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  • First published on this blog in October, 2015

Whatever one’s political orientations are, and no matter what the individual context is, the sight of human suffering is always traumatic. As human beings, we are naturally upset when presented with photographs of starving African children, shrapnel-wounded Syrian schoolgirls, Burka’d Afghan women and brainwashed North Korean families. It is the way we were designed to be. Few things are more innate.

Given this predisposition, the arguments of ‘humanitarianism’ will usually find a public audience, and typically (from there) a political majority. For example, the view that it isn’t ‘fair’ for Americans to have ipads and super-sized milkshakes, while Malians have only bottle tops and sewer puddles is not one most people would feel comfortable disputing. Who would ever wish to be regarded as an elitist or social Darwinist? No-one, I would venture.

However, in the interest of truth, we must consider that at some point the privileged will have to draw a line around their advantages and prevent their being usurped. For if they fail to do so, the advantages will be watered down, or stolen outright, to be shared among the swelling masses until all have as much as each other, and very little alike.

It is a good time to reflect on this difficult issue. For if we think that the West enjoys obscene advantages at the moment, the developments of the near future will leave us bewildered.

We are living on the brink of a scientific revolution unlike any in history. The confluence of emerging competences in AI, robotics, nanotechnology, life-extension and genetic manipulation will make the gap between America and Mali today seem insignificant. Part of the world is about to accelerate through time into a dazzling future, and all other parts will be left languishing in a primitive angry, resentful past.

Most ordinary folk have no idea of what is about to be unleashed on the Western market. Misinformed by experience, they naively presume that technology will progress at the same rate as it did in the past. They do not realise that with every advance, technological development is speeding up.

To a 20 year old in 1980, military drones were science-fiction, as were iPhones, ipads, anti-satellite weapons and hypersonic vehicles. And yet all are now with us. It takes a healthy and imaginative mind to realise how much has been achieved in such a short period of time, and to appreciate that this kind of 35 year leap will soon take 5 years, then 4, then 3…

We would be fools to believe this scientific revolution will not have geopolitical consequences as large as its spectacle.

Right now, you can buy a PlayStation in Karachi, and perhaps even in Mali. This won’t be the case with the operating systems of the future. New technologies will be so overwhelming and expensive (and dependent on other technologies and infrastructures) that first-world lifestyles will fall entirely into their orbit, adapted to fit and absorb their possibilities. The first-world will begin to speak a language that the rest of the world cannot relate to, using concepts, humour, references and symbolism only applicable to the age the West (and the West alone) has arrived at. In time, technology will create a new cultural divide far greater than any created by religion or politics.

And as that divide grows, the West will have to make a choice. Let the rest of the world in on the future, and risk having our hard-won wealth and military advantages destroyed or turned against us by destructive and primitive beliefs; or else simply declare ourselves the winners of human history; the winners of the global lottery, and be happy and secure in our good fortune, willing to defend it from our competitors. Triumphalism, that is, and not humanitarianism.

While this sounds morally outrageous, recall that many of us indulge in this attitude already, even if only semi-consciously. When you’re out using your laptop in Starbucks, for example, you are doing so fully in the knowledge that you are part of the exclusive 20% of the world population who can afford to live so extravagantly. Though we might feel privately guilty about this, none of us make any great effort to change it. If a popular figure (Russell Brand, perhaps) called upon us to donate 90% of our wages each month so that the third and second worlds can lead a Western standard of life, we would all refuse. In fact, we would likely be indignant about it. Our civilisation has figured out the best way to live, to produce and to thrive. Theirs has not done so. Sub-Saharan Africa is among the most fertile regions in the world. The Islamic world is flush with resources. The reason for our success is our creativity; the things we have done with our hands and minds. Therefore, only we have a right to the fruits of our achievements. Perhaps this is the correct attitude…

‘Humanitarianism’ and its much vaunted idea of ‘international development’ certainly has a future. But I don’t believe its arguments are as future-proof as some believe. I’m interested in your views.