The Future by Al Gore
Key Points & My Random Thoughts
+ The developed world has been losing jobs to two trends: outsourcing (to countries with lower input costs) and robosourcing (to technology/robots). Emerging countries may benefit from the former trend, but many in the developed world are suffering since jobs are not being replaced. This is endangering the middle class. Gore argues that wealth should be redistributed to compensate for unemployment related to these trends. Otherwise, income inequality will continue to grow.
In theory, the world as a single system should be better off if everyone focuses on their core competencies. In theory, as robots and other technologies replace jobs, human capacity is available for more value-added activities. In the long run, the growth of these trends will likely be a net positive. Even though the machines of the industrial revolution put people out of work, few would contend that this was bad in the long run. After all, we all now enjoy cheaper products, have a wider breadth of services, and have freed up time to innovate elsewhere in society. The long-run picture may be fantastic, but we cannot ignore the short-term reality. In the short-term, people lose their jobs and their livelihoods to these trends because of frictions in the market. Unfortunately, neither people nor society are not able to adapt as quickly as the trends develop. The pace of technology and robosourcing, for example, will evolve faster than anyone's ability to acquire new skills, generating a skills gap resulting in unemployment. Rather than halt innovation and oppose technology, we need to think about how to accelerate skill development, facilitate job transitions, and provide strategic and financial support in the short-term. Assuming there is a net benefit overall to these trends, society will adapt to accommodate them in the long run. (My thoughts assume just a single system and ignores the fact that there is an uneven distribution of resources and opportunity across socioeconomic classes, across countries, etc., which could mean greater income inequality… but that is different than consumption inequality).
+ Global power rests with major corporations, not the United States. American politics panders to the corporations that support it and candidates who care about attaining and maintaining their positions must listen to their constituents.
Not much to say here since I agree with Gore. The election process, which is heavily dependent on campaign financing, is over-influenced by major corporations and those with money. Tough to blame anyone since political candidates really do need the cash to promote their name and generate national recognition. But how can we shift power away from money? It seems that money carries weight because we are, in large part, passive citizens who learn about things when they are paid to be shown to us in the form of advertisements and lawn signs. If we want to change the paradigm, we need to be active. We need to do research, discover the candidate that refuses to make deals with major corporations in exchange for money, and help elect her/him. Does the fact that we have not taken this active approach reveal a subconscious state of contentment? Perhaps we do not understand the consequences of being passive citizens? Perhaps the tools for discovery and promotion are insufficient? I think it is less the latter and more the former two.
+ The benefits of the Internet are several. It has improved our lives in inestimable ways and promotes democracy. However, it can also be used for nefarious purposes.
No doubt the Internet is improving our lives, but is it promoting democracy? It has been a powerful tool in exposing injustice, especially in the last several years. It gives volume to voice, but does it give power? Whether it helps promote democracy depends on whether or not this voice actually influences political decision making. If it is not changing the outcome of our political processes, well then we have room to improve. Separately, while the Internet can be used to promote democracy, we cannot forget that it can also be leveraged as a tool for autocratic regimes to censor and surveil its citizens.
+ There are significant opportunities and threats in biotechnology, specifically agriculture and medicine. Genetically modified food, for example, can help provide a sufficient supply of nutrients, but may also contain health risks. Similarly in medicine, while there are benefits to using biotechnology to intervene in health disorders, the same techniques can be applied in negative or controversial ways (e.g. gene selection and “playing God”).
I discussed the dualistic nature of technological developments (in that they offer both benefits as well as drawbacks) in an earlier post ‘Soap or Dirt?’ With many technologies, we will not know beforehand whether the net benefit will be positive or not, which is a concern but does not mean we should halt any and all efforts to make progress in a particular space. I tend to skew towards exploring what technology can offer, and before promoting and scaling the solution, testing it with a small yet significant sample size. It’s tough to approach every technology in the same way, but at the end of the day, this requires openness on all sides.
+ Population growth accelerates the consumption of already scarce resources. By 2100, could we reach 10 billion people? Urbanization puts additional strain on resources as well as on governments. Technology alone cannot help us. We need policies.
I do not have a strong view on population growth but I agree that policies can be a good hedge against technology risk. It’s tough to imagine betting our planet on someone inventing a cure some day. In instances of such uncertainty, policies that provide incentives to curb potentially harmful behavior may be helpful. With that said, I think new design / tech-enabled companies can help shape our behavior just as, if not more, effectively than top-down mandates from the government. Mitigate technology innovation risk with behavior innovation.
+ Over-emphasis on consumption based metrics (e.g. GDP) leads to short-sightedness. To adopt a longer term view, we should include environmental and other important variables into our measure of health and productivity.
I thought this was a good point. GDP is a production or consumption metric that, to my knowledge, does not consider the consequences of production techniques or consumption trends. It is very possible that unsustainable practices boost GDP in the short-run at the expense of long-term health. It could be interesting to weight GDP to account for future wealth and health. Perhaps the present value of future GDP, for example. If you over-use resources and engage in unsustainable practices, while year 1 GDP may be higher, the PV of all future years of GDP may be lower. How you forecast future GDPs in a logical, consistent, and agreeable manner is a much more difficult problem.
+ Climate change continues to danger our world and the onus really falls on governments to stop corporations from engaging in deleterious activities. We need an 80-90% reduction in CO2 emissions.
Companies need to think about and internalize the negative externalities of their actions. Governments can mandate this, but we as consumers are powerful changemakers as well. If powered with the right information, we can start selecting greener products, even if they are sold at a premium to non-green alternatives in the short term. I am not sure what the data is to support whether consumers actually believe this though. I imagine in tough economic times consumers are more price sensitive than socially conscious.