January 1st, 2020

Now we see clearly

I've lost count of how many events, stories, and the like have used a title like "2020 Vision" or something similar to make a double meaning about the year 2020 by relating it to the concept of 20/20 vision, "normal" visual acuity. The idea has been to paint a hopeful picture for the future by supposing that in the year 2020, we will finally have learned enough to see the future clearly.

Well, it's the first day of the year 2020, and I can only say that those utopian hopes have come true in the most dystopian way possible. Now more than ever, we see the future clearly, and we see clearly that there is no future.

There's been a lot of focus on the environmental factor, global problems created by climate change. It's true that this is a serious problem, and it's becoming increasingly clear that all of our efforts to address this problem aren't helping. The only way to reduce the problem would be to reduce the global population, but that's not happening; contrary to often-repeated claims that global population growth will level off soon, we're actually above most predictions from 20 years ago of what the world population would be in 2020, and scientists now believe that population growth will continue through the 21st century rather than stabilizing. In other words, there is no relief for our planet in sight; the global ecosystem will only become more broken in the coming decades.

Even if this environmental disaster were not looming above the horizon, however, the picture for humanity today is already pretty bleak. What jobs exist for people to earn a living? Jobs are disappearing with shocking speed as machines become better at most types of work than humans could ever be. The days when this was mostly about factory automation replacing manufacturing workers is a thing of the past; today, computers are projected to replace most types of working professionals within the next 10 years. Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla controversially claimed that 80% of doctors will be replaced by computer software in the future. Though Khosla declined to give an exact timeframe for when he thinks this vision will come true, computer algorithms already outperform doctors when it comes to analysis of many types of medical data, notably the reading of radiographs, leading to artificial intelligence researcher Geoffrey Hinton controversially claiming: "It's quite obvious that we should stop training radiologists". Self-driving vehicles will replace truck drivers and taxi drivers in the coming years, computer networks are becoming more automated which is lessening the need for technology workers, and mechanized agriculture has turned most farms into places that can be run by one or two people, without the need for additional farm hands. There's simply nowhere left to turn; there is no field of work which has any kind of promise for providing work for people. Regardless of how educated, skilled, or intelligent you are, it really doesn't matter: Human work is becoming a thing of the past. Some people call the end of work a utopia because it supposedly means that people can do whatever they want instead of working, but people still need to earn a living, and the question becomes: Where are people going to get the money to eat if they can't work? In the future, we can only see the increasing obsolescence of human beings.

And even if all of this were not a concern--even if humanity had some way to maintain its material existence without fear of unemployment, poverty, and the accompanying inability to buy food and housing--our culture is at a dead end. Every story which we can think of has already been told. In our world full of countless movies and amateur videos, freely-available music of every imaginable type, and more written stories than anyone could read in a dozen lifetimes, there is nowhere left for human creativity to go. Real life is crazier and more unpredictable than fiction; the science fiction of the 20th century seemed visionary, but the real world today is so different from these visions of the future that they seem ridiculous now. There will be no miracle technology which saves us, there will be no contact with extraterrestrials, and there will be no human travel outside of our solar system.

What we're seeing is that we now live in a world where there is no place for humanity: Geographically, ecologically, and culturally, human beings no longer belong on this world. We have no home, no vision, and no future.

I wanted to have something insightful, revelatory, and wise to say at the beginning of the year 2020, but at this point in time, it seems like a good time to adopt a "you have two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth, so shut up, watch, and listen" attitude: We have nothing left to say as a species. I'm out of things to say, and so is the rest of humanity. There is nothing left for us to do but watch the slow death of ourselves, our culture, our infrastructure, and everything else we've created. Now we see clearly, so let's shut up and watch the end of the story.

Happy 2020, everyone.