The concept of superdevelopment has emerged as a relatively new phenomenon in our world due to the dominant global system of capitalism in conjunction with the rapid advancement of science and technology. In order to conceptualize the term superdevelopment, it is necessary to define development. The definition of development that is employed in this text is that of “little d” development in which capitalism forms the basis of the broader impacts and implications of superdevelopment. This definition has allowed us to arrive at three features of superdevelopment: excessive materialism, capitalistic consumerism, and a culture of replacement and waste. More importantly, it is essential to understand superdevelopment as a spectrum rather than as an absolute, as our world constantly evolves and advances. The trajectory of superdevelopment forebodes a dystopian future, one in which heavy pollution, extreme overpopulation, artificial superintelligence, and irreversible environmental degradation might be the new normal.
The term development indicates both a process and an end point. The movement from point A (non-developed) to point B (developed) is the process of development. Likewise, point B is understood as the outcome and goal of development. The general discourse on development in the world thus far can be categorized as a binary: developed and not developed. There are different ways to say “not developed”, including underdeveloped, non-developed, and developing, but it is clear that one side of the binary indicates an arrival and the other side indicates still being in the process, and that this process is hegemonic in the international political and economic arena. While development has historically been measured in economic indicators (GDP, standard of living), the emergence of global issues such as climate change has led to a recent shift in our understanding of development. This shift has resulted in the new fields that focus on human development rather than purely economic development, which, in and of itself, does not indicate or account for, for example, how GDP is distributed or quality of living.
Whereas some countries remain developing, other (mostly western) countries have reached a level of development that surpasses that of the normal. This phenomenon has been termed superdevelopment. While this is mostly seen in high-income countries, it can also be seen in the hubs or cities (if these hubs and cities have reached high levels of development) of low-income countries, illuminating both the interstate and intrastate inequalities and power dynamics.
II. Conceptual Definition
We can derive two understandings of development: “Big D” development and “little d” development. Hart (2009) discusses the difference between the two, saying that “Big D” development is the “multiply scaled projects of intervention in the “Third World” that emerged in the context of decolonization struggles and the Cold War”, and “little d” development refers to the “development of capitalism as geographically uneven but spatially interconnected processes of creation and destruction, dialectically interconnected with discourses and practices of Development” (119). While both are entangled with neoliberalism, for the purpose of this article, the term development will refer to “little d” development, defined broadly as a process that increases economic output.
It is crucial that we understand development in order to explore the concept of superdevelopment. With underdevelopment as point A and full development as point B, we can assume that superdevelopment is point C, a perhaps unintended outcome of point B. Therefore, underdevelopment generally indicates a low per-capita GDP and thus low standard of living. Full development thus suggests a relatively high per-capita GDP and high standard of living (there are exceptions, of course). However, superdevelopment derives its power from being above the threshold for what is necessary for a high standard of living. Therefore, we can understand superdevelopment to be an advancement of development to the point of excess. However, how would one measure “excess”? What characterizes or indicates an excess of development? Is it relative or is there a clear and absolute line that must be crossed in order to be labeled as superdevelopment?
III. Review of Literature
i. What is Enough?
The question of “what is enough?” has plagued the human race for centuries. This question has cropped up in different disciplines such as philosophy, religion, ethics, and political science, and it is the subject of many a debate. In the ancient world, when mere survival was the ultimate goal, “enough” meant something different than it does today in the modern world. Modernization, industrialization, technology, and development have created a reality in which what was enough hundreds of years ago is much less than enough now. Having “enough”, in any time period, includes, it is assumed, not only the bare necessities but also those objectives that take humans beyond just survival and allow for their flourishing. It is now our task to determine the line between what is enough for human flourishing and what is above what is necessary for human flourishing.
Although the conceptual definition outlined above is quite broad, most authors have developed more narrow definitions that still fit under such an umbrella description. Charles (2012) elaborates that superdevelopment, which consists of an “excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of ‘possession’ and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better…This is the so-called civilization of ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism,’ which involves so much ‘throwing-away’ and ‘waste’” (1061). Several relevant concepts are introduced in this delineation – material goods, consumption/consumerism, and waste. These three terms help us arrive closer to a more exact measurement of superdevelopment.
First, superdevelopment involves an excess of material goods. This refers back to the notions of “possession” and “replacement”. Collecting material objects for the sake of ownership, as well as discarding objects for the sake of replacement with something perceived to be better, contribute to our understanding of superdevelopment in the sense that such actions would not be possible if there was not some degree of “excess” available. However, even in poor and underdeveloped societies, historically and currently, there are abundant examples of a few living in excess while the many live in poverty. Yet, this is not superdevelopment. This is human greed. So, what is the difference between superdevelopment and greed? It seems that greed can occur anytime and anywhere, but superdevelopment can only occur in places that already have at least some development and wealth.
Second, superdevelopment is entangled with capitalism, whose free-market supposedly allows infinite growth and infinite consumption. This has contributed to the shift in our ideas about what is enough. Contrary to what we mentioned before about the necessities of the modern-day being more than in ancient times, capitalism can confuse us into thinking that our wants are the same as our necessities. In the 1980s, economist Lester Thurow suggested that “wants become necessities whenever most of the people in society believe that they are in fact necessities” (Cloutier 209). We must draw a distinction here: what may seem like an excess want from the perspective of the past may in fact be a necessity for living in the modern world. An example of this is technology. In the time of Covid-19, when classroom learning was temporarily replaced with e-learning, owning or having access to a computer was a necessity because the circumstance demanded it. Although a personal computer would have been excessive for someone living before the turn of the 21th century, it is now a necessity because most work is conducted online now. On the other hand, there are numerous different technological gadgets that one could argue to be simply wants and not necessities. For example, a high-tech fitness tracker watch – is it necessary for day-to-day living? No. Yet, many people in the developed world own one. The capitalist “free market” and the notion of consumerism it espouses has the power to make us believe that our wants are necessities.
Finally, wasteful behavior is an essential component of superdevelopment. Waste is product of superdevelopment in that it is tied to the aforementioned concepts. We can see that these three main aspects of superdevelopment – material goods, consumption/consumerism/capitalism, and waste – create a never-ending cycle. Because there is superdevelopment and because there is an excess of available material goods, consumption levels increase (encouraged by capitalism), leading to an increase in waste, as newer and better material goods become available. Both an excess of waste and the mismanagement of waste have contributed to alarming levels of global pollution as well as a host of other issues.
The three characteristics of superdevelopment that we have outlined can help us begin to tackle the question of what is enough, which can be construed as both an individual question and a collective question. It is individual in the sense that a person should have some agency to be able to choose what is enough for himself or herself, and it is collective in the sense that the society in which he or she lives can construct or even dictate the parameters of necessity. Although some problems of the neoclassical “little d” development that has been occurring in much of the 21st century are said to be “inadequate production (here the starting point is Adam Smith), excessive population (Malthusian theories), or both (the grand synthesis achieved under John Stuart Mill)”, only a few economists have gone so far to say that it is a problem of distribution (Clark 1048). Approaching the question of what is enough through the lens of distribution allows us to see that underdevelopment is not a result of inadequate production or overpopulation, but rather of an inequality in distribution both nationally and globally. What is enough therefore becomes a question of what has been distributed in terms of resources and opportunities to obtain said resources.
However, it is possible to understand enough through categories of basic needs. The most basic of basic needs are food, water, and shelter. Cloutier (2015) suggests that after delineating basic needs, one can begin to develop the distinction between objectives that increase one’s quality of life and objects that merely serve to increase luxury (210), which line up neatly with our understanding of the differences between development and superdevelopment. Although “quality of life” justifications can be made for virtually anything, “communal judgments about relative standards are widely shared at any given time and place” (Cloutier 211). This claim indicates that we may look to the wider cultural and social context in order to make judgements on what constitutes more than enough, but this presents another set of issues – that societies and people that enjoy luxury and superdevelopment may be shaping the ideals that all should aspire to, in which case luxury and superdevelopment would not be seen as such but rather as the standard to which to aim.
II. Poverty and the Widening Gap
Although the term superdevelopment implies a spectrum upon which underdevelopment and full development exist, and this spectrum implies inequality in some way, Ryan (2010) identifies superdevelopment as a crisis of the current capitalist system, which is rooted in “a fundamentally distorted view of freedom” in which “it was not just the greed or hubris of a few individuals that brought down the markets, but a collective failure to reflect on the meaning and purpose of the economy…” (337). If we examine the problem of superdevelopment through this lens, we find, because the attitude that the economy is the means through which to attain infinite wealth, and that such attainment is the delusional end goal of all, that superdevelopment is a crisis that everyone participates in and one which affects us all, albeit in different ways.
Pope Benedict argues in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate that excessive consumerism is a product of the modern world, and the widening gap between luxury (which the system of superdevelopment would have us believe is only necessity) and poverty is the cause of the “emergence of new forms of poverty, mass migration, and the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources” (Ryan 336). However, Laurent (2010) suggests another consequence of superdevelopment that Pope Benedict does not mention: the threat of superdevelopment to democracies around the world (538). The relationship between democracy and capitalism must therefore be examined. Democracy, put in place to ensure individual rights, paves the way for excessive consumerism under the platform of “rights”. Laurent (2010) argues that Benedict “does not draw any parallels between consumer society, the economy's domination of society, and the political role of the market as a regulatory mechanism for a modern society of freedoms” (539). Superdevelopment is thus not only an economic crisis but also a political crisis. Phan (1994) asserts that development (from which superdevelopment came) cannot be “exclusively economic and limitless” (62). The problem of superdevelopment shows that the very foundation upon which development is based is flawed.
The widening gap that superdevelopment creates raises spiritual and moral questions as well as economic and political ones. In this age of globalization and modernization, such questions are thrown into sharp relief. Archbishop Jean-Louis (2014) suggests that poverty, which we have hitherto discussed as a political and economic problem, can also be construed as a spiritual and moral issue. Although poverty is mostly thought of in the material sense, Jean-Louis expounds on the non-material forms of poverty that are relevant to the discussion of superdevelopment. Such forms, he says, are not a direct consequence of material deprivation (Jean-Louis 161). The example he gives is one of the phenomenon of “affective, moral, and spiritual poverty, seen in people whose interior lives are disoriented and who experience various forms of malaise despite their economic prosperity” (Jean-Louis 162). If superdevelopment is above the threshold of what is considered enough, which we have agreed that it is, and if people living in a society that suffers from superdevelopment are known to exhibit non-material signs of poverty, then we can reasonably conclude that superdevelopment, which indicates a high level of economic prosperity and luxury, cannot save us from poverty. As Pope John Paul II argues, superdevelopment and pure consumerism leads to “materialism and relentless dissatisfaction” (Elshtain 92). Thus, we can say that superdevelopment likely happens when there is moral underdevelopment.
IV. Superdevelopment and Integral Human Development
The field of integral human development (IHD) is a field that combines elements of peace, development, ethics, and economics to arrive at a holistic understanding of a human-centered theory of development in an ecologically minded context. IHD focuses on the development of the whole of each and every person, deriving its ethics from principles of Catholic Social Teaching with a particular emphasis on human dignity. Superdevelopment, perhaps an unintended but no less destructive consequence of unfettered capitalism and development, represents an opposite kind of development than that which IHD posits. Superdevelopment, as we said, is characterized by a reality that is driven by excess, luxury, and capitalism, and generally focuses on what is to be obtained and possessed by a select few at the expense of the masses. IHD, on the other hand, explicitly emphasizes what each person is able to be, not what they can have. The contrast between “being” and “having” is explored in depth by Luis Lebret and Denis Goulet, who are considered founders and pioneers of the field of development ethics (Gasper 2008). This distinction represents the fundamental distinction between IHD and superdevelopment.
Pope John Paul II argued that aspiring to having more rather than being more, i.e. working towards the excessive materialism of superdevelopment rather than integral human development, results in a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people” instead of a true commitment to the common good, which is a commitment “to the good of all and of each individual because we are really responsible for all” (Elshtain 2009, 92). In this way, superdevelopment and IHD are at odds with each other, not only because the nature of superdevelopment has placed having more as the highest mandate, but also for the apparent inequality that superdevelopment promotes and reinforces. As we said before, superdevelopment is an advancement past full development, which means that it goes beyond the reasonable judgements of what is enough, and only for a select few. IHD fosters both the development of the capabilities of every individual to be more and a society that pays equal attention to the dignity of every person.
Superdevelopment is destructive to the field and practice of IHD. It is built on the foundations of poverty, perhaps tricking us into believing that wealth and luxury are the only way out when, in reality, such ideals can be understood only relatively. This is to say that luxury and wealth would not be perceived as so if poverty did not exist. Poverty, through the lens of IHD, violates the human dignity of a person. Jean-Louis said that that “every form of externally imposed poverty has at its root a lack of respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person” (162).
V. Artificial Superintelligence as Superdevelopment?
So far, our general understanding of superdevelopment has been development that surpasses that of the normal, or the advancement of development to the point of excess. Although we have mostly elaborated on this definition in terms of material wealth, luxury, poverty, and extreme inequality, it is curious to consider a different avenue through which superdevelopment can occur – scientific advancement and, specifically, artificial intelligence (AI).
Shortly before his death, Stephen Hawking said that AI might become “the worse event in the history of our civilization” because it will inevitably lead to artificial superintelligence (Loeffler 2019). Though technological inventions have no doubt contributed both to development and scientific advancement that improves our quality of life, just as superdevelopment has grave implications, there is a fear that AI may one day irrevocably surpass human intelligence and our ability to control it. In other words, “in a near future, artificial intelligence (AI) could vastly outperform human intelligence in most or all of its dimensions, thus becoming superintelligence” (Pueyo 2018, 1731).
Through the review of literature, we have seen that superdevelopment is the result of the current growth-oriented capitalist system that allows for infinite progress. Thus, superintelligence forbodes “enormous benefits if superintelligent devices are aligned with market interests, including tremendous profits for the owners of capital” (Pueyo 2018, 1733). This suggests there is an interest for those in power to pursue superintelligence and that the capitalist system that has enabled superdevelopment to occur has the same capability to foster superintelligence. Just as superdevelopment has grave implications for people, resources, and the earth, astronomic growth associated with superintelligence “while food or other essential goods remain subject to environmental constraints and competition between basic needs and other uses” would have disastrous effects (Ibid). Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that the current trajectory of superdevelopment aligns with the trajectory of superintelligence. In other words, the inevitability of superdevelopment and the inevitability of superintelligence are inherently linked together and connected to the same source: the current capitalist system.
While taking this knowledge into consideration and noting that superintelligence has not yet been reached, we may speculate about the implications of present artificial intelligence in the quest toward “autonomous vehicles” as it relates to superdevelopment and superintelligence. It is no secret that the power of AI is being harnessed to create autonomy in non-living objects, and it is this notion of autonomy and exponential capitalist growth that moves the human race closer to generating superintelligence. Elezaj (2019) clarifies that there are four levels of autonomy that a vehicle must reach before becoming completely autonomous. The first and second levels, automation for driver assistance and partially automated driving, have already been achieved and are in commercial use (Ibid). The third and fourth levels, highly automated driving and fully automated driving, both require human presence, albeit to different extents, and have not yet been entirely achieved (Ibid). After these four levels are reached, fully autonomous vehicles will be possible.
The process towards building completely autonomous vehicles, with the end goal being full autonomy (superintelligence), mirrors the progression of superdevelopment. This means that the process of development itself, whether in the AI field or other fields, signifies an intention to continuing developing. While it may seem that the benefits of where we are in the process now outweigh the present costs, we cannot be sure about future costs. The cost of superdevelopment has been high and has mostly affected those who do not profit from it, resulting in extreme inequality, environmental degradation, unfettered capitalism and consumerism, a culture of waste, etc. The “cost” of superintelligence, especially if such power falls in the hands of those who already hold power, is likely to increase and exacerbate inequality, waste, infinite consumerism, and further environmental deterioration. In the case of autonomous vehicles, it is likely to be such that those in the most developed countries are able to acquire them, while those living in developing countries may still not have access to clean water, thus exaggerating current inequalities and issues of superdevelopment. In addition, the behavior of completely autonomous non-living objects may be unpredictable and/or hostile.
Pueyo (2018) suggests an alternative route that could divert superdevelopment and the progress towards artificial superintelligence: degrowth (1735). He asserts that it is misleading to assume that growth is intrinsically beneficial and that the “economic system as a whole may become larger and more efficient, but there is nothing in its spontaneous order guaranteeing that the whole will serve the interest of its human parts…This becomes even more evident when approaching the point in which humans could cease to be the most intelligent of the elements interacting in this complex system” (Ibid). Therefore, he proposes that, instead of continuing in a growth-oriented capitalist system, which is sure to lead to the establishment of superintelligence and more extreme superdevelopment, we move from “the logic of growth to the logic of degrowth” (Ibid). This means moving from an “economic system that promotes self-interest, competitiveness, and unlimited material ambitions in…individuals to a system that promotes altruism, collective responsibility, and sufficiency” (Ibid). Such a system would combat the conditions that gave birth to superdevelopment and subsequently combat the trajectory to artificial superintelligence.
VI. A Collision of the Old and the New: Traditional Chinese Medicine and Artificial Intelligence
Almost ten years ago, in the very beginning of my academic career, I received a prestigious national grant to research Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) within the context of globalization in China. TCM is a Chinese medicinal practice that goes back thousands of years that uses “various mind and body practices (such as acupuncture and tai chi) as well as herbal products to address health problems” (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health). During my time in China, I interviewed TCM practitioners, underwent TCM treatments, and was even evaluated for an illness through TCM. Alongside a research team, I traveled the Silk Road in search of understanding about the ancient practice of TCM and its role in modern Chinese society.
Although Chinese society today is highly advanced and modern, it also retains some ancient social and cultural traditions, exhibiting a fascinating intersection of the old and the new. While the urban centers in China enjoy high levels of development, many smalls towns and villages in the countryside struggle for basic needs. Only 40 years ago, China was “home to none of the world’s megacities; today, it is home to six” (Kotkin 2019). Rapid development such as this has led to superdevelopment and a slew of problems and challenges that could become catastrophic in the future. Extreme inequality, excessive and concentrated population density, heavy pollution, consumerism and consumption, environmental degradation, rising class tensions, plunging birthrates, rural poverty, urban migration, and sophisticated population surveillance technologies are only some of the effects of the massive economic growth that China has experienced in the last few decades (Kotkin 2019).
The collision of the old and the new can be seen in the usage of artificial intelligence in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Scientists and researchers at The Traditional Chinese Medical Engineering Laboratory (TCMEL) at Tianjin University have developed “an integrated intelligent diagnosis system for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)…The system can simulate TCM physicians through imitating the use of visual and listening senses, asking questions and conducting palpation” examinations of people by using modern science and technology…It can issue prescriptions and personally tailor-make health regimen strategies according to a comprehensive analysis by collecting the large data of four TCM diagnoses” (Tianjin University News). In other words, this intelligent robot can act as a TCM practitioner, which is shocking given the highly case-specific details that TCM uses to diagnose and treat ailments.
Just barely ten years ago, my experience with TCM in China seems light years away. At that time, the practitioners of TCM that I interviewed did not stray from the “traditional” side of TCM. The computers in their offices were not high tech, nor were they used for much besides data entry. The TCM practitioners holistically observed the body using different senses (sight, touch, etc.) and made diagnoses based on these observations in conjunction with TCM principles. At that time, many Chinese citizens sought treatment through TCM, which suggested to me that superdevelopment and modernity had not reached all corners of Chinese society, and that TCM was one of a few remnants of an ancient tradition.
Artificial intelligence, which has been a tool to allow us to move toward or achieve superdevelopment in other aspects of society, is likely to transform TCM in ways we may not be able to predict. The merging of AI processes with traditional medicine leaves us with many questions about the future of TCM. With the negative consequences of superdevelopment already affecting millions of Chinese citizens in a multitude of ways, how will TCM evolve with the introduction of AI? Will its teachings and principles remain? Will it cease to be “traditional”? Will one of the last vestiges of ancient tradition and culture be lost? Will we begin to lose the uniqueness of human connections? Is an AI system an adequate substitute that can account for the subtleties of human interactions in healthcare and other situations?
VII. General lessons
The system of capitalism, under which most of the world operates, allows for superdevelopment to flourish because, under capitalism, infinite growth is possible and there is no such thing as “too much”. Many of these characteristics or effects of superdevelopment are experienced in places where there has been astronomical economic growth in a short time; however, they could also be experienced in places that are still developing, where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of the few at the expense of the masses.
Just like development, superdevelopment can be understood as a constantly evolving phenomenon or process. Scientific advancement and the evolution of technology have made the current world very different from what it was just a few hundred years ago. What was “enough” then and what is “enough” now in order to survive and participate in society are different. What may have been considered superdevelopment back then may be considered normal now, especially in places that enjoy high levels of development. Thus, we can consider superdevelopment as a spectrum, rather than an absolute.
However, there are still characteristics that exemplify superdevelopment that may help us distinguish, from the perspective of the present moment, between what is enough and what is more than enough. These characteristics include, but are not limited to, excessive material consumption, a culture of replacement and waste, extreme inequality and wealth distributions, and high levels of environmental degradation. The consequences of superdevelopment, as we saw in China and which are present in many other parts of the world, including severely concentrated population density, rural poverty and urban migration, advanced artificial intelligence, and others, have implications for the future of our society and of the human race.
Because superdevelopment, with its characteristics and consequences, is a fairly new phenomenon, it is challenging to conceive the future that lies in store for us if we continue in this same trajectory. Many popular books and films, such as Soylent Green, The Hunger Games, Elysium, and I Am Legend, among others, have laid out different dystopic scenarios about where our future could go should we remain as we are. With the recent global outbreak of COVID-19, some of these dystopias seem more realistic than ever before.
The primary conceptual definition of superdevelopment under which we have operated is development to the point of excess. As we have shown, what is considered excess has evolved over time as the world has advanced scientifically and technologically. However, understanding “Big D” development and “little d” development, and thus their basis in capitalism, is crucial to a conceptualization of superdevelopment. Capitalism is the foundation upon which superdevelopment is built. The current system of unfettered capitalism and its notions of infinite growth foster the conditions that give rise to superdevelopment. Where superdevelopment is present, we can see its negative impacts in many aspects of society – in the cultural, social, political, economic, and environmental spheres. While there have been some theories and proposals put forth to mitigate and even possibly reverse the prevalence of superdevelopment, superdevelopment will continue to be a feature of our society for as long as the current system of capitalism remains unchanged.
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