The world always makes sense. But it doesn’t always make sense to us. Shock—a seemingly relentless theme nowadays—is personal proof that whatever lens we’ve been looking through to see the world no longer shows things as they really are. We need to shatter that lens—and with it, the simple dichotomies that dominate, and warp, our sight: globalization versus nationalism; open doors versus xenophobia; populism versus public virtue; information abundance versus fake news; the lifted up versus the left behind.
We need to grind for ourselves a very different way of seeing the world. The sooner we do that, the less time we’ll waste frozen in disbelief, and the more time we’ll spend helping ourselves, our families, our organizations and communities to thrive through the upheavals to come.
My latest book is my lens for making sense of the moment we’re in. The title, Age of Discovery, plays on our misconceptions of both the past and the present. It evokes an optimistic vision of humanity blown by scientific, economic and social winds—zigging and zagging, surely, but always progressing toward a better, New World. In hindsight, is that not how, until recently, so many of us viewed our present moment? We thought we were passengers on a ship at sea, with little control over the weather, yet lulled into complacency by our general heading.
Now, recent reversals have made us wise to our true predicament. In an Age of Discovery, there are no passengers. There is no inevitable path of rational progress. There are only pilots, struggling to steer the ship: between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risks.
We’re caught in the grip of awesome, paradoxical forces—and we’re no longer sure which direction we’re headed.
But we’ve been here before. And the wisdom of history can be our compass, if we choose to look at it.
Trump’s anti-globalist vision of putting ‘America first’ to ‘Make America great again’ is explicitly outdated. Such a lens is a clear error in political leadership, since even if the Trump administration successfully recreates an era of protectionism, it cannot recreate past conditions under which those policies might once have made sense.
Take demographics. Since the Cold War began, humanity’s population has doubled. Our urban population has quadrupled. Over 90% of humanity now lives within one hour of a major city. This massive, dense urbanity has done far more to open our economies to trade and investment (and amplify financial, security and pandemic risks) than global trade and investment treaties. Trade treaties are only a thin veneer of convenience that governments have laminated over top of this irreversible, tectonic shift in human geography. Cancelling them does not undo that shift. Cancelling them may, however, erode countries’ capacity to shape the consequences and mitigate the risks for their citizens. That’s my fear. (Please point me to evidence that I might be wrong, and that re-raising walls might actually raise aggregate well-being.)
Chinese President Xi’s vision of ‘economic globalization’ is likewise an attempt to re-apply outdated solutions to present-day problems, in defiance of changed circumstances. Fifteen years ago, China joined the WTO. The resulting export boom helped the Party soothe many necessary-but-painful structural adjustments—and lift a billion Chinese people out of poverty. But now it’s clear that, in many industries, China has overshot its growth potential. (I blame official corruption.) Now it is stripping overcapacity from the very same sectors that it has been subsidizing for years: automotive, energy, steel, even graphene.
’Economic globalization’ is Xi’s way of wishing for a fresh kick of free trade and investment to ease the adjustment process again. It worked 15 years ago. But this time the ‘developed world’ sees China with more skepticism. Then, gaining access to China’s vast internal market was the all-important carrot. Now, that allure has faded. The Party has proven unwilling to open many ’strategic’ industries to foreign investment; Chinese regulators are increasingly hostile to foreign businesses; and subsidized industries (think steel) have dumped production onto export markets at prices far below cost—good for propping up bloated industries at home, but a job-killer abroad.
Neither Trump nor Xi has the right vision for now. Each in his own way aims to solve urgent problems at home by simplifying away the problems of the rest of the world. When the next big shock comes (and it is coming), they will both discover their common error: mitigating the risks of the present Age is a cooperative game…
My New Year’s reflection, ‘2017: Why It’s (Still) the Best Time to be Alive’, was chosen as the cover story for the January issue of Vogue Australia. Was great to work with Vogue’s Editor, Edwina McCann, to realize this essay. I hope Nicole enjoys it!
This is not an ordinary day. This is one of those rare days when events jar us enough that we unfix the lens through which we understand the moment we are in—and have a chance to reset it.
The chief lesson from last night should be that the range of our expectations really is too narrow. Reality keeps falling outside it. And so our priority must be to seize this single day of flux to obtain a wider perspective—to stretch our expectations somehow so that reality starts to fall somewhere within.
Otherwise, we are a ship adrift at sea, during a hurricane, without a compass. And that is a very dangerous place to be. We need that compass. We need that wider sense of direction so that we can navigate our own lives and also our responsibilities toward others.
I’ve talked a lot over the past several months about Trump becoming president. About how he is a “bonfire of vanity”, and about how he is a “second Savonarola”— a demagogue prophet in the mould of a certain Dominican friar who, back in the 1490s, waltzed into Florence (the most liberal, best educated nexus of Renaissance Europe). Armed with new media and ecstatic charisma, he whipped up the populace against the Medici establishment and installed himself as king.
I never meant it as a literal prediction, just as I never meant to “predict” Brexit. I meant to shake myself and others into imagining that we live in a similar moment. On tour, I began to talk about this as “my hallucination”. (I have just returned to London after a three-week East Coast book tour.)
My book began as a clever idea. Now I cling to it for the hope and determination that I desperately need for myself. My relationship to my own writing has changed profoundly. My hallucination and my reality are blurred, and I can’t tell them apart anymore.
And since I’m stuck in it now, I might as well embrace it. It seems my hallucination actually is a good guide for the time we live it. So what does it show me?
The overwhelming imperative being shouted at us from the history books right now is to stoke virtue. We must not turn away from this strange and terrible new world. That was the narrative that guided so much Renaissance art. It was on a day like today, in a moment like today, that Michelangelo began carving his statue of David. He carved it into marble, this moment of recognizing a giant foe and bidding oneself to join the contest. My American friends on the Democratic side: you can choose to withdraw from a society that no longer feels like home. You can emigrate to Canada and I will welcome you with open arms and glad smiles. But within my hallucination, that is the opposite of what we all must do. Our Goliath is clear, is standing right in front of us. In our personal and professional lives, we recognize intolerance, greed and division—values and attitudes that we know to be unworthy. If we individually join contest with them, if we individually resurrect the virtues of proportion, civility, humanity, dignity…then collectively those virtues can triumph, and endure.
And through those virtues, so can we.
We must not let the shocking immediacy of populist victories, of sharpening inequalities, of extremism, of terrorism blind us to the equal and opposite truth: that by tangling together the world’s peoples, economies and ideas together, global health, wealth and education have flourished more in thirty years than in the past millennium.How to translate wealth into well-being, how to distribute the aggregate gains so that every individual is lifted, how to forge ties of belonging amidst social upheaval—that is where we are failing each other. That is what we must solve. If we can solve those questions of translation, distribution and belonging, then yes, being tangled together will be better than being walled off from one another. But it’s not obvious yet.
As a boy growing up, my favourite books were fantasy novels. They were stories about knights and wizards and priests with magic powers to heal. They weren’t highbrow books—but I loved them because within those stories, life’s thorniest question, “What should I do?”, was so clear. There was always an overriding threat—a contest that had to be won, otherwise all was lost.
Again, I’m still just hallucinating here, but within my hallucination that is how we need to frame this present moment for ourselves: as a contest—a historic contest—between (and I’m quoting myself now :-P) “the good and bad consequences of our entanglement; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risk.” This contest isn’t over; it’s just begun.
How history records it—that depends on all of us.
Goliath is waiting.
With hope and courage—and above all, together—let’s go face him.
Take-away: Our expectations ARE too narrow. Reality IS falling well outside of them—repeatedly.
We desperately need a fresh perspective to widen our lens on the present, start making better sense of the time we live in, and understand what this Age requires of us.
Reviews for Age of Discovery continue to roll in. This one from Nexus Magazine.
Age of Discovery is a much needed dose of perspective in our increasingly short-term focused world.Dominic Barton