Homelessness and Civilization

I have a large set of connections I want to set down, but I’ll try to keep it simple as possible.  The seed around which my thinking formed consists of the recent discussions that I’ve been involved with on the Press Citizen.  These discussions have been about the deaths of two “homeless” people (although it’s unclear whether one of them was actually homeless): John Bior Deng was shot by a deputy, and Amil Lowell Baines fell from a construction site.  In the comments section, it became clear how much misinformation and prejudice many people have about the homeless. 

For example, many equate being homeless with being transient which is sometimes true, but often not.  One of the deceased was a life-long resident of Iowa City and I know of other homeless around here who grew up in this town.  I’d guess that homeless people are less likely to move and travel around than the typical American.  To be more accurate, the largest transient population in Iowa City includes the students and employees of the University.  In particular during semesters, this town consists of mostly transients and those who’ve lived here their whole lives are probably a fairly small minority.

When you get down to it, our whole society is based on transience.  Afterall, our country was founded by transients, more often called immigrants.  Many of the immigrants across the centuries were refugees of political persecution… which significantly so was the homeless guy who was shot (he was a refugee from the violence in Sudan and he comes here only to get shot).  The first people who came to America often were very desperate people.  They were members of what today we’d call religious cults who were escaping religious persecution or they were criminals evading the law or they were various other types of rootless people.  These people left their homelands, their land and and houses, their families, friends and neighbors, and sometimes they left their entire culture behind.  Some of them even did this by free choice which is a bit strange.  The fabric of society was already disintegrated when these earliest immigrants got here.  Of course, when they got here they in turn destroyed every culture they came in contact with.   So, this ungroundedness is at the root of our culture.  In a sense, cultural destruction and amnesia is our culture.  The Industrial Age only magnified this already present cultural force.

Many have tried to re-create our lost sense of community, but it’s hard with so many different cultural backgrounds.  We didn’t even share a common religious background and so essentially patriotism became our collective religion and a vision of democracy became our utopia.  On the level of personal relationships, the traditional model of social order has never been regained in America’s entire history.  We are a very unstable society which creates the space for social innovation, but nonetheless people have the same needs that Paleolithic man had.  

Extrapolating from the theory of Paul Shepard, America represents an exacerbation of a problem that has existed since the beginning of civilization.  Our human psychology is built on evolutionary needs.  We aren’t essentially any different than our Paleolithic ancestors, but our human nature has led to our present situation which isn’t conducive to the healthy functioning of that very same human nature.  It’s quite a conundrum.  We simply weren’t designed for civilization.  What we were designed for is small hunter-gatherer tribes.  Interestingly, these early people were transients, but they were transients within a defined area that they knew intimately.  Modern people who live in the same place their whole lives have a less strong sense of place than primitive humans who travelled on a regular basis.

Another insightful author is Derrick Jensen.  He wrote about our culture of violence.  Western Expansionism has always destroyed cultures and left refugees in its wake.  And those refugees who try to escape the destruction end up spreading it by further expansionism.  I won’t try to detail Jensen’s extensive argument, but basically he points out how this is so fundamental to Western culture that it involves all aspects of our lives.  The psychology of the victimizer/victimization relationship is the most fascinating part.  Not only do victims tend to keep silent which encourages the victimizers, but more importantly the vast majority of victimizers were once themselves victimized.

This also relates to religion as well.  Christianity in particular was always a rootless religion.  It formed in the urban areas of Rome that included many displaced people.  The imperialistic expansionism of Rome has always been at the heart of Western religion and culture.  The Axial Age religions in general promoted a transient class of monks and preachers.  Many of these religions taught we weren’t at home on earth, but that our true home was elsewhere.  This was a major shift for humanity and it set the stage for all of modern civilization.

In America, transience became the model not only of religion but also of close relationships.  People moved where ever the opportunities took them, and often the whole family went along.  People no longer could depend on community as their social identity and so the immediate family carried a significance it had never had before.  Your parents and your children were required to satisfy the psychological needs that a whole community once served.  People became in a sense isolated within their own families. 

This tendency manifested in an extreme form with the return of WWII soldiers.  The Civil War had ripped our young society apart, but the two World Wars utterly traumatized the entire human race.  Mankind has yet to recover.  Furthermore, in America, soldiers didn’t even have a traditional culture to return to.  Like many war traumatized people, they were rootless and yet looking for a way to set down roots.  Suburbia was born and the ideal of the atomic family became a national aspiration.  We were going to rebuild our nation, and there was a boom in both babies and technology.  The problem was that suburbia only gave a superficial sense of community.  Despite conservatives’ idealizing the supposedly “traditional” family values, Americans had lost the sense of traditional anything for so long that our dreams of it were ungrounded from reality.

One of the issues that came up in the discussion about the homeless is that most people end up living on the streets for a reason.  Few people willingly choose a life of homelessness.  There are so many people who need help, but our society is either unable or unwilling to help them to any great extent.  Even more problematically, there is very little social safety net for those who encounter problems and it’s hard to pull oneself back up again.  We just cynically and apathetically accept that some people suffer and it’s just not our problem, but many homeless people probably thought the same way before they became homeless.  The basic factor is that theoretically we could solve the homeless problem along with many other problems if there was a collective will to do so, but for whatever reason there isn’t. 

It’s not a lack of money or talent.  It’s simply a matter of how we choose to spend our resources.  Apparently, the suffering of others isn’t a priority of our society.  The odd thing is that we spend more money on causing suffering than we do in looking for solutions.  The US has been involved in various wars it helped to start every year of its existence.  Just stop a moment and deeply consider the implications of that.  I mean, talk about a culture of violence.  And now with the wars on drugs and terror we have the conditions for an endless war and the whole military-industrial complex that goes with it.

Most countries spend massive amounts of money on the police, military and investigation agencies.  But the US spends on military so far beyond all other countries combined that it’s bewildering to contemplate.  Plus, tons of money disappears into the black budget which nobody knows what it is funding.  On the other hand, charities, schools and research into improved healthchare are constantly challenged with a lack of funding.

In conclusion, I think humanity has come to a situation of major crises.  We’re at the point of no return.  We certainly can’t return to a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle without the utter annihilation of civilization, and we can’t even return to the idealized agrarian lifestyle that paleo-conservatives like to fantasize about.  Our only trajectory is the future where ever it may lead, but it doesn’t look promising.  In order for the human species to survive the next century, we’ll have to have a complete revolution of society on a global scale.  Whatever may come of it, it’s literally impossible for us to imagine in the present.  Humans have proven themselves incapable of change except when crises forces them into action and this is particular true in a less stable and more reactionary society like the US. 

At some point in the relatively near future (whether or not in our lifetimes), there will be a looming societal breakdown.  Either the human species will meet the challenge at the last moment or we’ll go down in apocalypse.  It should be a good show.  Meanwhile, those living in relative wealth and comfort will continue as they always do and the less fortunate will continue to suffer.

33 thoughts on “Homelessness and Civilization

  1. I’m not your typical ‘homeless’ person. I’m a 48 yr old white female. I ‘ve worked hard all my life, even had 2 busineses-a cleaning service and catering, party hostess. I moved back up north because the job market is a bit better up here than in my former city. I am working a temp job right now. I was taken in by a couple for 5 weeks, but at two weeks they wanted to know what the ‘time-frame’ for me being out was. I called and they called trying to find a place for me to go. No dice. So when the deadline arrived they put me out, knowing I’d be living in my car. (This couple was from a CHURCH). Anyway, I have a ‘safe’ lot I park in and access to a community center, so I can shower on a regular basis. I don’t pan-handle, beg or put people out. I don’t do drugs or ‘tricks’. I don’t need money, I need a job. I am accustomed to making 13-15 dollars an hour. This is what it would cost to live a studio apt in this area, with no frills, at all. One catch about working is that I totaled out my body during my time working my own businesses. any one who thinks catering or cleaning houses doesn’t wreck your body, has never done it. In recent years, i have had admin. jobs and that is what I’m looking for.

  2. Hello Erika,

    Your story doesn’t sound unusual. I’ve always assumed that most homeless people are just normal people who’ve had difficult times. I would add that, like you, most homeless probably don’t want to be homeless. The idea that the homeless are lazy is just stupid. I’ve never been homeless, but I’m sure it’s not an easy life. There are a few lucky homeless people who have close family and friends to look out for them, but they’re a minority. As you say, even charitable Christians are only willing to help so far.

    I’m sorry for your situation. Where do you live now? What kind of town do you think is easiest being homeless in? I live in Iowa City and it seems like a great town to be homeless in except for the winters. I wouldn’t want to be homeless in a large city.

    We’re in the process of building a new homeless shelter here and of course it’s always a big issue. Fortunately, there are plenty of people in this town who take homelessness seriously and there are plenty of services avaiilable. I doubt any homeless person starves in this town. Still, it’s not easy being homeless anywhere.

    • There are plenty of hypocritical liberals, no doubt. And plenty of them are concentrated on the coasts, especially the West Coast. But California has long had a large conservative element from all the people who moved there from the South and Midwest. Nixon was born there down in right-wing Orange County and Reagan moved there from the Midwest. I have some family from Texas and Indiana that ended up in California.

      I’d point out that the state is a major center of the state-subsidized defense industry. Also, it is the birthplace of American-style big ag, televangilism, and mega-churches (some of my conservative family living there belongs to one of those standard Californian mega-churches). California has a long history involving a wide mix of demographics and politics. Anyway, it isn’t surprising to see the article is about Orange County. It has been notoriously right-wing since earlier last century. The liberal class prefers the Bay Area. I also have some other family in California, specifically a cousin in the tech industry who lives in the Bay Area and he is more typical of the liberal class.

      To understand California, let me note some of the history. During the 1800s, there was an influx of settlers. Some New Englanders settled what are now the liberal class college towns with plans of bringing civilization to this far frontier. But they were small in number and surrounded by Scots-Irish, which created a besieged mentality for these liberal elites. As for Southern California, the Southerners from the slave states settled with hopes of making California into another slave state. There was a struggle for power during the Civil War era with the former Southerners losing political control. It was an uneasy truce.

      The liberal elites in California still do hold much power, even as they remain besieged. I’m sure the liberal class in California finds Orange County to be an embarrassment. Not only an embarrassment but also a threat. The conservative strain in California remains potent and sometimes gains power. The high inequality, immense diversity, and concentrated populations create much strain.

  3. The liberal elites should be embarrassed by the levels of inequality in their own backyards.

    By some metrics, the San Francisco Bay Area has some of the worst inequality in the US.


    Off topic, but I am alarmed to see Des Moines on that list at number 5.

    Apparently the UN when they sent someone there thought that it resembled the third world.


    I’d say that the Liberal elites ought to be ashamed of their own cities.

    • Yep. That is true. But it is easier for them to blame it all on those backward right-wingers, Southerners, rural hicks, and white trash. They always have a way of overlooking the problems closer to home.

      I don’t know what is going on with Des Moines, as I’m not familiar with that city. I would note, though, that Iowa City has one of the highest racial disparities in the country for drug arrests. Iowa has fewer problems in many ways. But it’s not like this land of corn is a utopia.

      Iowa has a mixed history on a number of issues.

  4. I am actually quite skeptical about the idea that robots are taking away everyone’s job.


    Productivity growth especially since 2008 has been very weak. It seems like robots are a way for the elites to excuse their economic policies of destroying the middle class and outsourcing jobs through bad trade policy.

    Also automation itself is an income distribution problem. Who owns the robots?

    • It seems inevitable. The only debate that I see is about it being less certain exactly how it will happen and how quickly. Certainly, entire areas of work (transportation, janitorial, cashiers, etc) will disappear for humans. But it’s less certain what other work might humans do and how will they be compensated.

      According to some calculations, about half of the working age US population is already either unemployed or underemployed, which is to say they aren’t making enough money to live on, much less support a family with. This has been compensated by a combination of welfare, multiple job households, working on the black market, etc. In a wealthy country like the US, there is a lot of give before we hit a breaking point.

      It’s not a matter of productivity growth. It’s the same difference if the same amount of productivity can be achieved with less people employed or less work hours for the employed. Part of this has been offset by an increase of temp/gig economy, along with such things as the younger generation remaining outside of the job market longer by living with family.

      It really is hard to know what are the real numbers behind it all, as so much gets hidden in the official data. Consider homelessness which some suspect might be three times higher than stated counts.

      Besides, we have yet to be fully hit by job loss due to machines. It’s been a slow process for cashiers to be phased out in the US, although some Scandinavian countries have already done this. And self-driving vehicles are just now hitting the market (transportation jobs being the single largest employment sector in the US economy), the impact of which will be seen over the next decade.

      I guess we will soon find out what will or won’t happen.

    • The economy will eventually adapt. It might take a while, though. This might be a change more equivalent to the ending of feudalism, a process that happened simultaneous with the rise of capitalism and urbanization.

      There will be a long period of destabilization. Some areas of human work will hang on longer than others. But it could be one of the fastest and most radical changes in an economy that humans have so far experienced. There are no historical precedents that quite match what is and will be happening.

      My dad worked as a factory manager and as a business management professor. He has spent his entire life being optimistic about the economy and the workforce, that is until recently. He is starting to doubt that we will be able to adapt quickly enough.

      There is simply a lack of political will to deal with it. And there is absolutely zero incentive for the private sector to do anything to help most people who will be impacted.

      • I think that the technology is overhyped. It may happen in the decades to come, but in the immediate future, by far the biggest insight from the world is capitalism.

        In the technology industry, it seems like hardware has largely slowed down. Moore’s Law is pretty much dead at this point. New process nodes like Intel’s 10nm have been delayed for years, indicating that traditional scaling is dead. Plus the fact that we aren’t seeing computers grt much more faster unlike the level of progress that we had in the 1990s says it’s peaked.

        That said, they can still with relatively modest technological innovations still create a terrible system not so much through technology as much as inequality.

        • Moore’s law only applies to one aspect of computers. It’s different technological changes that are pushing change right now: improved sensors, 3D printers, laser cutters, new battery technology, advances in alternative energy, etc. Teaching robots to walk was a major achievement because balance during movement is one of the hardest things animals are capable of doing. It’s hard to know what it will all add up to.

          Self-driving vehicless are already fully operable, proven to be safer than human-driven vehicles, and already being sold on the market. No new technology is required to eliminate most transportation jobs. Similarly, no new technology is required to eliminate most cashier jobs. I remember reading about one of the Scandinavian countries that has already lost employment of cashiers and has gotten ahead of the curve with retraining. But I don’t see a country like the US investing in massive retraining of the workforce.

          Most agricultural jobs disappeared over the past century. That involved a slow process of economic changes with new areas of employment opening up with industrialization. It’s not clear what new work will replace transportation, cashiers, janitors, etc. Even if the transition takes a couple of decades, that would be the fastest economic shift in history. It seems like a major unknown with no way of predicting how quickly it will happen or what exactly will happen. This is because it isn’t about any single technological change but multiple technological changes across the entire economy and society.

          All that I know is that, outside of the tech field, few in American society seem to be talking about it or taking it seriously. Whether it happens over one decade or multiple decades, it will require planning far in advance to ensure a smooth transition in order to avoid wide-scale societal destabilization. That planning isn’t happening and isn’t likely to happen until the problems have gotten so bad they can no longer be ignored. But maybe another world war will force total rebuilding of the global economy, as happened in prior world wars.

        • Since they have developed fully operational and highly dependable self-driving vehicles that have been proven effective and with extraordinarily few accidents through millions of miles of public road testing, since these self-driving vehicles are being built and put on the market, what technology do you think they are lacking to implement them on a large-scale?

          As far as I can tell, the only obstacles left are on the human side of the equation: social norms, political will, legal details, insurance involvement, national coordination, etc. Otherwise, according to recent articles, they apparently could put these vehicles on roads tomorrow. At least, I haven’t heard of anything to the contrary.

        • Working in the auto industry, I’m skeptical about self driving cars.

          They’ve been seriously overhyped. Most new tech has been. It will be years before we see a self-driving car where there is no need for humans. The issue is that the technology works well in conditions like California where they don’t get no snow. They are closer to aircraft autopilots than anything else and in aviation, you need a skilled pilot on the flight deck at all times in case the autopilot disengages, usually due to the sensors.

          Usually autopilots are not allowed in aviation between about 50-10,000 feet. Car self-driving technology isn’t mature enough that we don’t know what the limitations should be … yet.

          Sure, in most cases, a driver is not needed. But when the self-driving systems fail, either you have a driver, or you have a high risk of a car accident.

          Or we can have more of these and learn the hard way:

          The lesson is that you must have a driver that is aware and engaged even when the self driving system is on (ex: you can’t have this):

          • I agree with much of what you say or don’t necessarily disagree. I’ve always assumed it would be a slow process that would take years because of a combination of technological and human factors. But I’ve also suspected that technological change in general will happen faster and in ways unexpected by most people. The average person seems unaware of the technological advancements happening in diverse areas or how they will interact to create entirely new results in society.

            You make some fair points. Winter driving will be more difficult in some ways. But I would make two points. First, it might not be as big of an obstacle as it first seems as it more has to do with the ability to sense positioning within the environment. Second, accepting that as a major obstacle, that is only a small part of the year for even in norther states snow covered road conditions consist of a fraction of the typical year. So, initially, there will need to be humans that can take over when necessary or when conditions are bad, but that human component will quickly decrease over time. Cars are already doing many driving tasks for humans without them even realizing it such as braking technology.

            Autopilots in planes is a different situation. There is greater risk involved and much more complexity involved. Self-driving cars do have accidents, but the point is that they have fewer accidents. Self-driving cars have proven safer than human-driven cars under normal driving conditions in most of the United States during most weather conditions. It remains a minority of situations where humans are more effective and less accident-prone. Besides, each accident of a self-driving car leads to further technological progress and fewer accidents, something that can’t be said of human-driven cars for no one has yet discovered a way of improving human. The initial goal isn’t to have no accidents but to have fewer accidents than in the past.

            Limitations considered, all of this is a major technological achievement and most people remain unaware that technology has advanced to such an extent. There is reason to be cautious. I’m not a technophile and so I don’t sit around fantasizing about techno-utopias. I just see that much of this is going to blind sight us as a society. The transformation and consequences will be immense over the coming decade or two. It might end up being more dramatic than going from horse-drawn wagons to motorized vehicles, since in both cases a human was involved.

            I’m not sure how relevant it is exactly what speed the change will happen for, fast or slow, we won’t be fully prepared for it. The worst unintended consequences won’t necessarily be accidents or at least not the kinds of accidents we expect. I’m not so much arguing that I know the future better than you but that none of us knows the future. I’m more on the side of the future not being like the past and so there being no way to confidently predict it.

          • I think the exact opposite on this one:

            Autopilots in planes is a different situation. There is greater risk involved and much more complexity involved. Self-driving cars do have accidents, but the point is that they have fewer accidents. Self-driving cars have proven safer than human-driven cars under normal driving conditions in most of the United States during most weather conditions. It remains a minority of situations where humans are more effective and less accident-prone. Besides, each accident of a self-driving car leads to further technological progress and fewer accidents, something that can’t be said of human-driven cars for no one has yet discovered a way of improving human. The initial goal isn’t to have no accidents but to have fewer accidents than in the past.

            The first aircraft autopilot (a very primitive assist system) was developed in 1912.

            Over a hundred years or so they’ve gotten better, but they have not supplanted conventional pilots. The reason why is because there needs to be someone there in case something goes wrong with the autopilot with the expertise to fix it.

            Traffic navigation for cars is actually quite difficult to program for computers – that’s why we did not see self-driving cars earlier, despite decades of aircraft autopilot advancement.

          • It’s comparing apples and oranges. Planes initially had simpler conditions prior to their being many planes in flight, although that was a short-lived situation. The massive investment required for flight control now is immense just to keep planes from crashing into each other on a regular basis. Could you imagine if every car had to be tracked in airspace in the way every plane is tracked? Cars already had simple self-driving elements in place long ago such as cruise control, which is comparable to what autopilot was in the past. And elements of self-driving have been slowly taking over the functions of drivers. It’s just that it has mostly happened in invisible ways that human drivers haven’t noticed. Cars are already partly self-driving.

            You may not think they are reliable enough yet. But it is fucking mind-blowing that they already have cars that can drive without human control. Imagining flying cars has been more common in science fiction than self-driving cars, even though the technology for the former has developed more slowly than the latter. Right now, it seems even most pessimists are talking about implementation of self-driving or at least semi-autonomous cars in terms of years, not decades. Some critics are suggesting to intentionally slow down implementation not just for reasons of safety but also security, as they fear how the technology could be misused and abused, from cyber-attacks to terrorists. So, it’s not necessarily the technology itself that will be the main cause of slow down but concerns about application and unintended consequences. The human factor continues to be the biggest stumbling block and the legal issues are going to be massive, not just about potential lawsuits but also corporations ruthlessly fighting over markets and property rights. There is plenty of room for doubt and criticism.

            Yet the early applications are all too real. Here in Iowa, they’re already using self-driving tractors for farming. They are operated by GPS. They do require a person sit in them, but the person doesn’t actually do anything. Someone could be hired for minimum wage to sit in it, which could be a way of corporate farming to become even cheaper. My young nephew was excited to get a ride in one of these self-driving tractors. This self-driving tractor was simply owned by a family farm, a large family farm but still just a family farm. In the near future, most farms will need this technology to remain competitive and profitable. It’s going to give the Amish a run for their money.

            The possible uses of such technology are many. And the ways of combining it with other technologies will inevitably follow. We are talking about a complete overhaul of how our society operates. That isn’t going to come easy because it is far beyond a technological problem. Consider how the first paved roads were designed for use by bicycles, but within decades an entirely new car culture had taken over and began causing entirely new challenges. Most of the 20th century was required to come to terms with everything that followed from that transformation. The creation of suburbia is something we are still struggling to come to terms with.

            Much of this has more to do with politics than technology. It’s about what kind of future we want to create, similar to when Eisenhower built the US interstate highway system modeled after the autobahn he saw in Germany during the war. The motivation for building such new national infrastructure was for the military, as happened with early funding of internet development. If there is military use to self-driving cars within the US, the funding and implementation will happen one way or another. The needs of the military drives almost all major changes in the US. If the military demands it, states will be forced to comply and auto companies will be given full federal support. Otherwise, there will be endless fighting among politicians and officials at all levels of government, as they all attempt to maintain control of their own turf. Either way, some states and cities already have laws and policies in place to allow implementation to begin.

            From what I can tell, the next few years will determine the viability of this technology. We are either on the cusp of the market opening up or the difficulties becoming ever more clear. The ball is presently in the government’s court. Serious testing of the technology will first require change in safety regulations. Once that happens, the technology will either prove itself or it won’t. This is the first year when any major auto company has been prepared to attempt mass production of a fully autonomous vehicle with neither steering wheel or pedals. No one could possibly know if they will succeed or not, until they attempt it, no more than anyone could have judged the Wright brothers’ success based on their early attempts at flight. Heck, even after they were flying their prototype in public, people kept on denying it was possible. The same thing happened with the first manned rockets, as it didn’t match what most people thought possible. Everything is impossible until it isn’t. The basic debate right now is simply how quickly the impossible will become possible.



















          • Maybe. I still haven’t seen any flying cars for example that are mainstream for example – an overhyped future. That’s still a long ways off – if we get there (ex: our civilization doesn’t self destruct).

            I think we are in a hype cycle right now.

            There’s a bigger problem. Generation Y cannot afford cars.


            Self driving cars right now, while the technology may get mainstream, are still going to carry a price premium.

          • I’d like to hear your perspective. Forget about driving cars, for the moment. That is just one of many possible technologies that will have a societal and economic impact. One way or another, the next decade or two is going to see dramatic changes. It’s hard to know what that might mean. You could be correct that self-driving cars are over-hyped and won’t be seen on public streets in the near future. But even if so, other game-changing technologies will go on the market in our lifetimes. What technologies do you see as being more realistically applicable in the short term? I’m specifically thinking of technologies that will alter the entire dynamic of the modern economy that was stabilized by high employment and spreading of the wealth with a growing middle class.

          • Here is the type of thing I keep thinking about, not the technological limitations but the societal limitations:


            “Artefact poses a compelling vision, except there’s just one problem: capitalism. Who would own these systems, and what are their incentives? “We do need to consider these things as public works, not as instruments of capitalism,” Rousseau says. “That’s part of the problem now. Tech is being innovated primarily through the lens of capitalism, and I think that’s what will lead us to the dystopian outcome.””

            The change we need, whether technological or infrastructure, will require a level of change that countries like the US haven’t seen since earlier last century… maybe even a level of change never before seen. But that is true of any and all potential or necessary changes we are facing, such as basic income or whatever other solution for the failing economy.

            We simply aren’t ready for the level of change that will be necessary. Yet ready or not, change is coming and might come quickly even if that means through revolution or devastation.

            Failing that, dystopia will be inevitable. That is what I fear. We could easily make all kinds of massive changes almost overnight, if their was the public awareness and political will. But we all know that isn’t going to happen.

          • “I still haven’t seen any flying cars for example that are mainstream for example – an overhyped future. That’s still a long ways off – if we get there (ex: our civilization doesn’t self destruct).”

            That actually was my point. Human imagination is strange. Some things seem easier or more attractive for humans to imagine. For one reason or another, it’s been more common for humans to imagine flying cars than self-driving cars. A flying car already matches aspects of our experience (planes, helicopters, rockets, etc) and so seems more plausible. But in this case, human imagination doesn’t match the reality of technological development.

            Even though self-driving cars are harder for us to imagine, they are so much more probable in the near future. Yet because we find them so hard to imagine, it will all the more shocking when they do finally come on the market. That is why it will blind sight us. It simply doesn’t match how most people perceive the immediate future and so we won’t be prepared for it — psychologically, socially, or politically.

            “I think we are in a hype cycle right now.”

            There is hype. But there is also denial or lack of imagination. Coming technological changes won’t likely match our expectations, not entirely the expectations of the optimists and utopians nor entirely the expectations of the pessimists and dystopians. We are moving into unknown territory.

            Consider how massively the world has technologically transformed over the past century or so, even though it has matched neither the fantasies nor the nightmares about the future as predicted in the 19th century. The hype and fear can be wrong about the details. The more important issue is what is motivating the hype and fear, the awareness that something is around the bend.

            “There’s a bigger problem. Generation Y cannot afford cars.”

            Some predict that will be a large part of what pushes change over the coming years and decades. It’s part of more general changes happening in society. Urban concentration is increasing at a fast rate. This will put ever greater pressure on infrastructure demands and hence redesigning of urban environments.

            Fewer people will likely own cars, whether or not they could afford to own them. The solution will most likely be some combination of public transportation and rental or ride-share of self-driving vehicles. This will eliminate the need for most parking ramps and street parking.

            “Self driving cars right now, while the technology may get mainstream, are still going to carry a price premium.”

            Like anything, costs will go down. How quickly and easily it happens will depend on the extent of government subsidization in promoting technological development and infrastructure building. The primary costs of technological change will come from taxation.

            The question is whether there will be the political will to tax the wealthy in order to fund it. This would require extremely high tax rates like those seen during the Progressive Era. But political will might develop quickly, either in economically competing with other global superpowers or in rebuilding after mass devastation of World War III. Unpredictable events will have a major influence on what will or won’t happen.

          • I’m reminded of this:

            Stranger Than We Can Imagine
            by John Higgs
            pp. 17-19

            It appeared, on the surface, to be an ordered, structured era. The Victorian worldview was supported by four pillars: Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton.

            The pillars seemed solid. The British Empire would, in a few years, cover a quarter of the globe. Despite the humiliation of the Boer War, not many realised how badly the Empire had been wounded and fewer still recognised how soon it would collapse. The position of the Church looked similarly secure, despite the advances of science. The authority of the Bible may have been contradicted by Darwin and advances in geology, but society did not deem it polite to dwell too heavily on such matters. The laws of Newton had been thoroughly tested and the ordered, clockwork universe they described seemed incontrovertible. True, there were a few oddities that science puzzled over. The orbit of Mercury, for instance, was proving to be slightly different to what was expected. And then there was also the issue of the aether.

            The aether was a theoretical substance that could be described as the fabric of the universe. It was widely accepted that it must exist. Experiments had shown time and time again that light travelled in a wave. A light wave needs something to travel through, just as an ocean wave needs water and a sound wave needs air. The light waves that travel through space from the sun to the earth must pass through something, and that something would be the aether. The problem was that experiments designed to reveal the aether kept failing to find it. Still, this was not considered a serious setback. What was needed was further work and cleverer experiments. The expectation of the discovery of the aether was similar to that surrounding the Higgs boson in the days before the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Scientific wisdom insisted that it must exist, so it was worth creating more and more expensive experiments to locate it.

            Scientists had an air of confidence as the new century began. They had a solid framework of knowledge which would withstand further additions and embellishments. As Lord Kelvin was reputed to have remarked in a 1900 lecture, “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Such views were reasonably common. “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered,” wrote the German-American physicist Albert Michelson in 1903, “and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.” The astronomer Simon Newcomb is said to have claimed in 1888 that we were “probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.”

            The great German physicist Max Planck had been advised by his lecturer, the marvellously named Philipp von Jolly, not to pursue the study of physics because “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” Planck replied that he had no wish to discover new things, only to understand the known fundamentals of the field better. Perhaps unaware of the old maxim that if you want to make God laugh you tell him your plans, he went on to become a founding father of quantum physics.

            Scientists did expect some new discoveries. Maxwell’s work on the electromagnetic spectrum suggested that there were new forms of energy to be found at either end of his scale, but these new energies were still expected to obey his equations. Mendeleev’s periodic table hinted that there were new forms of matter out there somewhere, just waiting to be found and named, but it also promised that these new substances would fit neatly into the periodic table and obey its patterns. Both Pasteur’s germ theories and Darwin’s theory of evolution pointed to the existence of unknown forms of life, but also offered to categorise them when they were found. The scientific discoveries to come, in other words, would be wonderful but not surprising. The body of knowledge of the twentieth century would be like that of the nineteenth, but padded out further.

            Between 1895 and 1901 H.G. Wells wrote a string of books including The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon. In doing so he laid down the blueprints for science fiction, a new genre of ideas and technological speculation which the twentieth century would take to its heart. In 1901 he wrote Anticipations: An Experiment in Prophecy, a series of articles which attempted to predict the coming years and which served to cement his reputation as the leading futurist of the age. Looking at these essays with the benefit of hindsight, and awkwardly skipping past the extreme racism of certain sections, we see that he was successful in an impressive number of predictions. Wells predicted flying machines, and wars fought in the air. He foresaw trains and cars resulting in populations shifting from the cities to the suburbs. He predicted fascist dictatorships, a world war around 1940, and the European Union. He even predicted greater sexual freedom for men and women, a prophecy that he did his best to confirm by embarking on a great number of extramarital affairs.

            But there was a lot that Wells wasn’t able to predict: relativity, nuclear weapons, quantum mechanics, microchips, black holes, postmodernism and so forth. These weren’t so much unforeseen, as unforeseeable. His predictions had much in common with the expectations of the scientific world, in that he extrapolated from what was then known. In the words commonly assigned to the English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine but, “stranger than we can imagine.”

          • Let me say this. I’m not saying you are wrong. The change could take longer. My argument is only that, if it does take longer, the primary reasons will be social and political. But quick or slow, these changes are going to happen in our lifetimes, probably sooner than later. And when they do happen, it will be a society-wide transformation.

            So, I’m not sure that the hype matters all that much. There is always hype as there is always change. My sense, though, is that we are long overdue for massive and disruptive change in so many ways, not just technologically but economically and geopolitically. The system we have can’t be maintained much longer and a vast array of new technologies will open up new possibilities.

            Self-driving cars are just a small piece and won’t be the main factor for societal change, although they could contribute in significant ways toward building a different kind of society. It will be part of related technologies such as non-military applications of drones. Or consider that some of the sensor technology in self-driving cars is connected to what is being used to map the entire earth in greater detail, having led to recent discoveries of hidden archaeological sites.

            Maybe it seems more significant to me coming from a GenX perspective. When I was a child, the main technology we had was radio and tv, both only picking up local signals by way of antennas. I didn’t see a computer, video game system, or microwave until late in elementary school, didn’t have cable until I was in high school, didn’t have internet until my twenties, and didn’t have a cell phone until my thirties.

            The world I live in now would have been unimaginable to my younger self. My dad worked on one of the earliest computer systems that was being applied in the private sector. The computer filled an entire large room and operated by punch cards. That was high-tech at the time. Now your smart phone has amazingly more computing power than did the rocket ships that took humans into space. We’ve come a long way.

            Various technological advances have been building up over my lifetime. It is slowly adding up toward larger changes, even though each individual technology doesn’t necessarily mean much taken in isolation or taken in a single moment of development.

    • In Star Trek future history, sanctuary districts are created in major US cities during the 2020s. At first, the unemployed went there willingly looking for assistance from the government. But soon the economy kept worsening and unemployment kept growing. The sanctuary districts stopped being a temporary measure and eventually the government began forcing citizens into living there. They became ghettos that people couldn’t legally leave. They essentially became internment camps to keep the impoverished permanent underclass separate from the rest of society.

      Conditions get so bad that major riots happen. The most famous is the Bell Riots of 2024. It will happen in California when the sanctuary district residents seize power and the governor sends in National Guard troops. Large numbers of citizens die and it forces the rest of society to become aware of the problem. Public opinion turns against sanctuary policy and reform follows, specifically the abolishment of the districts. Still, even in the optimistic vision of Star Trek, this event is far away from what would eventually develop into a post-scarcity society. Before that could happen, nuclear cataclysm and genocidal war will threaten all of civilization and life on earth. It’s a slow learning process for humanity to realize that keeping massive populations violently oppressed isn’t ultimately beneficial for anyone, not even the rich. World War III supposedly will begin in 2026, just two years after the Bell Riots, and will lead to the death of hundreds of millions.

      What is so horrifying about this future history is how plausible it sounds. And much of this was speculation from decades ago. This future history was formulated before 9/11, before the 2008 Great Recession, before Trump’s presidency, and before the rising geopolitical challenge of Russia and China. This was the future seen from the perspective of the United States being at the height of its wealth and power with few seeing the near future decline of the American Empire. It was supposed to be the End of History when the Cold War was finally ‘won’. In the boom years of the early 1990s, not many were predicting a coming era of worsening inequality, (full rates of) un-/underemployment, homelessness, and a permanent underclass.

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