The more things change, the more they will change

Well it’s that time of the year again – time to predict the decline of America. The two currently making the rounds are in The Atlantic and Foreign Policy. Everyone’s worrying about how China’s going to eclipse the USA soon, and the other members of BIC aren’t far behind. Of course, what should really matter is GDP per capita, where we’re realistically doing pretty darn well – though I still think these statistics are misleading (maybe a better calculation is here?). But in terms of world power, we’re unerringly headed down a much more multipolar path – especially if Europe can ever get its act together.

But as the Atlantic article points out, in a lot of ways we’re already doing pretty poorly. Take infrastructure, for instance; driving in San Diego often feels like you’re in a warzone with all the potholes, and the rest of California isn’t doing much better. Of course, part of this has to do with the time they were built. Go look at China’s shiny new highways in sixty years! But that’s also the problem – our infrastructure is old, and we’re not doing enough about it. And everything we need to do – improve education, stop discouraging immigration, improve our transit system – is being held back by conservative fears. Sometimes people have a hard time realizing they’re not as great as they think they are.

But nothing ever stays the same; everyone likes to talk about how people said the same things about Japan twenty years ago, and look how that turned out. Of course, they’re assuming that we’re not going to be the ones making the mistake this time, but on the broader point they’re right. The future is never how you predict it will be. There’s one thing that will remake the world in ways that we can’t imagine, and no one’s thinking about the consequences of it: artificial intelligence.

No, I’m not talking about the talking robot, super-intelligent type of AI. I’m talking about the kind we have now. The boring kind. The kind that can beat grandmasters at chess, clean your carpets, and find answers to your questions. How many people are really aware of how large of a paradigm shift this will be? What happens when we can automate intelligent work? Plenty of financial services are already done by computer – and can dominate slower, human-based stock investing techniques. There’s plenty of chatter about news aggregators that can read clips of information on the internet and actually write news stories – so long news journalists. People will still clearly be employed in the future, my point is that things are going to change so dramatically, how can we begin to predict what will be happening in the world in the next fifty years?

[Photo from here]

We all wust Sevastopol

I’m loving the shots from this old USSR propaganda magazine. Soviet propaganda definitely had the edge in the style wars.russian_magazine1

On a related note, The New York Times has a good article today asking Russians what Americans misunderstand about them. It’s interesting, and there are a few main take-away points:

World War II was all about them. Or so say the ‘official’ histories. It’s called the “Great Patriotic War” and had a much more devastating impact there than here, for obvious reasons. Quote: “Americans likely don’t understand how much the role of the allies in the victory over Nazi Germany and its allies is played down in the conscience of Russians. And Americans likely don’t properly understand the concept of “The Great Patriotic War” in which there is practically no space for Americans themselves.”

Memories of the Soviet Union are complicated. As one responder says, “Also, after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, we did not see many good things, which explains a kind of nostalgia. And apart from everything else, the advantages of an authoritarian state still remain advantages: very low crime rate, absence of massive drug abuse, social stability.” The Soviet Union was powerful, with all the advantages that came with – and now it’s not. Time has a way of making the bad memories go away, especially when the state is trying to wash it all away.

Russians don’t see the actions of their country as belligerent. That’s commonly how news portrays them, right? Always unjustifiably arrogant, pushing buttons, and petulantly grappling with world power. It’s partly historical – “To an extent, it is due to objective reasons, like eastward NATO expansion or deploying ABM radars at our borders. Another reason is a historic feeling of injury for the defeat suffered in the cold war.” Most notable, though:

Americans cannot understand why Russia, which they see as an aggressive country, is seen by Russians as peaceful, though peace-loving and democratic United States is seen by Russians as an aggressor and a threat to peace. However, if we look at the history of the new Russia (after 1991), it fought in a foreign territory only once, and after its citizens were attacked (Georgia, 2008). The United States within the same period of time used its armed forces in foreign territories many times, and all of its pretexts sounded like blatant lies.

I think that last quote pretty much sums it all up. Russians see themselves pretty much the way Americans do. Americans don’t see themselves as belligerent or aggressive – those uses of armed forces were for good, or at worst were the result of a wayward leader unrepresentative of America. It’s wonderful how everyone’s great at rationalizing their faults.