Where humanity is going, there are no roadmaps. The terrain is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The changes sweeping the Earth right now are literally planetary in scale and so filled with complexity that few among us even have a semblance of knowing what is actually going on. This makes it very difficult to navigate the troubled waters of the 21st Century.
Here are a few examples of things our species has not known in the three million years we’ve existed as “tool using” hominids:
Emergence of a Globalized Economic System :: In the last 500 years, a vast web of intercontinental trade arose spanning several empires, evolving into nation-states, and now becoming a truly globalized meshwork of supply chains, trade agreements, human migration patterns, and so forth.
Extraction and Consumption of Fossil Fuels :: The last time a species gathered up the waste products of a prior era and consumed them to grow itself we had a mass extinction event. And that was more than two billion years ago! I am referring to the cyanobacteria who excreted oxygen and changed the biochemistry of the Earth. Humans are doing this again by disrupting natural carbon cycles with the combustion of fossil fuels.
Explosive Population Growth :: There are now more than 7.4 billion living human beings on Earth. Our population exploded in the last 150 years, well beyond anything in the history of our species. And now we are watching the rapid depletion of vital resources as this huge population gobbles them up — literally as food and metaphorically as the built environments of our globalized civilization.
Crossing of Critical Planetary Boundaries :: The Earth has maintained incredible amounts of stability for billions of years through a vastly complex meshwork of self-regulating feedbacks. Thresholds exist (called “planetary boundaries” by the earth scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Institute) that if crossed will remove this self-regulatory capacity. There is now ample evidence that human activities have pushed us beyond as many as four of these critical operating boundaries for a globalized economic system.
A New Pace and Scale of Complexity :: Most of our history was lived out in small tribal communities where each person might know as many as 150 people. Rapid changes, when they happened, were either catastrophic (volcano wipes out village) or disruptive (drought conditions cause the tribe to migrate into a new area). But they never happened at the pace and scale we live with today. As complexity scientists will be quick to tell you, scale matters a great deal! There are qualitative differences in the interdependencies, cascading patterns, and unexpected phase transitions for large, volatile dynamic systems — intuition about smaller systems misleads and confuses more than it helps.
Entering A New Geologic Era :: Humans have enjoyed an unusual period of climate stability in which to birth agriculture, build cities, weave trade networks, and grow economic empires. That 11,000 year period is known by geologists as the Holocene. The same geologists now agree that human activities brought the Holocene to an end in the 20th Century. We are now in the “age of humans” dubbed appropriately as the Anthropocene. Our footprints on the Earth will be visible in the very chemical makeup of the planet’s crust hundreds of millions of years from now. This is how unprecedented this time in history really is.
There’s a common theme in news analysis about the economy: it tells you about how some new development will prove excellent for the rich, terrible for everyone else, and help bring about the decline of civilization. So it’s a bit hard for me to say this, but I think there may be some actually positive news all around for once — and it has to do with a change in telecommuting.
The story begins with the graph above, which comes from Christopher Groskopf’s recent article about the rise of telecommuting among software engineers. His article collects a variety of data and graphs, which show that this is becoming significantly more popular, one of the most-desired perks of a SWE job, and has in particular been on the rise since around 2012.
As I was planning the overall narrative arc of last month’s Shift Forum, it became quite clear we needed to address the question of how our society manages its workforce — in particular, the role technology, AI, and automation plays, as well as the massive role of government policy. I’m not a huge fan of panels, per se, but small ones run by nimble moderators can really bring a topic to life. As I was pondering the best way to do just that, I spoke to Fred Wilson, co-founder of Union Square Ventures. Turns out Fred was deeply interested in the topic, and volunteered to moderate the discussion. I’m certainly glad he did — his panel featured Maya Rockeymoore, Ph.D. Founder, President & CEO, Center for Global Policy Solutions, and Stephen DeWitt CEO, Work Market. Rockeymoore is an expert in labor policy, and DeWitt has pioneered a new approach to labor through his company’s Work Market platform. Below is the conversation in both video and as a text transcript, edited for clarity.
Fred Wilson (FW): We’ve been dancing around this issue all morning long — We get to actually have the headline. We’re going to talk about the future of work. Everyone else was talking about it too, but we got that headline.
A Republican Economist and a Democratic Advisor Debate a Murky Presidential Agenda
At the recent NewCo Shift Forum, Obama advisor Robert Wolf, the co-founder & Chairman of Measure and CEO of 32 Advisors, debated Republican economist Michael Boskin, T.M. Friedman Professor of Economics at Stanford University. At issue was the nascent and often contradictory economic policies of the Trump administration. While the conversation, moderated by political journalist John Heilemann, remained cordial, it didn’t lack for discord. Below is the full discussion on video, and a transcript, edited for clarity.
John Heilemann (JH): Both of you wear a couple of different hats, and have historically. Mike Boskin is the T. M. Friedman Professor of Economics at Stanford, which gives him academic cred that’s really important in terms of thinking about the Trump economy. He also was the head of the Council of Economic Advisers under George Herbert Walker Bush, a very different kind of Republican than the Republican we have now in the White House.
Toward the end of my Newco Shift Forum panel on the future of work in February, a woman from France rose and implored me to reconsider advocating for the idea of a basic income. “Do you really want increased dependency on public programs like we have in my country?” she asked.
The moderator called time before I had a chance to address that aspect of her multi-pronged question but as we walked offstage, he asked me how I would have responded. I replied, “We have large and growing indigent and homeless populations in the U.S., just imagine what it will be like if automation causes large numbers of people to lose their jobs.”
Since Donald Trump’s upset victory in November, there’s been a steady stream of stories crediting at least some of his win to an obscure data-analysis company called Cambridge Analytica. The company promised to use “psychographics” to target individual voters with digital ads. Its know-how, according to someaccounts, helped surface a wave of Trump voters that conventional polls failed to measure.
Trouble is, Cambridge Analytica didn’t actually employ any of its psychographic profiling techniques on Trump’s behalf, and its actual role in the presidential campaign was modest at best (The New York Times). Somecoverage has been skeptical from the start.
Robert Reich had a lot to say about Donald Trump at the Shift Forum last month. Not much of it was nice.
Since leaving office as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich has built a career as a fierce critic of corporate America, reserving particular rancor for Republican policies that have enriched the wealthy and driven historic levels of income inequality around the globe. Now a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, Reich has authored 14 books, including the classic Work of Nations, and his fiery manifesto Saving Capitalism (my review is here).
Markets are supposed to hate uncertainty and unpredictability, and those are surely hallmarks of the Trump administration’s early days. Yet the stock market, at least, has shrugged off fear of volatility and charged ahead: This week the Dow Jones index leaped past 21,000.
Is the “Trump bounce” just about anticipation of tax cuts and deregulation? Is it a result of large pools of investment cash desperate for a better return than bonds and banks can offer? Or is the market sending us a signal that the global economy, after a decade of slow growth and low inflation, about to return to the more familiar pattern of the ’80s, ’90s, and aughts, with faster growth and higher inflation punctuated by occasional recessions?
Turns out, not as much as you — and they — would like to think
A journalist once asked me how many jobs NAFTA had created or destroyed. I told him I had no reliable idea. Certainly jobs had been lost when factories closed and moved to Mexico but other jobs had been gained because Americans now had more resources and increased their demand for products that would not be easy to identify. Why not? Because thousands and thousands of jobs are created every month and it is very difficult, perhaps impossible to know which ones are related to NAFTA allowing Americans to buy less expensive goods from Mexico. I also told him that I believed that trade neither destroyed nor created jobs on net. It’s main impact was to change the kinds of jobs and what they paid.
The journalist got annoyed. “You’re a professional economist. You’re ducking my question.” I disagreed. I am answering your question, I told him. You just don’t like the answer.
NewCo’s Shift Forum raised some loud alarms about what could happen at the crossroads where business and society stand today. But as it proceeded, the event, which we just wrapped up, began to build some roll-up-your-sleeves momentum, too. Speakers — more than 75, all on one track — gave attendees a generous helping of creative, risky, sometimes improbable ideas for breaking our economic, political, and social logjams.
Here’s a whirlwind tour of some of these we heard at the Forum heard—prototypes and proposals for institutional, personal, or collective adaptation to our disrupted times.