world of plagues. A world of superstition and periodic witch-burnings. A world in which stupidity has triumphed. The future is not Star Trek; it is a Second Dark Ages.
The world of tomorrow will not remember our time, because few will have even the rudiments of literacy and simply staying alive another day will take precedence over all other concerns.
All that will remain of the present will be the non-decaying plastic waste we leave behind us: the traces of a transient civilization that failed to comprehend just how very fragile it all was.