A Word from Stephen Hawking

Source: The Guardian, December 1

Stephen HawkingAs a theoretical physicist based in Cambridge, I have lived my life in an extraordinarily privileged bubble. Cambridge is an unusual town, centred around one of the world’s great universities. Within that town, the scientific community that I became part of in my 20s is even more rarefied.

And within that scientific community, the small group of international theoretical physicists with whom I have spent my working life might sometimes be tempted to regard themselves as the pinnacle. In addition to this, with the celebrity that has come with my books, and the isolation imposed by my illness, I feel as though my ivory tower is getting taller.

So the recent apparent rejection of the elites in both America and Britain is surely aimed at me, as much as anyone. Whatever we might think about the decision by the British electorate to reject membership of the European Union and by the American public to embrace Donald Trump as their next president, there is no doubt in the minds of commentators that this was a cry of anger by people who felt they had been abandoned by their leaders.

It was, everyone seems to agree, the moment when the forgotten spoke, finding their voices to reject the advice and guidance of experts and the elite everywhere.

I am no exception to this rule. I warned before the Brexit vote that it would damage scientific research in Britain, that a vote to leave would be a step backward, and the electorate – or at least a sufficiently significant proportion of it – took no more notice of me than any of the other political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities who all gave the same unheeded advice to the rest of the country.

What matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react. Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake.

The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalization and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.

This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive….

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3 responses to “A Word from Stephen Hawking

  1. I don’t agree. While there are examples of inequality that involve bankers and people becoming super rich from tech startups, the super poor of the world in Africa are becoming richer. This doesn’t fit with the narrative preached by Dr. Hawking or the people who voted for Trump and Brexit. The underemployed of Ohio and Northumberland are still rich by world standards, but maybe not as rich as they used to be. Their children will figure it out, and maybe some of them will too.

  2. mike holliday

    Thank you Stephen Hawking. From the total silence, particularly from what we call the political leadership, I was beginning to think that the only people interested in these developments were the science fiction writers.
    You have succinctly outlined the problem. My concern now is that while you have done that, your final paragraph was either a disappointment or incredibly bleak.
    You say that the rapidly widening gulf between the haves and have-nots is inevitable and that it is socially destructive, but then you stop.
    Do you think it is immutably inevitable, or are there actions we can take that will allow progress and be socially constructive?
    In darker moments I consider that the solution is survival of the most able – protected and pampered by robotic armies – and the elimination of all others.
    That might be an answer to the world’s environmental destruction from human over-population, but is there another way that does not include everyone fleeing to Mars?

  3. Elisabeth Ecker

    Fred, poverty is relative. The statistic about poverty in third world countries does not count the underground economy. It is quite a difference to be poor in a warm country where everybody is in the same situation as in a developed country where the inequality is more obvious and resentment is created and you can not understand why you are having less and less and others are getting more and more.
    An unequal society is bad for the economy since for capitalism to function consumers are needed. Resentment causes irrational behaviour and if you have nothing to loose it also causes unrest. Besides, we know that a more equal society is healthier and everybody is happier.
    In the sixties we envisioned a future where everybody works shorter hours and the opposite is happening. Some people are working long hours and too many can not find meaningful well paid employment. If society does not address this problem we are in trouble.