Questions For The ’90s: Should Robots Pay Taxes? Can Africa Be Saved?

Questions For The ’90s: Should Robots Pay Taxes? Can Africa Be Saved?

The March-April 1986 issue of The Futurist magazine looked at the far off, futuristic decade of the 1990s. In an article titled “Issues for the 1990s”, Edith Weiner and Arnold Brown examined what they saw as the emerging concerns of the world. Well, the world as seen from 1980s America.

Rising health care costs? Potential trouble China? Climate change? It all sounds pretty familiar to those of us here in the early 21st century, as we still grapple with many of these issues today.

China as a world economic force

Back in 1986, many Americans were beginning to look to China as a slowly emerging force on the world economic stage. Some thought that Japan was the single biggest threat to the dominance of the United States as an economic superpower. DARPA even developed entire programs around fighting Japan’s computational prowess. But others looked to China as the sleeper candidate.

“China may well be the world’s single most important economic factor by the end of the twentieth century,” they wrote. And in many ways they weren’t wrong. That being said, most Americans have no idea that even in 2014 China isn’t our largest trading partner. It’s Canada.

Controlling health care costs

Back in the 1990s, universal health care coverage was a hot-button topic in the U.S. But it proved an impossible task politically. As Weiner and Brown note in their article, health care costs were roughly 11 per cent of GDP in the mid 1980s. Today, it’s about 18 per cent. So while controlling health care costs have certainly been a part of the national conversation (or should we call it national shouting match?) we’ve really done a poor job of keeping costs under control.

Campus unrest

The anti-apartheid protests, eco-activism events, and the anti-nuke campaigns on college campuses of the 1980s reminded many Americans of the activism taking place two decades earlier. “Campus activism is re-emerging in the United States with protests against investments in U.S. companies doing business in South Africa,” they wrote.

Little did they anticipate the OK Soda generation. Mainstream memory of college campuses in the 1990s is defined by Gen X slackers and half-hearted save the whales parodies.

The 1996 Simpsons episode Homerpalooza perhaps summed up the ironic distance of 90s activists in the popular imagination. A concert-goer says “Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.” To which his friend replies, “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” The nose-ringed slacker replies, “I don’t even know anymore.”

Birth defects

“This will be the environmental and occupational health and safety issue of the 1990s,” they wrote. The authors of the piece noted that baby boomers had a tendency to be quite litigious and would be wary of environmental hazards that may affect pregnancy. In other words, the people having kids in the 1980s were going to be sure that their little angels were perfect in every way — and barring that, sue anybody who might stand in their way.

Saving Africa

For those too young to remember, Live Aid was a concert event broadcast in July of 1985 to an audience of about 1.9 billion people around the world. Organised by Bob Geldof, it featured some of the biggest acts of the 1980s. And it was all about “saving Africa.”

“The ability of African countries to feed their own people will continue to decline, and the desert will continue its seemingly unstoppable march across the continent,” they wrote. “Can or will the rest of the world cooperate to slow or reverse the slide to destruction?”

Distribution of wealth created by machines

“As robots and computers do more and more work, displacing people in the process, society must come to grips with the matter of the wealth these machines create,” they wrote.

This, of course, has been the great fear of nearly every generation of the 20th century. What Weiner and Brown proposed was the idea that maybe companies should be paying taxes for the robots they employ to help offset the jobs lost to automation.

Individual lifestyle excesses vs. community rights

Want to smoke or drink or do all the drugs? You better think twice, since we all have to pay. At least that was the argument the authors made within the context of things like health insurance.

“This is not a return to either prohibition or Victorian morality,” they write. “The new moralists are saying, in effect, ‘If you choose to smoke or drink, that’s your right; but the community has an equal right to be protected, and you will be held responsible for the consequences of your actions.'”

Land use

“The ‘ecology ethic’ has given us the view of Spaceship Earth, a finite planet with perceivable (and perhaps already reached) limits,” they wrote. How humanity chooses to use its land in the future is going to be vital for sustaining not only a healthy economy, but healthy humans.

“In the United States, for example, questions are raised about growing tobacco instead of food, particularly because tobacco is seen as a harmful product,” the authors wrote. Indeed, how best to use land is still debated today, though more commonly in debates about food vs fuel — as in the case of how to use all that corn we grow.

The role of foreign capital in the United States

“Foreign money has been pouring into the United States at an unprecedented rate,” they wrote. “While this is flattering testimony to the nation’s economic strength and political stability, there are concerns about the extent to which foreigners own US companies, real estate and farmland and the manner in which this control is exercised.”

Again, the concern here in the 1980s was that too much money from Japan (and a much lesser extent China) would compromise control of the U.S. in any number of ways.

Regulation of information transfer

The article’s ideas about the future of information and government interest in protecting it may have proven the most prescient, even if the 1990s didn’t see those issues raised quite so quickly.

“Governments are increasingly aware that control of information means preservation of power — both political and economic,” the authors wrote. “As a result, perceived national interests dominate transborder information flows. It may be that, in the next decade, information protectionism will replace product protectionism.”

Role of the computer in education

“Computers will affect how children learn to thin, how teachers teach, the development of creativity, and many other areas,” they explained. Over the last hundred years, education has been one area where techno-utopians have felt that technology could do the most good. As you can imagine, those visions of the future have arrived with mixed results.

Climate changes

As the authors of the article explained, companies were currently pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and that “the buildup of these is resulting in a gradual but appreciable rise in the earth’s temperature.”

“Climatologists are beginning to see and understand long-range climate patterns, and there are indications that major changes may be under way.” Boy, were they right.

The right to quiet

People have been complaining about cities being too noisy since forever. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that some futurists imagined that the right to a peaceful environment might actually be considered a human right. The article called out obvious “invasive noise sources” in the modern world that might be regulated like boom boxes and snowmobiles. But they also saw the rise of “beepers, cellular telephones, computer printers, and other instruments that intrude” as potential disturbances.

Fringe benefits for those not employed full-time

And here we get into some really depressing aspects of predictions from the second half of the 20th century. Weiner and Brown predicted that of course part-timers would be provided with health insurance and other employee benefits, since they would become such an enormous part of the American workforce. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. We’ve gotten the rise of the freelancer economy. But that safety net has yet to arrive for most part-timers.

Human language/computer language

Should everybody learn to code? This is obviously not a new question. And the article touched on it from the perspective of 1986. In fact, the authors of the piece seemed more concerned that children would learn how to talk the language of computers before they learned “proper” English.

“We are already seeing a backlash to the computer hype of recent years,” they wrote. “Reacting to the rush to attain computer literacy, some observers are beginning to express concern about the impact of computers on language skills. It is one thing for people who have already learned a language such as English to adapt to communicating with computers; it is quite another for young children whose language skills are still rudimentary to learn English on the basis of ‘computer literacy.'”

Quick! Hide your children from the computer before they talk in nothing but ones and zeroes!

International regulation of financial markets

And to finish the article off, Weiner and Brown touched on an incredibly controversial idea: the regulation of financial markets by world bodies.

“Finance has become internationalized to a degree no one would have predicted just a few years ago,” they wrote. “Consequently, there is increasing pressure to establish and adopt standards for the protection of investors and the encouragement of further internationalization of investment. Who will set these standards, and who will enforce them? Debate is likely to go on through the 1990s.”

Debate is likely to go on, indeed.

Picture: 1973 robot via the Associated Press