Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Boundary Conditions

Of the two engines of economic growth, the demographic dynamic is notably flagging these days, especially in Europe and Japan. Meanwhile, nobody really knows what opportunities or disappointments will emerge from technology, the other motor. Promoters of nanotechnology, the most recent Caucasian cargo cult, await the arrival of artificial paradise with more impatience than anxiety while others are worried precisely because the hype may pan out. I’m told that science fiction writers speculate about a point in history they call the Vingian Singularity in honor of Vernor Vinge, a writer who proposed that we were rapidly approaching the moment when “technological change speeds up to such a degree that society becomes incomprehensible even to the people living in it.” But maybe the Vingian Singularity, like the Second Coming, is destined to an interminable postponement; and whether we desire or fear its advent, we’ll eventually have to deal with the failure of prophecy.

It is commonly pointed out that Marx never fully realized how productive industry could become. It doesn’t matter very much if labor is exploited if the exploited masses are living high on the hog. But we may be falling into the reverse error of assuming that the projected triumphant advance of science will make the social and political structure of society irrelevant. If technology isn’t quite so miraculous as advertised and fails to generate economic growth, it becomes very important indeed who gets the biggest share of the pie. To judge by the renewed fervor of their defense of privilege, the conservatives seem to have recognized this possibility ahead of the rest of us.

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