I’ve Been Reading: Steven Levy, A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society? in WIRED (01.05.2021)
From the article, and by far the best pay-off of reading through the whole thing (emphasis added):
Kirkpatrick Sale:I cannot accept that I lost . The clear trajectory of disasters shows that the world is much closer to my prediction. So clearly it cannot be said that Kevin won.
Kevin Kelly:This was a gentleman's bet, and he can only be classified as a cad.
If you want to read the original interview from 1995, that’s also online.
In a lot of ways I am actually quite fond of Kirkpatrick Sale, as an intellectual figure. But Kevin Kelly is clearly right here and Sale is clearly acting the cad. The last year has been really rough for a whole lot of people, to be sure. But there is absolutely no way that a serious answer to the question,
Has tech destroyed society? — if
destroyed actually means anything remotely like the specific standards for endurance or failure that Sale and Kelly agreed on in 1995 — other than a flat
No, it clearly hasn’t. Hyper-industrial civilization is still a going concern in 2021. There is no forthright, literal, and intellectually serious assessment for the first concrete criterion they agreed to — (1) Has there been
multinational global currency collapse that brought standards of living in 2020 below those of 1930? — except for
No, that didn’t happen. (At all.)
And despite Bill Patrick’s really kind of silly efforts to fudge his way into something like a diplomatic split decision between Sale and Kelly, there’s also no forthright, literal, and intellectually serious assessment of the second concrete criterion they agreed to — (2) Have there been
social friction and warfare both between the rich and the poor and within nations, to such a massive scale that industrial civilization has
crumbled or is even anywhere near
crumbling from civil and military strife? — except for
No, that didn’t really happen either. (There’s still a lot of global poverty and inequality, and there have been lots of social and political conflict. Those are really bad, but global poverty and inequality are flatly better not worse since 1995, and absolutely nothing that’s happened in the period between 1995 and 2020, even at its very worst, comes anywhere near the sort of thing that would involve destruction or peril to industrial civilization in even one country, let alone in the world as a whole.)
And, again, despite Patrick’s silly attempt at a diplomatic splitting of the decision, there’s also no forthright, literal, and intellectually assessment of the third criterion they agreed to — (3) Have there been
accumulating environmental problems, such that Australia, for example, becomes unlivable because of the ozone hole there, and Africa, from the Sahara to South Africa, becomes unlivable because of new diseases that have been uncovered through deforestation, to such a scale that industrial civilization has
crumbled or is even anywhere near
crumbling in the next several years? — except for
No, that didn’t really happen either, at least not yet. There’s lots of environmental stuff that’s bad, quite possibly getting worse, but nothing environmental in the period between 1995 and 2020 has made continents unlivable or destroyed industrial civilization, or is even remotely likely to within the next decade.
None of this, of course, is to say that there’s nothing to worry about, or that real suffering, or the economic, sociopolitical and environmental dangers and crises that so many of us face are anything less than real, grave, and urgently calling for thought and action. Hell, it’s not even to say anything about whether it’s certain or not whether global industrial civilization survives to 2050, or 2100, or into the gleaming Star Trek future. The bet was about what the world would be like now in 2020 — that was still 25 years in the future when they made the bet, and the bet they agreed to was about how people would be living (or not) in 2020 — not about how anxious or afraid they (we) might be in 2020 about how the world might turn out another 30 or 50 or 80 years further into the world of tomorrow.
- You might think that it might not be a going concern for much longer. If you think that, I reckon you’re wrong, but I’d be glad to hear what sort of evidence and reasoning you have in mind, and about how long you think it will be until things do fall apart. But Sale and Kelly didn’t bet on whether or not technological civilization would be existing precariously or in decadence or long-term unsustainable in 2020. They bet on whether or not it would still exist and function. If all the present uncertainty leads you to doubt that, I’d call your attention to about 7.8 billion people who aren’t living in nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers, with technics that aren’t limited to wood and stone and skin and bones, who might be able to offer evidence.↩
- Sale, 1995:
The dollar would be worthless, the yen would be worthless, the mark would be worthless—the dislocation we saw in the Depression of 1930, magnified many times over.↩
- Sale, 1995 (emphasis added):
A second would be the distention within various societies of the rich and the poor, in which the poor, who comprise, let’s say, a fifth of society, are no longer content to be bought off with alcohol and television and drugs, and rises up in rebellion. And at the same time, there would be the same kind of distention within nations, in which the poor nations are no longer content to take the crumbs from our table, and rise up in either a military or some other form against the richer societies.↩
- There’s lots of global inequality, and there’s lots of resentment and conflict because of it. And there’s lots of violent social and international conflict which is really bad. Maybe some of it has gotten worse in the last decade or the last year alone. But there was more extreme poverty and more global inequality in 1995 than there is in 2020, there’s far less political violence and far less violence tout court in most industrialized countries than there was in 1995 or 1969, and absolutely nothing that’s happened economically, socially, politically or militarily since 1995 has come anywhere near the levels predicted or the levels that you’d need to say that industrial civilization was seriously imperiled, let alone that it had crumbled. Global poverty and global inequality have gone down, not up: see for example Our World In Data on Global Economic Inequality. Political violence is lower: see for example the New York Times on political bombings in New York City and the U.S. as a whole in 1969-1970, two years in which global industrial civilization did not collapse. Violence in general is lower: see for example Pew Research on the immense decline in violent crime rates in the U.S. from the 1990s to the 2020s. Of course there are places that have had things much worse — violent crime and (I’d argue) political violence have risen dramatically in Venezuela (Our World In Data) since 1995, there’s a war in Yemen that has created one of the worst social and humanitarian crises in the world, and so on. Those things are terrible, but it is irrelevant, if not simply mendacious, to put forward an awful decade in one or two or a dozen countries as evidence that global industrial civilization has collapsed, or is on the brink of collapse. The claim that intense subcultural-partisan polarization, or idiotic Right-wing political theater, political shit-shows, sorry displays, protests spiraling into out of control or dangerous riots, or menacing, possibly dangerous domestic terrorism, Republican presidential administrations, contested elections, or anything else that has happened in the United States of America in 2020, even comes close to swaying the issue towards Sale’s prediction about the already-imminent fate of global industrial civilization in 2020 is a really absurd, Daffy Duck tap-dance of melodramatic hyperbole, desperate goal-moving and brazen obfuscation of the issue.↩
- Of course, you ought to be worried about environmental problems, — for example, the one you’re probably thinking of right now, i.e. global climate change. And if you’re worried about global climate change, you might want to say that it is already having terrible effects that are hurting people and degrading the livability of many parts of the world. And you’d be right. But there is no way other than either the wildest sort of melodramatic hyperbole, or the most ridiculously brazen moving of the goalposts, to claim that Australia or Africa
from the Sahara to South Africais unlivable, either for the reasons Sale mention in 1995, or for any other revised environmental reason that you might want to substitute now. If you want to try to insist that Africa is unlivable, then I would point out that over 1.3 billion Africans live there now, and the same goes for Australia and the over 25 million Australians who find it, literally, livable, and there is no forecast even tangentially connected to reality that would suggest that either is on the brink of falling off by an order of magnitude. The most alarmist, activist-produced Existential Risk assessments on climate change now forecast that
on a path of unchecked emissions, *low-probability, high-impact warming could be catastrophic by 2050.Catastrophic warming in this case is assessed as 3°C global warming, and claimed to be a severe but unlikely tail risk for outcomes 30 years in the future, if nothing is done to avert them, and it is roughly the level of warming that would be likely to lead to the destruction of current large coastal cities, to cause shocks to global food production, etc. Mainstream climate scientists’ assessments, like the IPCC Assessment Report (see for example the summary table in 1, p. 22), make forecasts to the effect that unrestrained, open-all-the-smokestacks emissions would mean that it is (highly) Unlikely for warming to stay below 3°C by 2100, whereas intermediate or stringently reduced levels of emissions are more unlikely than likely, or (highly) unlikely, to produce global warming above 2°C by the end of 2100. Again, that’d be bad, but it’s hyperbolic to equate it to the likely collapse of industrial civilization. And in any case, only a cad would renege on a bet about the effects of environmental crises in 2020 CE by picking up the goalposts, running three to eight decades down the field, and calling down judgment on how clear it has become that we need to worry about things getting really bad in 2050-2100 CE.↩
- And that some people face in a much more severe form than the rest of us.↩
- I have my own views, and I think the chances of survival and flourishing are a lot better than the chances against, but that’s a whole other bet, maybe an interesting one to make now, but different from the bet they made in 1995.↩