Industrialization’s Monster: Yes We Can

Considered the founding work of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein has served as explanation and warning across many subjects and issues since it first captured the imaginations of readers. The context within which she wrote, exactly two centuries ago as the Industrial Revolution was gaining speed, was the tumult of Humanity’s first failures against a rising tide. Today, as the casualties of the first years of this new Cyber Revolution fall and the sharp changes already emergent shake our reality, the moment is nigh to revisit Shelley’s warnings, to consider the ramifications of the past upon life and the planet, and to ponder the future.

Published in 1818, Frankenstein is the perfect foil to interrogate the cost of past choices as new ones arise. Shelley wrote the book when the perils of that great socio-economic change were already manifesting even as its promise beckoned. The Luddites of her day, the movement of the first workers displaced by industrial manufacture, were only the first of many casualties across the human and natural landscape. Today, however, as the complex costs and consequences of that advance in human experience are manifest, the work easily stands as a rebuke of Man’s unchecked rush to apply his knowledge and ability to change thereby creating a monster. Although Man rectified many of the Industrial Revolution’s early and simpler abuses of men and nature, its long term effect, and the looming complex climate and human crises it brought, threaten much of the existence we take for granted. Looking at the results of the Industrial Revolution writ large, we must examine the positive, beneficial effects for society against the negatives, most significantly in climate change, pollution, geographic-topographic degradation, and the unsettled terrain of human satisfaction with their daily lot.

Cyber-Industrialization

Looking back on the Frankenstein’s monster of unchecked industrialization, it is worth asking which of the advances might have been challenged in their own time had we known the true costs. Some? Many? None? Surely reason would have promoted a demand for moderation and acted as a brake upon the unchecked application of industrialization to the majority of humanity’s endeavors. At the very least, one might expect governing authorities to impose the costs of the advances upon those who would profit most from them. Such a hypothetical is no mere wistful navel gazing: to reflect on what to rework in the contested present is more than relevant as Mankind stands at the next great socio-economic revolution. As we face a similarly grand reconfiguration of humanity, changes being wrought under the Cyber Revolution offer a means to reconsider the choices for our future and reckon the errors of our past. We would do well to address these storms now rather than later. Looking only at a snapshot of issues arising from artificial intelligence, algorithms, the increasingly networked world, and their further implications on the quotidian purpose of life, the terms of our necessary humility emerge.

artificial intelligence
Science fiction cliches often portray AI as resembling human form, but the reality is that AI will not have the same human limitations. Photo credit: https://expo.co.jp/english/2017/06/06/766.html.

If sentience is mankind’s defining characteristic, then artificial intelligence and the role of algorithms are profound efforts to reproduce our very essence. Controlling significant swathes of life, these human creations hold to capacity usurp sovereignty over human existence. Already the machines taught to converse are learning to do so in self-created languagesit will not be long before they can do so to their human creators’ utter incomprehension. Perhaps worse than the science fiction horror of a world controlled by machines is the banal disaster of a world remade by distrust and unreality. The social media that more and more of the population rely upon are subjected to ever more sophisticated manipulation by algorithms. Created to shape content tailored to an individual’s tastes, the dark side of this phenomenon is algorithms designed to influence the fundamental core of representative governance. And while propaganda and false news are nothing new, the targeting and volume is creating an unprecedented environment of uncertainty about the very terms of reality.

Where humanity organized itself for good and ill in the creation of communities, this urge to connect as applied to the new cyber world cedes even more control to the unknown. The networked world increasingly places critical functions at finger-tap reach of individual and non-state actors whose motives and ends benefit few and harm many. Looking only at recent events, the systems and institutions under siege to the “Internet of Things” are those most critical to society; a window to the perils of this newest ungoverned space. The Equifax hack reported last month, affecting at least 143 million Americans, is only the latest largest data breach in history, and may threaten the financial security of too many. Ransomware attacks are increasingly used to take control of information systems, putting health at risk as hospitals have become targets to virtual hostage taking for money. But the worst may be the peril of the electronic means to our democratic system. The investigation into the possible hacking of the 2016 election illuminates a chillingly effective attempt to interfere with American sovereignty. While the extent of this campaign is as yet unknown, evidence of theft of voter information in Illinois by likely Russian actors has been verified and is under Congressional investigation.

Humanity’s Monster

At a deeper level, the Cyber Revolution attacks the fundamental meaning and experience of what it is to be human. Looking to the single issue of work, so many advances threaten to continue the degradation of this human value begun during the Industrial Revolution. It is an ominous trend. Not merely a Protestant ethic, there is something fundamentally important about work to human existence that links fulfilling a sense of productivity to meaning. Yet as the Cyber Revolution gathers momentum, robots and computers may perilously curtail productive human activity from agriculture to automotive, architecture to artisan cheese. The wisdom of prioritizing more goods at cheaper prices over simple human satisfaction demands a rethink as more radicalism arises from nihilism born of meaninglessness.

These are just the first rounds; this era’s first artisans displaced by factory machines, rivers despoiled, air befouled. Without succumbing to full-fledged Ludditism and the rejection of all advances, there is a need to rethink this headlong rush into the next era of change. The genius of our Frankenstein impulse, the creative imagination to dream and explore, should not be destroyed – but neither should the monsters of this impulse be allowed to rampage unfettered.


Jill RussellDr. Jill S. Russell is a Professor of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. She has worked extensively in professional military education in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as in defense consulting. Her areas of expertise and research interest are logistics, urban conflict and public order, and strategy and policy. She writes and comments regularly on military affairs and national security for blogs, news outlets, and practitioner publications.

A Tale of Two Cities: Development in Latin America

Looking out upon the city from the top of a modern high-rise, one cannot help but note the contradiction. The urban sprawl of luxury apartments, malls, and cafés gives way to the eclectic but destitute clusters of favelas; the multi-colored and corrugated steel-roofed slums that dominate the periphery. The city is Rio de Janeiro, but it could easily be Lima, Peru, Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Bogotá, Colombia. This caricature of rich-meets-poor ambiguously describes nearly every major city in Latin America, a region in which a growing number of countries occupy the margin between developed and developing status.

The global trend of urban migration is particularly strong in Latin America, compounding development shortfalls for safe and adequate housing in capital cities. In Rio, for instance, 1.5 million people live in the favelas—about 24% of the population. There are over 1000 of these neighborhoods in the city, the majority of which are illegally constructed. Brazil is the region’s largest country, economy, and the presumptive regional hegemon, but like others in the region they struggle to spread the benefits of growth to all socioeconomic classes. Nearing the milestone of developed status, Latin America is starting to question exactly what developed truly means.

Development by the Numbers

The World Bank sorts countries of the world into four income categories: low income, lower middle-income, upper middle-income, and high-income countries. Half of the world’s countries fall into the two middle-income categories, which contain 70% of the world’s population and 72% of the world’s poor. All low-income and middle-income nations are eligible for Official Development Assistance (ODA)—the collective non-military aid, grants, and financial instruments intended to promote economic development and welfare—which totaled $142.6 billion dollars in 2016.

Once middle-income nations reach and maintain a per capita Gross National Income (GNI) of $12,745 USD or greater for three consecutive years (2013 numbers), they “graduate” from upper middle-income status to high income status, rendering them ineligible for ODA. Latin American ODA totaled nearly $5 billion dollars in 2016, but sable growth within the region over the last 25 years places countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico—those with large populations and high inequality—on a path to graduation from ODA eligibility.

development
The projected GNI growth (2015) will cause the majority of Latin American middle-income countries to graduate and lose ODA by the year 2030, based on OECD projections. Photo credit: https://www.oecd.org/dac/financing-sustainable-development/ODA-graduation.pdf.

The body that determines these categories is the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The DAC, in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, meets every two to three years to refine the list of eligible aid recipients. Middle-income countries constitute 90% of Latin America, and by the year 2030, 80% of the region will no longer be eligible for ODA.

The first wave of this phenomenon hit the region in August when Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica graduated to high-income country status. The graduations come after a period of GDP growth  in the region averaging 3% between 2000 and 2015. In countries like Brazil and Argentina, next on the list of prospective graduates, poverty has decreased drastically since the turn of the century. According to the World Bank data, poverty in Brazil decreased from 12.3% in 2002 to 3.7% in 2014. Argentina’s poverty level fell from 14% to 1.7% over the same period.

But these indicators only reveal part of the story. The World Bank international poverty line is drawn at $1.90 dollars of income per day, or about $685 dollars per year. Inequality figures in the region are the highest in the world. The 2016 Gini Index—the measure of statistical indicators that assign a value to inequality—show Latin America occupying 13 of the top 25 spots for highest inequality in the world. The top 20% of the population still holds 57% of the wealth and it has the fastest growing number of billionaires in the world, numbering 151 in 2015, a 38% increase over the previous year. Given that context, reaching the $685 dollars per year milestone seems to leave much room for improvement.

Graduate to Cooperate

The steady loss of ODA will be Latin America’s next development challenge, and the millionaires and billionaires will not be the ones feeling the impact. Chilean government officials have already been vocal in their objection to the graduation process, arguing that the loss of ODA comes at the most critical point for developing nations. They contend that the process is one-dimensional and does not reflect the complex set of issues that countries in this category face in sustaining development. This is true, but many of the challenges come from within Latin American governments and cannot be solved with ODA. Tax systems are archaic and welfare programs, especially in a non-welfare state like Chile, are limited or not sufficient to bridge the gap of inequality.

development cooperation
ODA is used on a wide range of development themes. Chile relies on development funds for programs related to climate change, the effects of which are more pronounced in the Patagonia region of the south. Photo credit: https://visualizingclimatechange.wordpress.com.

The real implications for ODA graduation are unknown. The OECD lacks the requisite data to be able to predict how ODA graduation affects future development. Additionally, development assistance varies from year to year, is given at the complete discretion of the donor countries, and is subject to global foreign policy trends. A retraction in globalism, increases in terrorism and security concerns, and global migration and refugee flow will continue to influence the distribution of aid. As countries in the global south continue their efforts in development, relying on ODA cannot be the only strategy to sustain development.

One opportunity lies in increasing South-South Cooperation, characterized as a framework of collaboration across multiple domains between countries of the global south. South-South Cooperation focuses on the transfer of knowledge, technical expertise, and human capital—all critical components of development. This collaboration already exists in the region, but the programs are few, the level of institutionalization is low, and domestic and regional politics often hamper cooperation efforts. Unlike the regional bodies (like MERCOSUR and UNASUR) that have high levels of institutionalization with low output, South-South Cooperation is accomplished through existing, state-level institutions like a country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This allows them to engage in programs on a limited or enduring timeline, bilaterally or multilaterally, at both the national and sub-national levels.

Latin America—and the global south in general—must seek internal solutions for development. They will also need to find a way to better incorporate NGOs and the private sector, who have an increasingly important role to play in the global system. Regional economic leaders, such as Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, can accelerate the pace of regional cooperation initiatives and counter the loss of ODA over the next decade. Bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption make reforms difficult, but South-South Cooperation provides an existing framework and  support from the United Nations Office of South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC). A failure to reform and generate intra-regional development programs may not slow economic  growth, but it will threaten future social and political stability and undermine long-term regional security.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any  government or private institution.

Major Patrick “TISL” Parrish is the Blogmaster and editor for the Affiliate Network. He is a US Air Force Officer and A-10C Weapons Instructor Pilot with combat tours in Afghanistan and Libya. He is currently serving as an Olmsted Scholar in Santiago, Chile.