Perhaps a little disturbingly, I’ve had a couple thoughts rattling around in my head and their common thread is none other than the Unabomber. No, I have not been reading his long-winded, half-crazed essay! Instead, I recently binge-watched the Netflix series on the long manhunt to catch him. It was a fascinating tale about both language and technology’s inevitable path.
Language tells us a lot. In the Unabomber’s case, his words acted as a dead giveaway. It was only through the linguistic clues left behind in his 35,000-word manifesto that he was successfully profiled. And, then, only after the Unabomber demanded his manifesto be widely-published did enough clues surface for his own relatives to recognize his ideas and turn him in.
In one particular episode in the series, I was fascinated by the use of linguistics and what it can tell about a person or group.
About 1500 years ago, apparently an ethnic group, known as the Slavs, just suddenly appeared throughout Europe. Historians debated for years about this group’s origins; a place referred to as the true Slavic Homeland.
Linguistic anthropologists finally noticed, through their study of the Slavic language, that they inexplicably didn’t have words for some very basic things all around them, like names for various common trees, plants or foods. Naturally, the Slavs just borrowed words from other languages to fill in their gaps.
This was the key insight in determining the location of their long-lost homeland. All that was required was to look for the only swaths of land that were devoid of these very same trees, plants and foods. It was a very elegant concept.
It made me think a bit about the financial services industry. A similar idea might help consumers discern the key differences among certain financial professionals. Like the ancient Slavs in Europe, there too are missing words in certain financial professionals’ vocabulary, such as fiduciary duty and strictly fee-only, that might offer insightful clues. The only difference between the Slavs and these professionals is they can’t (as easily) borrow these terms as their own.
On an entirely different track, I was also struck by how eerily relevant the Unabomber’s warnings were about society’s adoption of technology. His violent remedy to combat its advance was, of course, beyond perverse. That’s what made him wild-eyed crazy, after all. However, his generalized conclusion about how technology would lead to our loss of control, privacy, security and dignity now feels ahead of its time.
Robotics, automation and artificial intelligence are rapidly creeping into mainstream use. One could easily argue we’re experiencing an accelerating pace of change. No doubt, these technologies will produce amazing and magical things. But, without thinking ahead, it’s also clear it won’t all be for the good.
Capitalism, if allowed in its most unregulated form, will hungrily gobble up these tools and put them to use. Inevitably, however, we will also see a massive loss of many traditional jobs that depend on real people today.
If we simply hurl ourselves down technology’s inevitable path, without a real plan, we might deeply regret it. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to start thinking about it now.
Jason P. Tank, CFA is the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a fee-only wealth advisory firm located in Traverse City. He encourages questions and comments about future columns. Contact him at (231) 947-3775, by email at Jason@FrontStreet.com and at www.FrontStreet.com