2021 - The Year Humanism Fights Back?

I’ve finally settled back in Nairobi. We’re nearing the end of January already, so I’m arriving late to the party — am I cheating? — for pondering what 2021 will look like. I’m both optimistic and concerned. I think I’m optimistic because I’m concerned. Let me explain…

But first, a quick aside: I believe everyone should go through a similar exercise of predicting the future. Time spent prognosticating allows us to define and test our personal values, and to help us lead more intentional lives. When you seriously consider future scenarios, you are invited to take a stand: will you try to ensure that the “expected good” will indeed happen? And will you try and help mitigate the “expected bad”? If in your exquisite analysis you conclude nuclear war will break out, you’re now given an opportunity and a responsibility to prevent it. By predicting the future, we can then better decide how to shape it. Hopefully for the better.

If I could choose my bias, I’d like to be faulted for being too optimistic. Any average person, all things equal, tries to make “good” decisions and solve problems. Add these persons up, we get “most people mostly making good decisions”, thereby contributing to global progress. This progress over time is broad: wealth grows, knowledge is discovered, diseases are cured, peace is cultivated. By looking at the longer view of history, despite some terrible troughs, humanity continuously generates progress, from reducing violence to the ability to create effective vaccines in nine months.

Perhaps because things have been relatively good in recent years, 2020 felt like an unanticipated left hook punch. If only certain people had made better choices. From not implementing safeguards in wet meat markets to deciding to respect the will of voters honestly, last year could’ve been better. What made these bad decisions more likely last year? And what can we do to prevent them from happening again?

What we might call a bad decision likely has one of two causes - and neither is the often assumed “malice” of a person:

  1. Conflicting incentives: such as when politicians pander inflamed rhetoric to get re-elected, instead of, say, acknowledging the unpopular outcome of the presidential election. You can cluster these problems into short term versus long-term incentives, system 1 versus system 2 thinking models, or personal versus community values (implicit in the tragedy of the commons).

  2. A problem with information: It’s difficult to always make good decisions without the information you need - both quantity and quality. Social media and other content channels can overload us, making it difficult to understand what’s true or not (leading to inaction), or we are only presented with inaccurate information (such as the election was “stolen” by some deep state actors, causing us to riot against what we will only later learn is a mass delusion).

What this implies is that if we improve the incentive architecture for people with influence — i.e. politicians— they will make better decisions that lead to better outcomes for everyone. And to make good decisions one needs good data to interpret — meaning we need to support honest, critical, and productive information sharing practices.

Unfortunately, the general reasons for why people with power made bad decisions in 2020 largely remain unchanged. Incentive structures for many politicians still cause damage to our democracy. And this “golden age” of content where QAnon groups can emerge remain. But they remain with more of us at least knowing about them! And since the Enlightenment in particular, when we discover or generate new problems, we have increasingly become adept at solving them. You and I would like things to be better. It is therefore natural to want to understand why bad decisions were made last year, test out solutions, and then implement what works well at scale. With some initiative, some prodding, along with some conversations and trial and error, progress can continue. Thus optimism → justified.

Still, are we aware and organized enough to battle the bad causes of last year’s tragedies? Covid-19 did some good turns on us — but the worst is that it accelerated eroding our shared human communities. Whether by forcing us into siloed social media echo chambers, to restricting our conversations with others at the farmers’ market, to avoiding the proverbial water cooler banter at work, to reducing most types of travel — society fractured further — and continues to fracture. The essential factors that contributed to last year’s delights and will continue into 2021 include:

  1. Counterproductive political institutions that incentivize demonizing other groups;

  2. Internet companies that offer more niche and virtual communities and thereby remove us from a shared sense of communal realities;

  3. In part caused by the above, America’s continued slide against other world powers thereby creating a more anarchical and uncertain world order.

As such, 2021 will be defined by fighting to preserve shared values and communities against a fragmenting genie — a genie that can’t be put back into the bottle.


The broken American institution

As Lee Drutman compellingly argues, the mechanism by which problems get resolved politically in America is broken because our political institutions do not incentivize problem-solving. Our 2-party system drives a vicious cycle of voter engagement (or suppression) by using inflammatory rhetoric, deprioritizing the mandate for actual problem solving. Politics has devolved from compromising on competing national objectives into wars of which identity gets power. (Click here for my attempt at summarizing his work — which you should read!). While Trump symbolized the extent of the damage this institutional framework could provide, he was not pre-ordained; a Bernie Sanders is a Trump to someone else, and in a different universe he would’ve been elected. But only with our current political institutions is it possible for figures at the extreme ends of the political spectrum to become the representative of the entire nation. This structure still remains today, further polarizing and fracturing America.

America needs to reform democracy, and can begin with implementing ranked-choice voting systems in elections across the country. Will we see more people tackling the political problem at its core this year? Two House representatives have managed to generate a bipartisan list of reforms — which admittedly is deficient — but let’s hope it’s the first push on the flywheel. By fixing our institutions, by reforming our democracy, we can both increase improved communication based on real and honest data, and thereby increase options for the average voter, and through that moderate the extremist rhetoric we’ve all grown tired of hearing. In this way, better choices will be made that encapsulate the higher values of what it means to be American — and also focus on actual problems that matter to voters.

The net effect of our current two-party system is that America is now weaker and more divided. Americans are more distrustful of each other than ever before. Inequality continues to accelerate, splicing further the definition of the American dream. Political identity continues to align along geographical lines, thereby fracturing what America means physically as well.


A Leaderless Data-Enabled Economy

While the (American) political institutions are broken, the underpinnings of today’s fracturing of society — internet companies who can monetize reams of freely provided human data — are the fuel to the fire.

The best way to collect valuable data is for service providers — the Facebooks, the Googles — to have users engage with their services. But a users’ attention is a finite resource. Throngs of engineers are therefore mandated to fight for our attention. We’ve now learned the best way to ensure user engagement is not only to “persuade” them to use Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Parler, Reddit, the Fitbits, or any of the e-commerce sites, but also to “hack” them with personalized nudges and well-timed endorphin rushes. Infinite scrolls, strategically timed notifications, product groupings, personalized advertising, and, as it happens, outrageous and angry content all happen to optimally capture attention 😡🤬🤯 😰. This AI-supported “hacking” reduces individual agency — it dilutes a person’s ability to make decisions that appear to come from the “self”. And if that means the individual is less aware of being used or manipulated, then that’s but a small cost for the exorbitant profits she helps contribute to. And there’s been plenty of profit to sustain these practices, so much so that were Facebook and Instagram to disappear, new and smaller entrants would take their place. While we may see Facebook facing more legal challenges in 2021, perhaps culminating into some sort of regulatory breakup, we will likely see continued growth with TikTok and Clubhouse and other players. Will something replace Parler too? Because attention is finite, the competition to collect more data for better behavior modification will only level up.

An overriding effect of all this attention capture is a broken landscape of people living in their personal realities, in communities so personalized they are effectively communities of 1. And because a great hack to capture attention is based on generating anger and outrage — these siloed communities will mostly be defined by grievance, disgust, and distrust. This will get worse this year. Breaking up social media companies will not affect this. By having a more fragmented social media landscape — with more social media and data-collecting internet companies to engage with — there will be even more “socially distanced” communities that are harder to bridge.

Adding confusion to insult, with social media companies de-platforming Trump, we will now ask about the social media companies’ responsibilities - effectively “who”, “how”, and by what standards are social media companies governed, and what responsibilities are they burden with? Section 230 removes responsibility for the type of content posted on social media platforms, except for in cases when it does?

When a social media user has lost the ability to build a common sense of reality, who is she to turn to for help, if not the government or her family or her colleagues — other social media platforms? 2021 will likely continue to witness more siloed islands and confusing power dynamics between and among tech companies, perceived communities and nations, especially because engineers can now more than ever “work remotely” from the comforts of their Montana log cabins, more disconnected from the end users they are hacking.


The formerly stable and UnipolarWorld Order continues to devolve into a Multipolar one — egged on by inward looking populism and strong-man rhetoric

Based on America’s relative declining power and the rise of virtual echo chambers, populists and wanna-be-authoritarians have been able to rise to power across the world by using unchallenged fear-mongering rhetoric. A powerful tool they abused was our natural ability to see “others” as distrustful, creating environments that are more critical of outsiders - thus leading to “America First”, to Brexit, to suspending Syrian War asylum seekers from staying, and so forth.

But fear-mongering is easier than competently governing and actually solving problems. Covid-19 was a decisive test. From Bolsonaro to Johnson, Modi to Magufuli, there’s some evidence that people are noticing these leaders’ failures (at least in Europe). Demonstrating technocratic competence and adhering to institutional norms and rules feels maddeningly important. Biden and others now validly seek to “build” and improve critical discourse, but the destruction over the past couple of years of otherwise durable institutions will continue to reverberate — opening up opportunities for new (and maybe bad) actors to fill voids. Eschewing norms and rules — institutions writ-large — also make them less durable and dependable. How effective will the new Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Deal, or China’s Trade Deals be this year when they were so easily "broken" in the past four years?

With a diminishing America, there’s more jostling about what and who should lead the world. All countries and communities face greater uncertainty with America’s weakened political position, creating both risk and possibilities for more bad decisions. The “End of History” is more uncertain than ever. And there’s more disagreement with what values to inscribe the “global order” with.


What this means

Assuming this “fracturing” of the global order is a problem, then at least we can take solace with the fact that humans are pretty good at solving problems if we want to. But it’s better to solve problems in time, either before “it’s too late” or before it gets yet more difficult. That’s where I’m uncertain with how 2021 will play out. How much will get done? How much collaborative problem-solving will occur? How much will problems continue to create havoc in 2021? What’s the balance? I think two things will happen:

  1. The above trends will continue to erode, confuse and fracture communities and human values, and what it means to be an American. Polarization will continue, and worsen, though perhaps “less loudly”.

  2. At the same time, well-meaning individuals will contribute and fight towards re-establishing a shared sense of reality. Democracy Reform? Banning of personalized advertising? Convergence on globally accepted rules, norms, and values?

Geopolitics — shifting powers.

With America’s continuing power slide, other nation states and communities are fighting to preserve their neutrality or freedom from opportunistic or encroaching powers. (Crimea and Hong Kong were illustrative prior casualties.) I bet Biden will have a Taiwan test in 2021 with a provocative test from China. Closer to home, states’ rights will continue to lose sovereignty as decisions will be made with greater frequency in D.C. or San Francisco.

Poorer countries will attempt to remain neutral with America’s diminishing clout and China’s rise, but when forced to take sides, they lose out some of their independence as well (almost always in China’s favor). The Covid-19 hens will come home to roost; China will easily “support” with vaccine and capital diplomacy, at terms that greatly benefit China and not always the receiving country.

Tech companies will also continue to reduce nation states’ “sovereignties” and the ability to govern effectively. Witness the chagrin from the Germans and French about an unelected CEO removing Trump’s Twitter access. If it happens to Trump, the world's “most powerful man”, what’s to protect Museveni? Foreign governments are belatedly contending with these international companies’ influence, or risk irrelevance. (As if that were a choice, of course.) The seeds of Cambridge Analytica will continue to germinate at a faster pace than the average government's ability to proactively protect its institutions.

Covid-19 brought short change to travel, and the depressed future of international travel — and migration — will aggravate the siloing of world communities. While brain drain has slowed from poorer countries, the cost has been less international cooperation and interaction which can otherwise foster cultural exchange and ideas — and provide a foundation to help determine what’s “real” between different communities. This will reduce global innovation (though only partially offset by the uptick in videoconferencing: it’s just more difficult to schedule spontaneity and foster creative brainstorming on Zoom). It will take more than this year for the benefits of travel to come back.

Despite the decent news coming out of the Middle East in the past four years, the region faces increased combustible risk. With depressed oil prices, plenty of conspiratorial thinking, and fewer migrant workers (as a check), the need for reforming economies, education, and governance is pressing as ever — but now with limited coffers to invest in change. I’d not be surprised to see new upheavals or more Chinese presence (further reducing the oil-buttressed power of the region).

This parallels developments in Africa, though less precariously. Africa has demonstrated a positive resilience in 2020. Still, China continues to exert such silent force that — speaking amorally here — America has lost its right to play there. That said, while there’s a lower baseline, Africa will continue to increase its global influence — from music to new fin-tech and electrification business products and services.

Healthcare (and Covid-19)

Healthcare leapfrogged last year and will continue to build on its moment in the coming year. The developments from the pandemic are the launch pad for innovative digitization and distribution of medicine (telemedicine) and vaccine/immunology research. In general, innovation from the biological sciences will continue to accelerate, along with improved application of the findings — such as mRNA vaccines for cancer. In Kenya, health-focused start-ups did well in 2020, in contrast to other start-ups. Coupled with enhanced tech tools to capture personal data, insurance and fee structures will be reformed to focus more on prevention and managing health versus managing disease. That said, I suspect the longer-term trend is for medicine to become more consolidated — bucking the fracturing trends elsewhere.

In America, no day will go by without a positive Covid-19 test result. But by June/July, most Americans will begin to relax. Cases will still be high because of the heightened contagiousness of the viral variants, thereby effecting an exponential growth of positive cases. But by then we’ll finally see the life-saving effects of the vaccines. With the most vulnerable populations protected by then, death rates will plummet even as the case count remains stubbornly high.

Education

Universities will continue to navigate stormy waters with fewer international students, terrible student experiences, exorbitant prices, and ever-increasing competition from for-profit EdTech companies. We’re witnessing an immense disruption — A third of American universities will fold within the next six years if nothing changes. While more and more learning will become “more personalized”, more “streamlined”, more “efficient”, focusing on "micro badging" in lieu of typical “four-year degrees”, what I don’t hear people talking about enough is the education that students experience in between classes that may become a casualty with these new disruptions. Yes, while online or remote learning continues to prove its value, what will replace the physical community of the student body? Can you create Zoom fraternities and sororities? Will life-long friendships form — will spouses be found on Coursera? Will we get personal certificates for having experienced diverse and argumentative seminar conversations in a classroom? Even students will witness further fragmentation and live more in siloed and “personalized” environments, further removed from understanding and engaging with their real-world contemporaries. (Although maybe I could hope that remote learning will allow one also to escape their communities and learn from others).

The stock market?

I’m no expert — and with zero conviction, I’m guessing the stock market will crash. (I could’ve written the converse too). Maybe my only implausible line of reasoning is the regression to the mean — (the same reason why 2021 is statistically more likely to be better than last year) — how much longer can this run hold? But growth company assets are as expensive as ever. While there are many reasons for the stock market to continue growing, from low interests, an improved Covid-19 environment, and stimulus payments, and while the Amazons and Apples continue to provide value with increased dominance with their scale, continuing to rise the stock market’s tide, will the increased scrutiny they will invite from politicians trigger an unexpected mass stock sell off? No idea. Yet while politicians reforming democracy could be the trigger that crashes the economy, perhaps value investing will return to being seen as justified in 2021.


(N.B. While the inherent technology of bitcoin is not fraudulent - I bet there's gonna be a massive price drop based on this fraudulent Tether leverage scheme)


A year of transition and opportunity

One piece of thinking haunts me: the pandemic did not reduce inequality; instead, it exacerbated it. Considering there’s no real historical precedent that inequality reduces spontaneously or peacefully, but always through a violent leveler like war, we may have lost a golden opportunity to forego future social strife. This Atlantic article explaining a view that this decade will be worse doesn't really help prop up my optimism, either...


But we can see and know this — which brings me back to my optimism. Andrew Yang, a proponent of Universal Basic Income, is running for mayor of New York — but one sign of new thinkings on how to deal with our social problems. For political reform, does Alaska’s approval of rank choice voting — allowing Senator Murkowski to be able to do her job more honestly and independently for Alaskans (with less fear of party punishment) — augur more states enacting positive reform? Will the Social Dilemma’s popularity engender a mass cultural awareness that spurs innovative changing of social media business models?


Much will change this year. We will witness new allegiances, a new yet old president, a heated conversation about the role of our tech brethren, new migration patterns, and perhaps even an increased yet belated focus on preventing catastrophic risks (including, but not limited to: nuclear terrorism, other novel pandemics, antibiotic resistance, medical inequality, space weaponry, asymmetric cyber warfare and surveillance, AI-induced unemployment, robotic weaponry, and what else?)… (By the way, I can’t wait for the James Webb Telescope to get up there in October.) Humanity’s power and influence will continue to increase in 2021; let’s hope the original humanist desires that most of us share will direct this power and influence. Let’s hope we concurrently invest in growing our collective wisdom as well. Life is too precious to be ambivalent about it.


What will I do? When possible, I will try and have more real conversations with people around me, and be less hacked by that “useful” and “interesting” Twitter feed. I will read more books — and share what I think is worthwhile and useful, but even more importantly, I will listen and question. I will not assume that life and progress is automatic or guaranteed — and remember that billions of future sentient beings (or whatever comes after us humans) depend on us not screwing it all up before they’re even born. I will also try and not lose my agency against my own worst impulses, not accepting that the next Netflix episode will start in 10, 9, 8, …


And excuse my melodrama, but I will try and remember that life is not a dress-rehearsal, that the bottle of Riesling will not find me my dream job (necessarily). I will remain excited — and yes, optimistic — no matter what comes, because I remember that “…all problems and all evils are caused by lack of knowledge, [and all problems] are soluble given the right knowledge.


The answer to why my concern this year makes me optimistic is because this can help drive us to understand what we need to do to solve our problems. As such, in the spirit of protecting our humane and collaborative ideals, I look forward to sharing what I learn, and to receiving your productively critical feedback. As such, please know I’m thinking of you, and wish you well, wherever you are.