A summary of the state of western civilisation


I'm in the process of trying to buy a house.  Maybe it's the giant sums of (virtual) money flying around or the enormous amount of debt I'm about to assume, but it's got me thinking about big things. 

In the news today are stories of kids flying off to Syria to join the Islamic State.   The resulting news articles have been fairly restrained, which is refreshing.  But they're not in-depth.   I think more than anything people want to know, why do these things happen?    Why do things like the Montreal Massacre happen, or the Columbine Massacre?   Or why do people drop out of school, or get depressed, or get in ruts taking drugs?  

I don't think there's anything really special about the Islamic State or school shootings or drug abuse.   I've never really cared for religion much but I also don't think it's a scapegoat -- religion gets draped over all kinds of things, good and bad, and it's rarely responsible for much of the good or the bad.   People get sucked into these negative traps because they don't feel they're making progress.  They don't feel like they fit with civilisation, so they get angry and reject it in various ways, and cloak themselves in a variety of puritanical ideologies in the process. 

We have brought this on ourselves to a large extent.  Look at our politics: in Canada we are bordering on hereditary politics with the Trudeau family.  The United States is well down that road with the Bush and (potentially) Clinton family.  Representatives in the Congress of the States, through gerrymandering essentially have seats for life, with power and an assured income beyond the imagination of most people. The major stock markets are to some extent "fixed" to entrench wealth in the hands of a few, by this I'm referring to the high-frequency traders that have by-design disproportionate access to timely information.   There is the growing impression among people that there are fewer and fewer routes to a comfortable middle-income life where one can raise children and give them a future at least as pleasant as what previous-generations have had.   The current plot in Victoria (and I think throughout North America) is the low-income self-employed, small businesses that never really get off the ground. 

Technology is one of the big disrupters, and will continue for decades.  The more routine daily tasks are slowly being replaced by increasingly intelligent software, and soon robots.     Many jobs that people have nowadays are highly proceduralised and formalized by rules -- those are exactly the kinds of jobs that will be eliminated by robotics.   Bus and taxi drivers, lawyers, doctors (things like surgeons), tax auditors, these kinds of jobs are slowly going to be squeezed by the advance of technology.  If one wants a stable future, you have to ensure that what you are doing involves the kinds of thoughts that robots and software are incapable of.  This is scary because doing repetitive things is assuring: you do something, do it again and again and gain confidence.  Doing creative things, you are never sure if your next idea is going to be a total flop or not.  It's also rather difficult to manage creative jobs, since being creative looks far too much like goofing-off.  

This isn't a reason to panic.  Doing creative things is one of the most enjoyable ways to live.  When we feel like we're making real progress, that's when we're happy.   I see this as the flip side to things like the Islamic State.   When my son learns to read, or is proud of himself for doing something he's never done before, that's when he is really building self-worth and is becoming invested in his future.   True optimism and confidence for your future comes from real accomplishments.  

On a completely formal level we have a very good sense (via mathematical logic / computer science) of what software is (theoretically) good at and what fundamental challenges software will likely never make much progress on.   One way to state this kind of knowledge is the gap in how difficult it is to state a mathematical theorem, how difficult it is to construct a proof, and how difficult it is to verify whether or not a claimed-proof is true.   Proof verification, while a skill people frequently find difficult to learn, is extremely easy -- if you are familiar with writing software, proof verification is analogous to the compilation process. It is routine and proceduralised.  Coming up with statements of theorems (that we value) and proofs, is insanely difficult and in some sense precisely the kinds of things computers can never be good at. 

Of course, every generation has had its worries about the downfall of civilisation.  The reason why every generation gets worried is that our challenges are rarely the same as the challenges our parents had.  So the leadership our parents give us is rarely specific-enough for our particular problems.  My parents challenges had more to do with the move from rural to urban living, and how to navigate the societal changes that came with so many people making the transition from rural to urban life.  My grandfather, as a child, used to ride horseback to his school with two loaded revolvers on his hips and a rifle on his back. This was in southern Alberta, and was not considered weird.  Our challenges are always changing.