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Hackernoon logoOn the human condition by@sadeqali

On the human condition

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@sadeqaliSadeq Ali

From Mesopotamia to the Singularity

Recorded human history dates back to the invention of writing systems, approximately 5,300 years ago. These early writing systems were invented in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan), and Egypt, in what is now considered the early Bronze Age. In this time period, humanity has gone through two great periods of massive change in the human condition. We are currently at the cusp of the third great period of similar massive change in the human condition.

The Agrarian Age:

The first period of massive change in the human condition occurred in the Agrarian Age. Technically, the Agrarian age started 5,000 years before recorded human history and stretched out for almost 10,000 years.

During this time period, there were several agrarian revolutions that maximized agricultural productivity and evolved the human condition. These included:

  • The first agricultural revolution (circa 10,000 BC)
  • Arab agricultural revolution (8th to 13th century)
  • British & Scottish agricultural revolution (17th to 19th century)
  • Second agricultural revolution (the 1930s to 1960s)

The Industrial Age:

The second period of massive change in the human condition occurred in the Industrial Age, which began around 1760 in Great Britain and lasted until the late 20th century. In this time period, which spanned over 2 centuries, there were two sub-periods of massive change in industrial output and a corresponding change to the human condition. These sub-periods marked the first and the second industrial revolutions.

  • The first industrial revolution from 1760 to 1830 was largely confined to Great Britain. It saw Great Britain emerge as the leading global power, and was driven by the widespread use of the cotton gin and the steam engine.
  • The second industrial revolution from 1870 to 1914 was centered around Great Britain, Germany, France, and the United States, and to a lesser extent Italy and Japan. The second industrial revolution witnessed the increased used of steam power, telegraph, and petroleum. It also saw the start of electrification and the use of the internal combustion engine.

The Information Age:

The Information Age without much doubt will constitute the third great period of massive change in the human condition. It started in the 1950s after the culmination of the second world war and continues through to today. Even though the Information Age is fairly young relative to the previous two ages, it has already witnessed four era’s (if not revolutions in the classical sense), in what drives it, in particular:

  • The mainframe era, which started in the 1950s and was driven primarily by the use of microcode.
  • The PC era, which started in the 1980s and was driven by the invention of the microprocessor in the previous decade.
  • The client-server era, which started in the 1990s and was driven by the rise of TCP/IP led inter-networking.
  • The cloud computing era, which started in the late 90s/early 2000s with the introduction of SaaS, and later IaaS and PaaS.

As compelling as these eras were and are, they are simply a prelude to what is coming. Over the last 65 years, we have simply laid the infrastructure foundations of the Information Age. We are now building out the application layer of the Information Age. What is the application layer? It is essentially the layer that provides products and services that directly touch the end user. Cisco’s products rarely touch the end-user, Apple’s products almost always do. Apple is clearly an application layer company relative to Cisco. Building the application layer arguably started with e-commerce and Amazon in 1994, and has since included at least a few major milestones:

  • Google decisively winning the search wars in the early part of this millennia
  • The opening of the App Store in 2008
  • Facebook becoming the first billion people social network in 2012
  • Uber reaching 1 billion rides in 2015

Now while all of these companies have shown remarkable growth and domination, they still operate within the old centralized context of capitalism. Within the next two decades, we will see a new decentralized context of capitalism emerge, in particular as the blockchain protocol takes hold, which will even more dramatically accelerate the change of the human condition. None the less we have already started to see the impact that the application layer can have on the state of the human condition.

So what is this “human condition” anyways? I think of the human condition in terms of:

  • How society is organized
  • How economic value is captured
  • How human purpose is defined

Let’s take a closer look at each of these:

How society is organized: The Agrarian Age saw humans move from small bands of hunter-gatherers to tribes, tribes then formed into kingdoms, and the most successful kingdoms became empires. In the industrial era empires gave way to the nation-states. This journey from primarily an empire-led world to a nation-state led world lasted two centuries, but accelerated significantly after the first and second world wars. When the UN was formed in the aftermath of World War 2, there were 51 member nations represented. Fast-forward 10 years and there 76 members. At the turn of the millennium there were 189 members, and as of 2011, there have been 193 members.

Is further fragmentation of the world’s nations possible? Most definitely. There are today separatist movements on 6 continents. In Asia alone, there are currently over 70 active separatist movements spread across 26 countries. In Europe as well there are separatist movements in 26 different countries. If the use of social media during the Arab Spring taught us anything, it is that the ability to mobilize around a cause today is greater than it has ever been.

The tools of the Information Age, in particular, it’s distributed and digital nature, is too great a pull against the forces of centralization and top-down control that have dominated both the Agrarian and Industrial Age. Will we see a complete collapse of the nation-state itself? That is unlikely, particularly in the near term. It is more likely though to see further fragmentation of nation-states, as well as the alignment of interests across national boundaries. We will also likely see an evolution of the democratic process itself. Voting representatives in every 4 or 5 years and hoping that they represent your interests consistently has always been a sub-optimal solution to a complex problem. With digital technologies and protocols like blockchain, we are likely to see a much more optimal system emerge, which leads to a more participatory democratic system.

How wealth is captured: The primary force behind wealth capture in the Agrarian Age was “violence” in particular either the threat of violence or the protection from violence. Tribes provided the family security from violence, kingdoms provided the tribe security from violence, and empires provided kingdoms security from violence. It is completely unsurprising then that wealth flowed to the individual or group of people that could inflict the most violence or provide security from violence. To that end, it should surprise no one then that the list of richest people that ever lived is dominated by emperors, ranging from Genghis Khan to Augustus Caesar.

Fast forward approximately 500 years and the primary force behind value capture changed — it became “capital”. Those that accumulated capital, could wield power without armies and without the fear instilled by overt violence. These new aristocrats though arguably were even more successful than the old aristocracy in terms of the wealth that they captured, and the power that they wielded. These hyper-capitalists generally tended to be captains of industry such as John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, or more likely, the guardians of capital themselves, in particular, bankers such as Mayer Rothschild or JP. Morgan.

So what is the source of wealth capture of the Information Age? The primary form of capital required to capture wealth in the digital space is human capital. Yes, human capital also requires financial capital to be acquired, however, what we are seeing today is that while financial capital is readily available, the right human capital is scarce. In fact, chances are, if human capital has the requisite skills to start a digital venture themselves, they can eschew outside financial capital for a very long time, or even raise financial capital in entirely non-traditional ways reducing significantly the leverage held by centralized capital aggregators such as banks and private investment funds.

Consider the following example. Kodak at its peak employed approximately 145,000 people with a peak market capitalization of over $31B, or approximately $214K per employee. In comparison when Instagram was bought by Facebook in 2012 for $1B it employed only 13 people. This works out to a value capture of approximately $77M per employee. This is not a 10x difference in value capture per employee, or even an even a 100x difference, but an astonishing 360x difference in value capture. Human capital today by far outstrips financial capital as the mechanism of economic value capture, and this is unlikely to change.

How human beings find purpose: We tend to think that human beings always found purpose in work, and without work, human beings led and will lead a meaningless existence. The Protestant work ethic that ultimately “won” the Industrial Age, by no means played a small part in developing this thinking. However, you don’t have to look more than three centuries back in Europe to find that religion more than work that people did, gave purpose to peoples life. In fact, I would argue that even today in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, religion, more than work, defines human purpose. So if “religion” was the primary source of purpose in peoples lives in the Agrarian Age (as well as in traditional societies today), and “work” was the primary source of purpose in peoples lives in the Industrial Age, are we all set to replace “work” as the primary source of purpose in the Information Age?

This is not a very straightforward answer. In the near-term work will arguably even more acutely define human purpose. To succeed in the Information Age, “average” will no longer be enough. It doesn’t matter if you are an average developer, an average blogger, an average designer, an average teacher, or an average Instagram model. It will be hard for you to be successful if you are average. This is because of the highly scalable, winner takes all nature of work that the application layer of Information Age enables. The only way not to be average though is by being pushing yourself to excel, and to do that requires passion. People that succeed in finding and nurturing their passion will find unprecedented success in this era (hitherto only experienced by top executives, creatives, sportsmen, and icons of business), and hence will even more than before be defined by the work that they do. Those that are unable to find a passion though, will likely turn towards ideologies to fuel their purpose. These could be political ideologies, religious ideologies, economic ideologies, or even racial ideologies. Some of these ideologies can be inherently destructive, while others when taken to extremes, can be equally as destructive. In addition, there will be individuals that will have no purpose and will likely meander their life in addiction. This could be addiction to narcotics, addiction to video games, addiction to social media, essentially addiction to anything where human beings are primarily passive consumers of someone else’s product or service. Again, a very destructive outcome to the inability of finding purpose.

What then about the long term? What happens after the Singularity and when AIs take over? Well as you can imagine it’s impossible to predict how human progress evolves post-singularity, however, the path will likely be dependent on how we fare with the AI control problem. In particular:

  • If humans are able to solve the control problem, and super-intelligence largely aligns itself with the best of human motives: we will probably eliminate all remaining scarcity, and live a life of leisure, exploration, the pursuit of knowledge, and non-dogmatic spirituality. All things considered this is not the worst possible end of the human condition.
  • If humans are unable to solve the control problem, and super intelligence largely derives its own motives: this path is of-course the unknown-unknown. It is hard enough to predict if humans survive this path at all, leave alone how human beings find meaning in this path if we survive.

To summarize, we are starting to build out the application layer of the Information Age. As this happens, the human condition will alter dramatically once again. In particular:

  • Societies will continue to decentralize
  • Human capital will continue to replace financial capital as the primary source of wealth capture
  • Human purpose in the near term will more and more be defined by work or by ideologies
  • Human purpose in the long term is at this point anyone’s guess but will likely depend on the result of solving for the AI control problem


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