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The Great Social Bifurcation

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When I think of the future, I think in terms of trajectories: simply take a trend or statistic that has been forcibly moving in one direction for some time and project it into the future.  Then, imagine the implications. This basic kind of forecasting gets better the more trajectories or trends you put into the model. You can imagine very interesting things by extending various uninteresting trends into the future. Trends like population, poverty, resource depletion, social inequity. Trace their trajectories and extrapolate out. It’s what futurists and science fiction writers do all the time.

I call one of the visions I have for our possible future “The Great Social Bifurcation.” I don’t imagine this concept is particularly original on my part, but it goes like this: if you extend the trajectories of various social, economic, security and political trends out into the future, you get a society in which there are two camps: 1) the wealthy, educated, secure, tech-savvy elite and 2) the impoverished, undereducated, crime-ridden, resource-poor masses. This future looks in many ways like the classic third-world banana republic, only on an entirely new scale.

One of the data points that supports the Great Social Bifurcation in the US is income equality. Here’s some income inequality data from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. This particular trend, by the way, is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters mean when they contrast the 1% and the 99%.

In this future, then, there’s no middle and little mobility: you’re born into comfort or scarcity, opportunity or lack. The elite will do wonderful technological things, travel into space, invent AI, cure cancer; the masses will struggle to find clean water.

It’s a future that I do not relish, and one I do not think is inevitable, but the trajectories are there. Interestingly, India provides something of a foreshadowing. Consider these two recent news items:

India to Launch Mars Orbiter in 2013 (CNN)


Blackout Shines Light on India’s Bigger Problem (Sidney Morning Herald)

That’s right, India is about to join the international Mars Exploration party, while as many as 400 million of its citizens have no access to electricity.

That’s what The Great Social Bifurcation looks like. Let’s hope we don’t have to get used to it.

Author: Eric Kingsbury

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