I Robot

With a glass of wine, or two, I sometimes listen to elegiac music.

Because at those times I think I see the outlines of the future. It is not necessarily mournful music or mournful thoughts that occupy the mind, it is more the deep resonance of long stretches of time passing.

As though the long-ago civilizations that built the megaliths of Brittany could be sensed in the wine and the music by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós whose songs, now that I look it up, feature ancient Icelandic poetry.

In those moods, which are not sad, but dark, I am, you might say, a voice of doom.

Conceding rationally, as I write, that it is like a wild man seeing signs and omens from a cave in the desert, it is true that rationally and without the wine, I see omens. It can be dumb little stuff.

Like the Super Bowl. I have long thought and wrote in this space two years ago that robots would work to divide the Haves from the Have Nots. Because somebody owns the robots, the ones that do the work that humans used to do.

So during the Super Bowl, its ads featured robots a bunch of times. But the ads, as you might expect, portrayed them as benign, friendly robots, sitting in the stadium watching the game, sad because they cannot enjoy the taste of chips or the companionship of friends drinking beer in a bar.

Put that next to recent reporting from Davos, the gathering of the haves. The headlines say most of it, “The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite,” for a column in the New York Times about the industrialist ambition to replace all factory workers with robots. Kind of funny aside, the Chinese in particular had no problem saying it.

At the same time, the Davos elite circulated a paper by an investor with the role of seer who predicted a panic as debt continues to rise. “It can’t be business as usual amid constant protests, riots, shutdowns and escalating social tensions,” said Seth Klarman.

So I can argue that I am not alone.

Because over, under and around all that is the polar vortex, the shifting north pole, the dwindling snow pack, the more powerful hurricanes, the chunks of Antarctica falling into the sea. The change in the earth’s protective layer is going faster and worse than thought.

And that impression takes no searching for. It is, and this time the expression is entirely apt, a drum beat. The drum is getting louder. But it is as though humanity, even putting aside the aberration of the current administration, cannot help itself.

And that is the third great force, propelling us to a reckoning. The politics of the moment, the reaction to change, which in its astounding ignorance, exacerbates and accelerates the slowly unfolding disaster.

It is, in its way, perceptive of the president to develop the theme in his State of the Union address that immigration is the political issue that divides the elite from the struggling in America. In a world of dwindling jobs, new immigrants and robots compete with the old immigrants for work.

The humanitarians correctly see a wrong. The dispossessed correctly see a threat.

Into that breach, the president dives to reward the wealthy, to exacerbate the divide, to increase the rate of global warming, by hiring oil and gas lobbyists to shepherd the environment, by lowering mileage standards, by encouraging coal.

And yet, he is not evil, he is a creature of the moment, a politician, a harbinger of the dark times ahead.

So it is that I drink red wine and listen to ancient Icelandic poetry put to music, seeing the future in the megaliths of the past, a set of great stones whose architects are lost in time, and wonder what related fate, in the great sweep of time, awaits our own civilization.

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