Friday, 23 December 2016

Reflections on the Information Age and 2016 Christmas message

Readers, as we come to the end of the year 2016 AD, we also come to an end of another chapter in the history of humanity: The Information Age.

Above all else, and amidst all the ideologies humanity has been through since 1980, especially 'neoliberal economics', progress in computer technology and electronics has changed our history forever. Back in 1980, mobile phones simply did not exist and personal computers were still largely being invented even though the first one, the Altair, had gone on sale as far back as 1975, and social media had not even been conceived. Now in 2016, we have many social media outlets, with Facebook and Twitter being the most dominant and seen as essential by most of my young generation, mobile phones in ubiquitous use and with easy internet access, default online communication and access for a majority of services, electronic application forms, and with electronic payments becoming the norm rather than the exception (cash is still useful for security reasons, though!)

Increasing awareness of environmental issues and other things green has been a feature of this age, with the first widely recognised Green breakthrough coming in 1983 in West Germany, and with environmentalism becoming more and more prominent particularly in light of disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spillage, extensive damage to the Great Barrier Reef due to an excess concentration of plastics in the oceans, not to mention the increasing problems caused by air pollution in the world's cities and countryside. Although there have been several attempts at global agreements to tackle artificial climate change, they are still not succeeding despite increasing pressure.

Both of these features have brought about permanent fundamental restructuring of our societies-full employment is no longer around in most countries and employment is becoming increasingly unstable even if more flexible than in the past. We are also becoming more socially distant from each other and often our sense of community identity is becoming eroded; this has been particularly notable in towns and cities where traditional industries are in decline or have disappeared altogether. However, we are also becoming better at creating 'communities within communities' in response to expansion of cities, not only offline but also online.

We have generally become much more respectful of equality and diversity over the last 30 years (despite a small minority of bigots still being around) with women's rights, ethnic minority rights and LGBTIQA+ rights having made the most substantial advances. Disability rights are also advancing, but in many societies there is a long way to go in terms of accessibility, inclusivity, and acceptance of disability, particularly neurodiverse developmental conditions such as autism spectrum conditions and ADHD. The neurodiverse rights movement, of which I am a part as an autistic person, will become the next important rights movement in humanity's history.

It has become clear in the last few years that the neoliberal economic system that has dominated the Information Age has failed, and that a return to the Keynesian consensus is not really possible either as humanity has little more room to grow. This has yielded a rise in demagogue-like protest movements across much of the world, and increasing support for more radical parties on both sides (but mainly on the 'right') of the political spectrum. The vote to leave the European Union in Britain, the election of Donald Trump to the White House, the increasing rise in soft and hard nationalism across Europe, and a statement that we had entered the 'Anthropocene Era' because of the mark we have left due to our alteration of our natural environment, have been key defining events of 2016, and have opened the keys to humanity's next chapter.

The next chapter of human history, which I shall term the Cyberspace Age given how so many things and decision will happen on the Internet rather than the physical world, gives us even more long-term challenges than the chapter we have just left. Automation, where many of our current jobs will be carried out by machines instead of human hands, will have a major socio-economic impact on humanity and simply because of increasing technological progress rather than political ideology. The Channel Four comedy show 'Bad Robots' was merely the start of what will rapidly become a trend, and something akin to a 'Black Mirror' episode will become widespread in our world to one degree or another. The revival of the basic income concept, which was first tested in the 1970s, will likely become a new global means of making sure everyone has enough to survive and keep their heads above water, especially if many jobs cannot be replaced. Experiments on basic income are already underway in Finland, which is rapidly becoming a leader in innovative social development.

Most of all, we must strengthen our respect for our planet and our natural world in all spheres of our life-because if we do not, the next chapter of human civilisation could be the last we ever see.

Merry Christmas to you all-let us wake up in a new chapter come 2017.

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