The Religion of Problem Solving

Has America regressed to the mean yet?


Welcome to Decade of 2020, a newsletter with a relentless focus on how the next 10 years will affect the middle class. Forewarned is forearmed, they say. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here. Or just continue to read…

Photo of Lightning

The history of the electric rivalry between Thomas Alva Edison and Nikola Tesla is both fascinating and inspiring. The two geniuses butted heads while trying to solve a problem - the generation, and more importantly, the distribution of electrical energy to American households; Edison with his vision of a direct current future and Tesla with his revolutionary ideas of alternating current. Irrespective of which of the two prevailed, the ubiquity of electricity meant human life would never be the same. It was an age when the American society called problem solvers heroes and treated them as such.

"Constantly fortified with the new blood of immigrants who saw America as a place where anything was possible, the nation had adopted an ethos that elevated problem solving to the status of religion."

From the book A Great and Shining Road by John Hoyt Williams

Today, the apex of our social pyramid has been hijacked by the magicians of social media - the status elites: celebrities and political operators. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two due to the overlap in their activities. That overlap is not by fluke. It is rather by design and by careful intent. A silent yet thoughtful observer can break down their actions into the following: a) Rent seeking b) Status seeking and c) Virtue signalling. Yes, and as you guessed correctly: all of these are aimed at one common end-goal - gaining public’s mind share thereby consolidating their power.

If you are like me and feel stuck between a rock and a hard place of this weird upside down reality; if you think that the focus is no longer on solving problems but merely on talking and bickering and tribal-fighting; if you can smell the intense stink of pessimism and hopelessness in the air you breathe - there’s nothing wrong with you. It is the zeitgeist you and I are living in.

“Are we like late Rome, infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?”

From the book Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times by Charles Derber.

Maslow and his pyramid

Paralysis | In the Limelight

“Maslow stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us, and so on.”

From an article in Simple Psychology

When an individual and therefore when a society, in general, is worried about the basic facets of life such as food, water, security of life and that of employment, it can no longer afford to free its mind to think critically and solve the very problems that are keeping it static at the very base of the Maslow pyramid. If one were to closely examine the labor force participation rate, survival rate of small businesses, university dropout rate and even more dire data like the crime rate and suicide rate in the US, the picture would become clear. These data points are a good place to begin understanding this basic mental model postulated and later refined by Maslow.

The history of ancient societies is a clear indicator that those civilizations that had a secure access to food (due to availability of fertile soil, agricultural techniques, cattle, social stability, etc) and fresh water were the ones that brought to us most of the scientific breakthroughs and the advancements in arts, culture, astronomy, spirituality and religion.

The next 20 years from the lens of a capitalist

In the past twenty years, after the ascension of China into the WTO, millions of jobs have been lost both in the US directly to China and more so to productivity. This ‘productivity’ has a few manifestations like Mechanization, Automation and Robotization.

As we move ahead in this century, more and more startups are trying to build technologies that will allow corporations to employ less and less humans. At first, we are witnessing the machines taking away more and more of the menial jobs which are performed by human robots presently. Don’t scratch your head too hard, human robots are all around us - you can find them at your local Walmart in the form of cashiers, at McDonald’s as burger flippers and at Home Depot as stockists. Please bear in mind that I don’t say this to disrespect or disparage any particular kind of work, it is just a neutral observation based on the lack of creativity permitted in these jobs.

In the previous 10 years, the progress of machines taking over humans has already shown early stages of non- linearity. There are plenty of great examples to pick from - all worthy of your attention:

It won’t stop there. Entire job categories will evaporate at a mind numbing pace. Sure, new ones will be created but those will require a higher degree of technical education and experience. Hopefully, the governments are more aware and more worried of this non-linear change than the regular folks who may become the metaphorical distracted pedestrian to be hit by the bus. Hopefully, there are plans and tax payer dollars that get earmarked to aggressively retrain and retool those of us on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder. Unfortunately, it seems that the governments have invested more of their time and money in building a surveillance state around their population fearing a proletarian style uprising.

I have spent a fair bit of time reading, researching, learning and thinking about the advances of machine learning and artificial intelligence (often misconstrued as Artificial General Intelligence AGI). Embarking upon some basic second order thinking about all the menial, repetitive jobs that are going to the lost, one would reach almost the same factual matrix that the corrupt multi-headed hydra (aka the media) has spouted endlessly from its many mouths:

  1. Universal basic income is going to be a permanent reality for a sizable chunk of the population (for bread, fuel, netflix and alcohol/marijuana obviously!).

  2. Machines will add to the “cool factor”, the convenience and the comfort of human life. The journey that began probably millions of years ago of moving away from pain toward pleasure will complete a significant milestone.

Sure. But let’s also visualize this from a contrarian’s viewpoint.

  1. We all will get a chance to participate in the relentless race embarked upon by us humans to make the human race obsolete.

  2. As the machines play catch up with humans in the area of collecting, analyzing and disseminating knowledge, more and more value will be attached to human judgement.

  3. Pushed against the wall and facing a significant dearth of options, we will witness an unprecedented surge in human creativity, self-empowerment and self-actualization that will mark a turning point in history. It might well usher in a new era where problem solving becomes a religion once again!

Just a thought…

Brown Round Hole

I’d like to leave you with a fascinating quote from Bernard Baruch, someone who I hold in high regard and from whose life I have drawn several lessons. In his heyday, Baruch was a investor, financier and foreign policy adviser to Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman. I often find myself thinking about these words when I happen to read an article about the inevitability of Universal Basic Income or glorifying the “fact” that the robots or the buzzword of the decade: AI will likely take over the human race.

“During my eighty-seven years, I have witnessed a whole succession of technological revolutions. But none of them has done away with the need for character in the individual or the ability to think.” 

Bernard Baruch