The End of Eternity

The notorious singularity, which has become a popular fear, is actually here already. However, no one knows how to handle it, even more so, what to do after it.

I don’t want to hand out banal platitudes about current global changes, as they have long since become commonplace.

So there’s not much new about human suffering and ambivalence caused by changes in the world and the world order. At one time, the writer and scholar Isaac Asimov wrote a novel, The End of Eternity. In this novel, humankind finds itself forced − by a technician named Harlan − to switch from a systematically controlled existence to a variety of choices and an ensuing horrifying uncertainty. According to Asimov, humankind has for many years existed in parallel worlds, each of which enjoyed stability. Specially trained people acted so nimbly in these worlds that they managed to support the existing order for centuries. In one world, people ate more and did less physical work, in another, for example, they had excessive sexual freedom, and in the third, it was common place for human beings to use robots to do their routine chores for them. Most importantly, nothing changed in these worlds.

Many wrote about such things. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman rightly observed that human life has undergone drastic changes fairly recently. About 200 years ago, it seemed possible to create an ideal world, where everyone would have enough of everything. Indeed, it would seem possible to calculate individual needs for food, clothing, medicine, and so on. Bauman said it’s impossible to imagine that our society does not seek to move forward and grow above its current level of development. To exist is to grow, and to change all the time. This is what connects the two stages of modernity. However, as I mentioned earlier, he said, there are gaps and differences between them consisting in the fact that our forefathers believed that the continuous change in living conditions is a temporary phenomenon, temporary worries and troubles, sort of difficulties they ran into during a certain historical period of their lives, which will be followed by quiet periods. For example, the greatest and the most significant economists of the 19th century did not deal with the issue of economic growth. For them, it was only a fleeting episode in history. The economic theorists of the 19th century presumed that we engage in production, build new factories and increase labor efficiency in order to meet certain existing needs that can be scientifically calculated, because they are constant. We can estimate just how many new factories are required. Once we build them, all the troubles and endless legwork that prevent us from living a quiet life will come to an end. Thus, the ideal of the economy of the 19th century consisted in a stable economy, which, year in and year out, reproduces the same routine manufacture of products. This is exactly what has changed (Zygmunt Bauman, lecture in Moscow, cited from website).

In fact, the point of the famous motto that communism is a society where people are required to work in accordance with their abilities, and to be remunerated in accordance with their needs, is all about understanding the world as being capable of achieving harmony and stability. The Malthusian fears are based on the same assumption.

Another illusion came into being after World War II, when the idea of ​​ cyclical time was irrevocably replaced by understanding of linear time, that of eternal development. It was a no less amazing illusion, I must admit, whereby even though progress is a natural component of life, and development is the goal of existence, we still live in the same times, humankind shares the same ideals, and we strive for a common future, which everyone will soon understand more or less similarly.

In the above-mentioned novel by Asimov, after the hierarchy of divided times crashed (by the way, the so-called collapse of colonialism is exactly the same thing), humankind finds itself in one time and receives an opportunity to build a common future.

However, this illusion shattered as well. The so much popular singularity has come into being. There’s no more common time with its everyday ideals and hopes. Whether it will appear again is anyone’s guess. Trump and Brexit are its symbols, of course. However, as a matter of fact, they are rather a reaction to the changes that have occurred.

Bauman points out that he thinks that the lack of direction of change is the hallmark of the current period. Today, more than ever, he explains, it's hard to say that the ongoing changes have a predetermined direction. They take us unawares; we do not expect them or foresee them (Ibid.). By the way, the popular black swan term introduced by Nassim Taleb is about the same thing, namely, that in the non-directional journey that the mighty and armed as never before humankind has embarked upon, there’s uncertainty lurking at every turn and it is almost impossible to predict when the next turn will come as well.

Most vividly, this non-directionality and inherent propensity to crisis manifested itself in globalization, one of the typical features of which was migration.

Of course, migration is not news at all. The life of people is all about migration, if you want. Everyone has come from some place, someday and from somewhere. Often, someone was already living in a place when others arrived. Sometimes things went peacefully, sometimes not. However, that's not the point. Each migration collision had its own solution, and it was difficult to extrapolate it to everything.

The current migration crisis is global, as one part of the world, considering itself as a whole entity (tentatively, the West), sought to attract others and include them in their time and the future as it understands it. And that’s when the trouble began, perhaps, even a catastrophe, although, strictly speaking, there’s no need for that. Not always an acute and dramatic crisis results in total disintegration. This is a possibility nonetheless. However, the trouble is that the so-called migrants live in a different time and see the future from a different perspective. This is not their fault, and it is not the result of some particular maliciousness or hatred. It’s just that the archipelago of humankind suddenly began to expand like the universe after the Big Bang (see singularity again). So, the problem seems to run fairly deep. For example, quite empirically, it suddenly became clear that the host countries that take in migrants are not at all united themselves. They themselves don’t see eye to eye with regard to the future we are heading for. Migrants themselves are split as well, and they do not agree on everything. Some migrants are close to some hosts, while others are closer to other hosts. There are still others who are so not very close to any of the above that they are unable to experience anything but spontaneous hatred without a cause.

So, globalization highlighted the development issue in a most radical way. There are no intelligible answers to the question of how this globalization should be regulated, and should it be regulated at all? If so, who are the regulators and on what grounds are they the regulators? Nobody knows the right direction to go in. We are just going down the river of time, practicing the art of decorating an inactive steering wheel mounted on our raft.

To some extent, the current crisis is the outcome of fantastic success, especially in the field of technology, which is not only amazingly outstanding, but has never before attracted so many people into its sphere. This, by the way, is a fairly new development, because even the industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries did not cover every country, at least geographically.

In general, the choice of modern humankind (who is making this choice, or who can be expected to make it?) is about choosing the development strategy. We have become so smart that we can accomplish a lot. Modern engineers are unimaginable geniuses. Leonardo da Vinci would be envious. The people's abilities have developed across the board, including, importantly, the ability to self-destruct. A leap from a shabby machine gun (not so shabby, though) is fantastic.

Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t even dream of being able to kill his own kind so effectively. Even though he was using everything that he could lay his hands on to do so, even he wasn’t able to wipe out entire nations (perhaps, we do not know everything). Held back by a certain culture, we do not use the thousandth, or even the millionth part of the possibilities offered by violence. Nonetheless, as the illusion of a common future vanishes, the crisis in the area of violence is coming. As always, it is a developmental crisis.

People have to either go for it or become fear-stricken. The current developments, which, more or less plausibly, are referred to as fascist, are entirely defensive in nature, unlike fascism of the 1920s−1930s, which was much more daring and assertive.

In a sense, the current development crisis is similar to the drama of later modern history, when it became clear that slavery is bad not just because it is not very effective (it was quite effective in cotton-producing countries, anyway), but because by itself it contradicts the development and the spirit of the future.

We are in a crisis of choice between unthinkable progress and freedom of health, age, and thought, and cautious conservatism suggesting that we take a cover for a while. However, the thing is, it's impossible to do so. The movement is either forward or backward. The risks are equal. It is certainly not for sure that freedom and success will not be accompanied by numerous sacrifices, all the way to total destruction, but the rejection is no less dangerous. Primarily, because the existing political and social mechanisms at our disposal do not allow us to effectively control the situation, carry out competent analysis of the situation, or find convincing consensus regarding the key challenges.

Taking a look at the international political level, the problem is manifested, mainly, in the form of a clash, let's put it that way, of the forces of globalization and national states. This, of course, is a simplified approach. The globalization is diverse and fluid, and national states are not all the same, whereas the governing elites have a fairly diverse set of interests.

Nevertheless, the latest technologies, primarily, global communications, and transnational corporations significantly undermined what is collectively called national sovereignty. The innovative technology, the lifestyle models and work have become cross-border. Sometimes, it’s impossible to regulate them within the national states, if only because in some cases such regulation requires enormous efforts and financial outlays from the states, many of which simply do not have the appropriate capabilities. In fact, the experience of work with a national state is vast. There is a system of separation of authority, and a large number of institutions, such as political parties, trade unions, public organizations, local self-government, etc., which, in combination, have great opportunities to seek solutions, and discuss them at a national or local level.

However the globalization forces managed to gain such strength that, I reiterate, they have easily crossed national borders and, accordingly, the national regulation capabilities. This, I must say, turned out to our advantage. Overall, the people have never lived as well as they do today. The information and cash flows run freely, and the attempts to constrain them have a limited effect.

The innovative technology led to a sharp increase in productivity and, thus, freed tens of millions of people. The development of robotics, the internet of things, the industrial/technical revolution 4.0 are everywhere. There is a huge number of communities that are not formed based on geographical location, because you can communicate instantly with almost anyone, regardless of the place. Never before, have the economic, political, cultural or social processes been so interconnected.

However, the level of their regulation at the international level does not correspond to the current level of power. Fighting global warming is a case in point. If it’s real, which is likely to be the case, then the effectiveness of the decisions adopted so far is extremely low. Moreover, the recent trend does not offer us much hope that we will see the flourishing of international regulation in the very near future, since any regulation other than that of persuasion should have an effective enforcing mechanism. However, for example, the decisions taken as part of the agreements on combating global warming quite conveniently bypass the issue of sanctions for violating the parameters of atmospheric emissions.

Moreover, both Trump’s victory and Brexit testify to the reverse trend where many countries tend to regain their sovereignty, to isolate themselves from the world and to avoid international obligations. For example, Trump rather consistently promotes the idea that it is best to follow the path of bilateral relations, and to abandon global alliances and agreements.

In general, there’s a feeling that today's national ruling elites are leaning toward freezing development and maintaining the status quo. They wish to return to some obscure and allegedly wonderful past. There was however never a golden age, and modern post-industrial bucolics are just as fantastic as those of Hesiod.

I have already written that much of the behavior of Trump and the populists like him is associated with a clear indulgence to fears of an uncertain future that is typical of the majority of the world's population.

So the current situation is fairly delicate. The rapid growth of various technologies and their global development, which unavoidably ignores national borders, as well as an increase in the number of people worldwide who are involved in this growth, can only be stopped by freezing progress, which is fraught with the most terrible consequences, such as drastic strengthening of chauvinism and xenophobia, the undermining of democratic values, the emergence of tough, off-limits regimes, violence and even major wars.

However, the global non-regulated technological process entails no less dangerous consequences. The fact is that even though globalization in general implies equal living standards throughout the world, the process itself is inherently uneven. It will be further complicated by the different conditions in various countries. So it would be scary to imagine what will happen, for example, in the wake of freeing up, as a result of the robotics and computerization of many industries and services, tens or hundreds of millions of people who won’t have much to do. Beyond this, we are also threatened by exacerbating technological inequality, which will lead to the collapse of many countries. What, for example, will people think of a situation where people in one country live a healthy life until the age of 100, while in another place they wither and die at 60? 

In general, the main challenge is to what extent humankind will be able to self-regulate and agree on patterns of development and the desired future.

Alas, opinions vary. The process of forming the tools for coordinating the interests of national elites is extremely slow.

It is unclear how to eliminate or mitigate the main conflict between the need for global regulation of globalization and the interests of, primarily, national elites.

Clearly, the idea of ​​forming some kind of a "world government" or "a board of directors for governing the world" is unrealistic. The UN is a case in point: clearly, there’s a limit to the administrative clout of this organization. Of course, it’s good that it exists. It’s the most universal and, at the same time, unique instrument for international communications and, at least, some kind of coordination of interests. However, the work of the UN should not be overestimated.

Just like the undertaking of any multilateral alliance or treaty. Perhaps, the role of bilateral relations will increase. There were many indications recently that governments are more inclined to this kind of diplomacy, as I already mentioned above.

Nevertheless, I reiterate, the main challenge today is the clash of national elites and globalization that gives rise to supranational elites. No one knows how to overcome it. There aren’t too many options.

One is connected with the victory of isolationism and the preservation of the current situation. In essence, this will mean the collusion of national elites with the most backward strata of society in order to form some kind of a totalitarian regime. This is the way of unconditional abandonment of democracy and freedom, the way to suppress the most energetic groups of the population, and to reduce free communication. This scenario may be implemented in almost any country. If it becomes successful in most countries, then a kind of black Internationale of totalitarian elites is very much likely to form. Will such a system last long? God knows, there are too many unknowns to answer this question. Notably, the vast majority of the people throughout most of human history did not live under democracy, but under more or less something like cruel fascism.

A kind of makeshift scenario is quite possible, which may last for quite a while, where there will be a constant competition between different kinds of regimes. The risks here are even greater than with the global success of the dark forces, because there will be constant friction, and the unevenness, horrifying as it is today, will only increase. Then, the threat of war, and that of comparatively limited conflicts escalating into global clashes can become quite real.

Finally, a favorable outcome is possible as well. Humankind has been lucky for quite a while, and we still exist. We may be lucky this time again. In this case, we will manage to find the key solutions, the old elite players will strike a compromise with the new global elites, and the latter will take into account the need to significantly regulate global processes. There is hope that the artificial intellect by that time will come into full force and completely relieve us of the hassle of having to regulate the state of affairs in the world.

Indeed then, there will be a new total singularity.