Looking Ahead 2
Another year passes by. This is what I saw.
Hello everyone, it’s been a while. Life’s been hectic lately. The slow pace that the initial spurt of the pandemic had brought had practically disappeared after we learned to adjust to our new reality.
This year as much as the previous one was a paradigm shift in many ways. This year brought us different lessons the most important of which was the fact that people live in a society; that the individual as much as they exist in will and desire, is often no less than the sum and occasionally the multiple of the components of their environment.
I once made note of the fact that the pandemic for instance was proof that many of our most drastic problems were far more social not merely their solutions but also in their persistence. Take for instance the fact that the vaccines, that were and still are our light at the end of the tunnel, increasingly look useless given the unwillingness to take them in the first place. In this, we are faced with the dilemma of how coercive states must be concerning their intake.
While technological solutions are very much a path towards the solution of several dire problems, the implementation of their solutions still very much relies on us.
With that said, as a continuation of my yearly tradition, these are the lessons I’ve learned and the insights I’ve gained during the past year.
A year in technology.
2021 was an odd year for technology. It wasn’t necessarily the lack of it that made for the oddity of the year as much as the magnitude of it. There were talks of Mammoth resurrection startups, the creation of time crystals, several medical breakthroughs that made use of mRNA tech, and perhaps the specter of a world in which malaria no longer exists.
Billionaires made their way to space first and foremost to usher in the birth of the new space age, and secondly as a dick measuring contest(or the other way round depending on your level of cynicism). Then there were all the ways technology was making itself noticed in societies as with the WallStreetBets movement.
If 2020 was a year that showed that technology was making a resurrection, that the great stagnation was on its last legs(at least for the coming decade), 2021 showed us that the transition into a volatile but technologically relevant world was going to be uncomfortable for many. This discomfort revealed itself in several ways not least of which include issues like:
Centralization vs Decentralization
First and foremost, there was the issue of decentralization whose prominence had largely resurged due to the crypto movement. I mentioned in a previous essay that the idea of decentralization of any kind was unlikely; that what we hold for decentralization in many cases was mere “recentralization”; that what occurred during pushes towards decentralization was a recalibration of where power lay:
A large part of my skepticism around pushes towards decentralization is the fact that people generally prefer convenience. Decentralized systems are far from convenient as they usually demand a significant amount of technical sophistication on the part of the nodes(individuals in this case), and energy to prevent centralization.
Let’s say you wanted to manage your own email server effectively. You’d need to know quite a bit about how various computing protocols interact with each other. For this, you need to have put a significant amount of time into learning new technologies. The benefit of course is that it’s your own server. You are almost certainly assured that people who do not have the right to look at your messages, do not do so. But there are issues of initial cost and maintenance. So, you subscribe to a service like Gmail, and the whole ecosystem Google provides when you get a Gmail account. You get to play videos across devices, use said account to log into various unrelated apps, and so much more. But for that convenience, Google has a large say in what it gets to do with your account.
We usually have the tendency to push towards decentralization when we realize that large entities such as Google can do stuff we let them do, but would rather not want them doing. This tendency can be generalized with reference to other social institutions like governments and big banks. We realize that it’s mostly people like us with authority over what we do and as such seek to flee their grasp.
The problem isn’t the tendency to flee institutions in which power is entrenched, it tends to be what happens afterward. The problem, however, is that we fall back into the same cycle of choosing specific nodes that are more efficient than the rest. We get enamored by a specific set of groups, apps, and individuals with a specific set of values, processes, and functions often giving up on some of that freedom for a sense of efficiency.
While this is becoming more apparent, the pursuit of decentralization has brought about interesting albeit controversial thoughts about digital ownership.
This year brought about the surge in NFTs, a concept that I initially believed held much promise but whose overt financialization sought to harm the very segment of people it was supposed to help.
EIP-721 or the Non-Fungible Token prescription on the Ethereum blockchain had a simple proposal and promise. What if we can mark digital items as unique. We see the Mona Lisa as evidence not merely as a piece of art but the effort and story of a particular artist. The non-fungibility aspect of a piece of art like the Mona Lisa tends to be from the proof of singular effort of that particular piece. It isn’t the most visually stunning piece of work if anyone’s being honest. But it is a piece of work made by one of the most if not the most influential thinkers and creatives of all time. The hope was to bring this conception of singular effort and history into the digital world and with that bring more power unto digital artists many of whom create truly stunning work.
This hope is being stifled as the segment of people this technology was meant to help are currently being alienated as in the example below.
A blockchain as a concept seeks to be an immutable ledger and one that hopes to be proof of truth. Here’s the thing, a blockchain can be fooled. The attempt at decentralization means that nobody but the artist above who had nothing to do with fraud is in the wrong here.
This reflects my initial thoughts on the pursuit of decentralization, first of all, that it is inconvenient. What I had not mentioned prior but is even more relevant is that trustless systems still require accountability. So far web3 (sadly mostly synonymous with crypto at this point) seems far more like a way in which the pursuit of decentralization is being used to mitigate whatever accountability one may hold and may quite possibly suffer from the same centralizing incentives as most obviously centralized technologies do.
The hindrances that the pursuit of a decentralized internet present are steadily revealing themselves.
This doesn’t mean that all the ideas web3 presents are inadequate. DAOs for example present a way through which people can crowdfund on passion projects in a sort of digitally democratic way. The openness with which many can participate in endeavors as well as the ability to coordinate on shared ambitions present a novel way of group participation in noteworthy projects. In this, web3 still has a possible use case and reveals a guiding theme.
Perhaps instead of worrying about overarching and often vague notions of what the internet could be, we could simply focus on a few themes and build towards these themes.
Usefulness and accessibility for instance are quintessential to the survival of any technology. This means that a piece of technology should simplify access to its most compelling use cases.
Instead of decentralization, we could perhaps aim for openness. The biggest problem with the way the internet is currently structured lies less with its centralized existence and far more in its lack of transparency. Its most successful use cases have been able to afford centralized coordination with open participation. Wikipedia is a great example of this.
A year in pursuit of meaning and other worlds.
This year has also been one in which our desire to experience reality differently has made itself obvious. Alternate worlds such as described in various religious and mythical stories such as heaven, Valhalla, hell, purgatory, etc, reveal a side of humanity that asks “Is this all there is to life?”
We desire more out of life. The pandemic and the isolation this has caused has meant that this desire for novelty has been turned up to the max. Don’t believe me? I present you these Balenciaga boots:
Best believe they will sell out(if they haven’t already).
We are simultaneously pursuing a world beyond the clouds(space), a world entirely consisting of bits(the metaverse as some call it), and less obviously the world in-between our synapses(neural interfaces and the resurgence of psychedelics) all through technology. In a previous essay, I made note that:
To experience is human. To seek alternate experiences seems to be even more so and no more time than now does it seem that we are fed up with day-to-day existence. But what about the contrasts that come with the various paths? What does it mean for humanity to be a virtual and simultaneously interstellar being? What does it mean for a vast sum of humanity to abandon physical consciousness and exist in a large virtual space?
We’re already seeing the consequences of that with our social media addictions, our gaming addictions, and so on.
This presents some truly important questions mostly around the possibility of what humanity could become.
A year of cope(regarding China).
On the other hand, another trend I’ve taken note of is the West’s approach to the risen giant that is the Chinese state. A large part of the world had an ideological desire to see the Chinese model fail. Authoritarianism or state-heavy intervention is now being seen as its strongest trait.
This year had truly been a year in coping for much of the western world. What had bothered me was how much of the most prominent critiques of the Chinese state largely constituted what can merely be described as a collective delusion. Collective delusions by entrepreneurs, investors, think-tank suits, and various politicos.
The consequences of this decades-long delusion about the incompetence of the Chinese state presents reveal themselves in examples like this one:
The biased critique that overt state action could destroy China’s economy and innovative capacity relied on a false belief that a largely neoliberal economy was the singular path to economic growth and development anywhere.
An area where this shows itself is in China’s EV industry.
The belief that singular entrepreneurs were sufficient in the creation of new areas was turned on its head as China —through massive government programs—created a bustling EV industry out of nothing in a Mazzucatonian fashion.
China’s Neo-Confucian state is different in that it identifies itself by very few needs but executes on procuring those needs extremely well. Needs that largely entail, the necessity to curb civilian outrage through obvious media control and civilian satisfaction, as well as global and regional dominance as a way to ensure sovereignty. In its ability to do so, the Chinese state has sought to become a competent “engineering state” or hybrid technocracy in many ways. It has partly succeeded in this.
All this of course isn’t supposed to be seen as praise for a truly repressive regime, but rather a note that a lot of the “analysis” concerning the country has largely been borne out of Western delusion on what constitutes a functioning ideological model. Only time will tell to what extent the Chinese model lasts, but what is apparent is that a lot of the world vastly underestimated what the Chinese state could become, and even more so proved themselves misguided on what it took to ensure economic development. Now, it copes.
A year of turmoil(Africa).
In Africa, the Ethiopian state opted for a wide-scale Ethno-nationalist dispute. We’ve seen years of dynastic rule in various states to little-to-no economic development, and a once shining beacon of hope for the continent plunging further into socio-economic unrest.
In a continent, with so much potential we find that a desire to hold on to the past is disrupting its way forward. That the continent is filled with leaders whose lack of vision is only surpassed by their greed. At times like this one wonders if the continent will ever see better days.
How my reading ambitions went.
This section seems out of place especially when the previous sections had concerned themselves with my opinions on various large-scale trends. But I might as well include it as it was a theme in the previous edition.
In my first version of the Looking Forward essay, I made note of how much less I sought to read, seeing it then as a culture largely induced by a few media gurus. Somehow that plan wasn’t too difficult given the pace of the year. But in my lack of reading, I felt somewhat deprived. Did I perceive more? I’m not quite sure.
Reading good books often means experiencing different lives and in so doing assuming different perspectives. I guess the real problem with my initial reading habits was far more so the pace at which I felt I must consume a book and at some point media overall.
I no longer felt as much joy in reading. It all became a desire to devour information quickly. It started feeling like a chore, one I felt I was wasting valuable seconds of my life pursuing. As the year approaches an end, I feel somewhat differently about voracious reading in general.
I do hope 2022 provides me more time to truly enjoy reading; that I refind the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake once more a worthwhile cause, and perhaps in so doing, provide more interesting perspectives in writing in the coming year.
With that said I want to bring this essay to an end. I should apologize for my lack of writing recently and although not quite sure of my posting schedule will sneak in a few essays here and there.
On that note, I feel blessed to be alive. That amid a pandemic that has killed millions, I still find myself here. We do not take into account the mere fact that a daily breath is a blessing. I’m grateful to the subscribers that read this essay, to the friends and family I get to hear from every day, and overall for the opportunity to live another day.
Happy holidays and wish you all a happy new year!
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