I’ve been following a lot of sociologists lately. ‘How can we best make sense of the moment we’re in?’, is the question I’m asking right now, and the whole field of sociology is always trying to answer it. One of the most thought-provoking book in the field that I’ve found so far is Liquid Modernity, by Zygmunt Bauman.
Zygmunt was a Polish-born sociologist (1925-2017) and one of the world’s eminent social theorists. Born in Poland, he escaped to the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded, then returned to Poland after WWII as a committed Communist and lecturer at the University of Warsaw. In 1968, he was kicked out of Poland for being too critical of the country’s Communist regime and moved to the UK. He spent the rest of his career—and life—in Leeds. He died just a year ago. (If he were still living, I’d be knocking on his door right now.) His big ideas—which focus on questions of modernity, consumerism and globalization—reflect decades lived on both sides of the 20th century’s ideological divide.
As a sociologist, Zygmunt passionately believed that by asking questions about our own society, we become more free. ‘An autonomous society, a truly democratic society, is a society which questions everything that is pre-given and by the same token liberates the creation of new meanings. In such a society, all individuals are free to create for their lives the meanings they will (and can).’
On the flipside: ‘Society is ill if it stops questioning itself.’ We become enslaved to the narratives being manufactured all around us, and we lose touch with our own subjective experiences.
Self-questioning our own society is hard work: ‘We need to pierce the walls of the obvious and self-evident, of the prevailing ideas of the day whose commonality is mistaken for proof that they make sense.’
And yet, we must try, because: ‘Whatever safety democracy and individuality may muster depends not on fighting the uncertainty of the human condition, but on recognizing it and facing its consequences point-blank.’
The prevailing ideas of our day box us in. They wall in our awareness of what’s happening in our own society. They limit our sight to the surfaces that have been painted for us. But if we can see the box itself, then maybe we can cut ourselves a window—or even a door…
I hope you’ll forgive me for going a bit long this week. I don’t agree with everything Zygmunt writes, but whether we agree with him is irrelevant. By asking tough questions, he helps us to ‘create new meanings’. And I wanted to put that possibility in your inbox.
Trapped inside liquid modernity
Zygmunt labels the box we’re now trapped inside ‘liquid modernity’. He contrasts it with the very different box of ideas we used to be trapped in, which all had to do with ’solidity’.
What’s happening to us today—why everything feels so strange—is that we are struggling to shift our thinking, values and identity, from a solid to a liquid state.
‘Flexibility has replaced solidity as the ideal condition to be pursued of things and affairs.’ The very same day I read that sentence, I received this email from the McKinsey Quarterly:
And I saw, not the article, but the box Zygmunt is trying to make me see.
Liquid individuals (or, Making sense of our own selves)
In our personal lives, we now live this shift from solid to liquid daily. In solid modernity, the world of Henry Ford factories and automotive unions, ‘the task confronting free individuals was to use their freedom to find the appropriate niche and to settle there through conformity.’ (If you think about it, our systems of compulsory education were designed to help us achieve that goal, that life.)
But today, ‘such patterns, codes and rules to which one could conform…are in increasingly short supply.’ Where once workers unionized and rallied together to humanize labour against dehumanizing conformity, now we struggle with the absence of stable employment structures. These days, ‘patterns to which we could conform are no longer “given”, let alone “self-evident”; there are just too many of them, clashing with one another and contradicting one another.’
Today, the burden of pattern-weaving (and the responsibility for getting the pattern wrong) falls primarily on each individual’s shoulders. ‘Under the new circumstances, the odds are that most of human life—and most of human lives—will be spent agonizing about the choice of goals, rather than finding the means to the ends which do not call for reflection.’
‘What should I do?’ has come to dominate our actions. There are painfully more possibilities than any individual life, however long, adventurous or industrious, can attempt to explore. The most haunting, insomnia-causing question has become, ‘Have I used my means to the best advantage?’
One of the consequences of this haunting uncertainty is that ‘shopping’ has extended beyond buying stuff to become the very activity of life itself. ‘Shopping is no longer just about food, shoes, cars or furniture. The avid, never-ending search for new and improved examples and recipes for life is also a variety of shopping. We shop for the skills needed to earn our living, and for the ways to learn them best; for ways of making the new friends we want; for ways of drawing attention and ways to hide from scrutiny; for the means to squeeze the most satisfaction out of love and for the best ways to make money…The competence most needed in a world of infinite ends is that of skilful and indefatigable shopper.’
Liquid capitalism (Making sense of Davos)
In his critiques of capitalism, Zygmunt’s bias, built up over decades as a committed communist, reads plainly. But it doesn’t mean his analysis is wrong. And given that this week is the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, I think now is a good moment for all of us to ask some tough questions of our economic modernity.
’In the fluid stage of modernity,’ Zygmunt wrote, ‘the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and extraterritorial elite.’ (Apt, eh?)
His reasoning is this: In a solid world, the power of capital over labor was demonstrated by the ability to fix in place, to control. In the solid factories of Henry Ford, power was wielded by bolting human labor to machines on an assembly line.
But that power came with some responsibility, too. In the world of factories, human labor came with a human body. ‘One could employ human labor only together with the rest of the laborers’ bodies…That requirement brought capital and labor face-to-face in the factory and kept them, for better or worse, in each other’s company.’ Factory owners had to supply some light, some food, some safety at least.
That’s no longer the case. In our liquid, digital economy, labor no longer ties down capital. While labor still depends on capital to supply the tools to be productive, capital itself is now weightless, free of spatial confinement. Now, the power of capital is to escape, to avoid and evade, to reject territorial confinement, to reject the inconvenience and responsibility of building and maintaining a labor force. ‘Brief contracts replace lasting engagements. One does not plant a citrus-tree grove to squeeze a lemon.’
In liquid modernity, capital travels hopefully (with carry-on luggage only), counting on brief profitable adventures and confident that there will be no shortage of them. Labor itself is now dividing into those who can do the same, and those who cannot:
‘This has become the principal factor of present-day inequality…The game of domination in the era of liquid modernity is not played between the bigger and the smaller, but between the quicker and the slower…People who move and act faster are now the people who rule…It is the people who cannot move as quickly, and especially, those who cannot leave their place at all, who are ruled…Some of the world’s residents are on the move; for the rest it is the world itself that refuses to stand still.’
Where once we valued durability, now we value flexibility. Transience. Because that which cannot easily bend will instead snap.
Liquid society (Making sense of our Trump obsession)
Remember George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? In solid modernity, we feared the monolithic Big Brother. We feared the totalitarian state that would lock all of our private freedoms into the iron grip of public routines. The private sphere would be devoured by the public. Now, we fear the reverse: that the unfettered freedom of our private action is eroding, devouring, the once solid-seeming institutions of the public sphere.
The task now is to defend the vanishing public realm.
In the era of ‘solid modernity’, the metaphor for society was that of ‘citizens in a shared household’. The household had norms, habits and rules. And politics was about building awareness of, and tweaking, those features of household life.
But now, it’s like we’re all ‘individuals in a caravan park’. We come and go, according to our own itinerary and time schedule. We all bring to the park our own homes, equipped with all the stuff we need for our stay—which we intend to be short. There’s a site manager, from whom what we want most is to be left alone and not interfered with. We all pay our rental fee, and since we pay, we also demand. We want our promised services—electric sockets and water taps, and not to be disturbed by the other campers—and otherwise want to be free to do our own thing. On occasion, we clamor for better service from the manager. Sometimes we get it. But it doesn’t occur to us to challenge the managerial philosophy of the site, much less to take over the responsibility for running the place. We may, at the utmost, make a mental note never to use the site again and not to recommend it to our friends. But when we leave, the site remains much the same as it was before our arrival.
This shift, from ‘shared household’ to ‘caravan park’, makes for a profoundly different public discourse. Rather than a space to debate our collective problem—how to build the good or just society—the public sphere has become dominated by the private problems of public figures. To fear Big Brother was to fear the few watching the many. ‘But now the tables have been reversed. It is now the many who watch the few.’ (Or the one…Donald Trump)
As the public realm dwindles down to public commentary on private virtues and vices, the collective questions fade from public discourse, until we reach the point we are at today, where ‘politicians offer us their sentiments, rather than their acts, for our consumption’ and we, as spectators, do not expect much more from our politicians than a good spectacle.
Liquid identity (or, Making sense of populism)
Immigration is a good thing. ‘A mixing of cultural inspirations is a source of enrichment and an engine of creativity.’ At the same time, ‘only a thin line separates enrichment from a loss of cultural identity.’
Faced with the fluidity of this modern moment, it’s not surprising that we respond to the ‘other’, the strange, the foreign by pushing it away. Separation and escape from difference is so much easier, so much more natural, for us now than engagement and mutual commitment.
‘Don’t talk to strangers’, parents used to tell their children. Today that advice is redundant. Who does that anymore? ‘Civil spaces’—spaces where we met strangers and did some mutual thing together—are shrinking.
Public spaces—movie theatres, shopping streets, restaurants, airports—are proliferating. But such spaces ‘encourage action, not inter-action.’ In public spaces, genuine encounters with strangers are an annoyance; they keep us away from the actions in which we are individually engaged. However crowded these spaces may be, there is nothing ‘collective’ going on among the crowd. These crowds are accurately called gatherings, but not congregations; clusters, not squads; aggregates, not wholes.
Because civil spaces are shrinking, ‘the occasions to learn the art of civility are ever fewer and further between.’ And civility—the ability to live with differences, let alone to enjoy such living and to benefit from it— is an art. ‘It does not come easily. Like all arts, it requires study and exercise.’
If we lack the art of civility, ‘seeking security in a common identity rather than in an agreement on shared interests emerges as the most sensible way to proceed, because no one knows how to talk to anyone else.’
Patriotism and nationalism are the easiest ways to construct a shared sense of safety. But given the messy, tangled reality of humanity today, they’re also the least stable. ‘In a stark opposition to either the patriotic or the nationalistic faith, the most promising kind of unity is one which is achieved, and achieved daily anew, by confrontation, debate, negotiation and compromise between values, preferences and chosen ways of life and self-identifications of many and different people. This is a unity that is an outcome of, not a prior condition to, shared life.
‘This, I wish to propose, is the only formula of togetherness which our liquid modernity renders plausible…And so the choice stares us in the face: to learn the difficult art of living with difference.’
This line of thinking led Zygmunt to conclude (in 2012, four years before Brexit and Trump): ‘The big question, likely to determine the future of civilization, is which of these two contending “facts of the matter” will come out on top: the life-saving role played by immigrants in slow-growing, fast-ageing countries, or the rise in xenophobic sentiments, which populists will eagerly recycle into electoral power?’
Connecting the dots
All of the above is just one person’s way of making sense of the changes we’re all going through. But it’s remarkable how similar his sense-making is to others’ attempts. In language that reminds me strongly of Marshall McLuhan, who described living in ‘a state of terror’, Zygmunt writes: ‘Living under liquid modern conditions can be compared to walking in a minefield: everyone knows an explosion might happen at any moment and in any place, but no one knows when the moment will come and where the place will be.’
Under conditions of ‘liquidity’, everything can happen—yet nothing can be done with confidence and certainty. That’s because ‘we presently find ourselves in a time of “interregnum”—when the old ways of doing things no longer work, the old learned or inherited modes of life are no longer suitable for the current human condition, but when the new ways of tackling the challenges and new modes of life better suited to the new conditions have not as yet been invented.’
But we’re working on it.
More from Zygmunt Bauman
Two of Zygmunt’s obituaries(January 2017), in The Guardian and Al Jazeera. The former is more informative. The latter is more personal.
‘Passion and Pessimism’ (2003) — a long essay-interview in The Guardian, in which Zygmunt confronts the accusation of being too pessimistic about the present and describes the ‘restless moral energy’ that made him an intellectual maverick his whole life.
‘Liquid Fear’ (2016) — one of Zygmunt’s last video-interviews, given just a few months before Trump’s 2016 election victory. He talks (in a thick accent!) about ‘how we live today in a state of constant anxiety about the dangers that could strike unannounced at any moment’ and how to cope as passengers in an airplane with no pilot.
‘Social Media are a Trap’ (2016) — an interview Zygmunt gave with the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Regarding social networks, he points out: ‘The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the network that people fail to learn the real social skills that you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people with whom you need to enter into sensible interaction.’
I’ve been reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan lately. McLuhan was the Canadian public intellectual of the 20th century who coined the phrase “global village” and “the medium is the message”. His 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy was one of the first to draw connections between the advent of print in Europe in the 1450s and the advent of computers. But whereas many thinkers considered the scientific, economic and political parallels, McLuhan focussed on the social and cultural parallels. I’m finding that a lot of his ideas, written at the birth of computing, help make sense of our digital transformation now.
I shared some McLuhan-inspired thoughts this past week on CBC Radio’s The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti. I thought I’d pull out a few brief excerpts to spark some reflection and conversation.
1. The revolution has already happened.
ANNA MARIA: Since Donald Trump became president a year ago, we’ve heard a lot about fake news and foreign interference in elections, not solely in the U.S. What do you make of the way the world has reacted to those two threats and controversies?
CHRIS: 2016 was the year of shock—of Brexit and Trump’s election. 2017 was our year to gawk at those events and their aftermath. I’m hoping that 2018 is the year when we finally block out the noise and say, “All right. Let’s take a step back and decide how we’re going to navigate through all of this.”
I think a good way for all of us to start off 2018 would be to dust off Marshall McLuhan. Back in the ‘60s, he already foresaw a lot about how today’s social media would transform society. And one of the things that he warned us was, “When we get to this hand-wringing stage, the revolution has already happened.”
ANNA MARIA: So in fact the revolution has happened. And we now need to adapt.
CHRIS: That’s right. Take foreign interference in democratic discourse, for example. We need to be sober about asking ourselves, “Can we really censor out foreign voices from our domestic discourse?” We live in a “free society”, and traditionally we mean by that “open” and “unrestrained”. But in 2018 it also means “vulnerable”. Social media helps make this vulnerability visible, because it makes public discourse explicit and traceable. But many other dimensions of foreign interference in our public discourse are not so easy to see. That’s the broader reality that our social media experience helps us to recognize.
2. We are the oxygen feeding the bonfires we can’t look away from.
ANNA MARIA: If there is an historical precedent for us—for regular folk in 2018—to let social media run amok, then doesn’t that same historical precedent suggest that those in control don’t want it to?
CHRIS: There is a widespread fear that social media is going to upturn the existing order. But actually, I don’t think that we’ve begun to realize the power that social media has given to everyone.
I only have to look at President Donald Trump, at the stranglehold that he has on our attention, to see that we don’t yet understand our full power. Again, this is something that Marshall McLuhan made clear 50 years ago. He said that when we enter into the digital age, we’re going to regress to an oral culture. We’re going to regress to a society in which who says a thing and how big an audience hears the saying of it determines what’s true for us.
That’s exactly what’s happening. Our problem is that our habits of consuming information are still stuck in the old print culture. In print culture, we got into the habit of believing what we read and what we heard. But in an oral culture, we need to recover the capacity to ask ourselves “Who do I want to listen to?” and “Who do I want to ignore?”
And, again, it’s clear from the size of Trump’s global audience that we haven’t yet rediscovered how to do that. We’re stuck in this paradox of thinking—and this is very print-oriented way of looking at the world—that because Donald Trump is powerful, so we need to listen to him. But we’ve got cause-and-effect backwards. In today’s oral culture, the reality is that because we need to listen to him, so he became powerful.
We still have a long way to go toward recognizing our power to ignore—and, on the flipside, how we are the oxygen feeding the bonfires we can’t look away from.
3. In an oral culture, terror is the natural state.
ANNA MARIA: How does the shift from print culture to a digital culture change the way we assess the value of new ideas?
CHRIS: You’ve put your finger on one of the most stressful aspects of living at the birth of this digital age, which is: “How do we select which are the good ideas?” In a print world, publishers had a certain authority to select and curate what was—to borrow from the masthead of the New York Times—“fit for print”. And it wasn’t just print. With the advent of radio, of television, there has always been a curator of content. Suddenly we live in a digital world where everyone has the power to reach the many. I’m going to borrow Marshall McLuhan one last time because…
ANNA MARIA: I was just going to ask you to go back to him. So go ahead.
CHRIS: (Laughs) He was so prescient about this, because he said “the natural state of people in an oral culture is terror”. Which is how a lot of us feel today. Why? Because it seem like anything can affect anything at any time. And it’s hard to ever feel secure in that situation.
ANNA MARIA: Well let me pick up on that, then, because you talk about how in a digital culture where everyone has authority, no one has authority—and everyone has responsibility. So part of our adaptation has to be developing new ways of critical-thinking.
CHRIS: Right. But it’s not just us on our own.
ANNA MARIA: Collectively on our own (Laughs).
CHRIS: (Laughs) Sometimes it feels that way. But other actors in society have a role to play, too. When I talk about “letting social media run amok”, I don’t necessarily mean that we need to let these companies—the Facebooks and Twitters of the world—run amok.
The big debate right now is: do we leave them laissez-faire or do we regulate them as publishers? I think that’s probably the wrong debate to be having. I don’t think that these entities belong in the same category of regulation as publishers. They’re more like utilities—a form of national infrastructure akin to an energy utility or a telephone utility. And what’s the public responsibility of utility companies? It’s not to police their content. It’s to report usage and usage patterns, so that government, academics, police and society at large can better research, understand and regulate the systemic risks that are inherent to any important infrastructure.
More Marshall McLuhan
CBC Life & Times – Marshall McLuhan (YouTube, 1999) — Best video documentary I found on the web. Part I is just 10:00 long.
The Man Who Predicted The Internet Had A Stark Warning For How It Might Be Used (Independent.co.uk, July 21 2017) — Best of many short news articles published on the anniversary of his birth last year.
Marshall McLuhan Speaks (website) — The best digital archive of audio and video from three decades of McLuhan’s public lectures. If you’ve got one minute to burn, watch the first minute of this Introduction by Tom Wolfe (author of The Bonfire of the Vanities)
“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” (Marcel Proust)
I’ve been reflecting on these words, which Marcel Proust wrote in his 1923 work, Remembrance of Things Past. They summarize, better than I could, the journey of adaptation I think we all face today.
As 2017 draws to a close, I am deliberately shifting gears, from writing to researching. To borrow Proust’s language, my question for 2018 is simply What are the new eyes we need? How does our thinking need to change to keep pace with a changing world? I’m pulling together the best answers I can find, from the bravest thinkers I can reach—and I’ll share what I think are the best insights as I find them. My hope is that, by the end of 2018, we’ll have travelled the length and breadth of the New World together through these letters.
The above quote by Proust reminds me of another, by Tom Stoppard: “It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”
I’ve just finished re-reading The Origin of Wealth, by Eric Beinhocker (Eric is a colleague of mine from Oxford). His book’s subtitle—“The Radical Remaking of Economics”—gives you a strong hint as to why I’m re-reading it now. Whether or not we’ve ever studied economics, mainstream economic theory has installed into our brains some of our most basic, unconscious biases about “how the world works” and “what the future will look like”.
For example, one of the unconscious biases we’ve somehow picked up is that things will “return to normal” in the future. If the present is a period of disruption—of “disequilibrium”—then our expectation of the future is a return to equilibrium. Many of us can feel that bias operating when we think (dream?) about a post-Trump America (surely it’ll reclaim its moral high ground) or when we read stories about the soaring pricing of Bitcoin (surely it’ll crash back down soon).
Eric has traced the origin of these biases from mainstream economics, and he’s come to the conclusion that they mislead us more than they guide our understanding of how society really works.
The root problem, Eric finds, is that mainstream economics is built atop the wrong metaphor. That mistaken metaphor is physics. The story goes that in the 17th and 18th centuries, now-famous scientists—Leibniz, Lagrange, Euler, Hamilton and others—developed new mathematical language (calculus) that proved able to explain and predict a staggering range of natural phenomena in precise equations. Age-old problems, from planetary motion to the vibration of violin strings, were suddenly mastered. Those successes gave scientists a boundless optimism: perhaps anything in nature could be explained with equations.
The father of modern economics is perhaps Adam Smith (1723-1790), but Smith was a social philosopher. He wrote essays, not equations. In the century after Smith, social philosophers began to think that the same mathematic techniques being used so successfully by physicists to model the motion of the natural world could be applied to model the motion of humans in the economy, too. And the field of economics set out to do just that.
The rest, as they say, is history (and if you want to trace that history fully, read Part I of Eric’s book). Today we have deep notions about how the economies we live in will behave—that supply will match demand, that unstable markets will find a stable equilibrium point (i.e., price), that what goes up must come down—because that’s how the physical universe works, and the physical universe was our starting metaphor for how the economy works, too.
The fundamental problem, Eric argues, is that economic activity doesn’t resemble the laws of physics; it resembles the laws of biology—and specifically, evolution.
With all the rigor that a 500-page book allows, Eric marshals powerful arguments for why evolution is a much better metaphor to guide our basic understanding of economic life. I’ll jump straight to the “so what?” Assuming Eric is right, how should our way of seeing the world we live in change? Here are the three most relevant shifts I see, for the world of December 2017:
Forget a return to “stable equilibrium”. The only economic constant is uncertainty. In physics, when you disturb a closed physical system, it will reach a certain final equilibrium state. Set a marble spinning around the inside of a bowl, and eventually it will settle on the bottom. But biological populations have far less predictable futures. They can grow; they can collapse. They can experience periods of stable equilibrium and periods of exponential change. And their futures are path-dependent. Every episode—good and bad—leaves genetic and behavioral marks that (a) change what the next steps in evolution can and cannot be and (b) make return to a preferred, previous state impossible.
Human progress is not guaranteed. One common, unconscious bias in the modern world is that humanity’s material condition will progress inevitably over time. That’s a comforting notion, but we don’t live in a clockwork universe. In evolution, the one constant truth is that no species or group can rest comfortably upon its achievements. Eventually, the environment changes. When it does, the criteria for prosperity also change. The group’s future prosperity then depends entirely upon how well and quickly it adapts—whether by luck, planning or both—to those new criteria.
Cooperation—not competition—is the most reliable path to economic prosperity. In an economy whose metaphor is physics, we each decide how to act in any given moment according to over-arching rational laws like self-interest and private utility-maximization. But in an economy whose metaphor is evolution, we develop behavioral norms and rules-of-thumb from the bottom-up, according to whatever helps the population to prosper.
And the oldest, most helpful norm we’ve evolved is not “survival of the fittest”, but cooperation. A group of Stone Age humans hunting together generated much more food, per calorie spent hunting, than a lone individual could.
Our present-day economic universe is full of such “non-zero-sum games”, where everybody is made individually better off if we can somehow work together. Much of humanity’s social evolution as a species up to now, Eric argues, has been about finding clever tricks that make such cooperative games easier to discovery and enter into with people we don’t know—tricks like legal systems (to overcome trust problems), money (to overcome problems of how to measure and share the cooperative surplus) and democracy (to overcome disagreements over rules and leadership).
The cleverest trick of all is culture. Cooperation is not blind altruism. Altruistic populations can be killed off if too many free-riders enter the game. Free-riders weaken—and can sometimes flip off—the group’s cooperative behavior. Hence, we humans have made our cooperation conditional. We’ve developed strong cultural norms of “fairness” to punish would-be free-riding behavior heavily. We’ll punish it, even if doing so would irrationally harm our self-interest. (The classic example is this: A stranger offers you and your friend $5,000, with two conditions: your friend gets to choose how to divide the money, and you have to agree with him. Say your friend chooses $4990 for himself, and offers you only $10. If your gut tells you to say “Yes”, you’re a genuine Homo Economicus, ruled by rational self-interest. If your gut say “No”, that’s evolution at work, shaping the conditions of your cooperative behavior.)
Why does this matter right now?
In a world where “economic disruption” has become de rigueur, we can turn to biology and evolution for some rigorous answers to the question, “How might we adapt?” For me, the key take-aways are:
For us individually: Having an “adaptive mindset” (another fashionable phrase) is not about being a visionary risk-taker. It’s about pragmatically placing many small bets, then betting big on what works. That’s how nature does it.
For us as society: We cannot predict the direction of economic evolution, but we can design our institutions and societies to be better or worse evolvers.
And that, I think, is the most urgent message for right now. Looking at society through the lens of evolutionary science, it’s clear: we need to constantly tend and renew the system conditions that cause cooperative play to flourish. Otherwise, there’s no guarantee of a one-way ticket toward greater social order and wealth. Any society can experience collapse and dead ends. Any society can cross the tipping point where cooperative games stop. And that includes ours.
One-Year Anniversary of Trump
One year of poking and prodding over Donald Trump’s election later, we’ve diagnosed “fake news” and “foreign interference” as dual, possibly life-threatening infections to the whole system of liberal democracy—and we’ve seized upon social media as the vector by which these ills are spread. A majority of us are drawn into it for at least an hour every day. A majority of us get our news out of it. And so “social media”—a phrase that meant nothing barely a decade ago—today is the phrase without which nothing can be explained.
The unaccountable lawlessness that romps through this new medium threatens to drown out the civil discourse upon which democracy depends. So argue many guardians of our present moral and political order, who look poised to tame the most anarchic content through laws or regulations. Last week, executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter were hauled before the U.S. Congress. The message, to paraphrase Senator Dianne Feinstein, was blunt: ‘The platforms you’ve created are being misused. Do something about it. Or we will.’ The standard Mark Zuckerberg defense—that a social media platform should bear no more responsibility for the diseases that travel across it than, say, the Heathrow airport authority bears when travelers carry this season’s flu into or out of London—now sounds naïve.
From Chaos, A New Age?
The reason is we now fear a pandemic. Not so long ago, the European Union was inseparable, Trump was unelectable, globalization was irreversible, science was incontrovertible and even the democratization of China was inevitable. In the wake of so many sudden reversals to society’s settled projects and norms, the knee-jerk impulse to legislate and protect against further downsides from social media is predictable—even sensible.
It might also be dead wrong. History suggests the wiser course may be to let social media run amok. This new medium will work giant, unintended consequences upon society—regardless of our feeble attempts to control it. The faster we get to those consequences, the better off we’ll be.
That is the broadest lesson from the social transformations and botched control measures during the Renaissance advent of print—history’s best analogue to the test that social media presents.
Pre-print, the only “one-to-many” communications medium was oral. And so who said a thing, and how big an audience bore witness to the saying of it, mattered most. In this oral culture, thrones and pulpits held sway over public discourse and ideas. Then Gutenberg’s printing press—which emerged in Mainz in the 1450s and by 1500 had spread across the continent—made the pulpit publicly available. Unordained voices were amplified, and what was said began to have a power all its own.
This transition to print culture helped shift Europe out of the medieval and into the modern era—in part because the print medium was messy and subversive. An obscure Polish astronomer, toiling away in Warmia, shifted Europe’s understanding of reality from an earth-centered to a sun-centered universe. Copernicus accomplished that feat, not through the singular eloquence or blinding reason of his 1543 book, but also because decades worth of almanacs, bestiaries, travelogues, maps of new worlds and detailed diagrams of human anatomy preceded him. Many were lies and superstition. All undermined the medieval conviction that knowledge about the world lay only in ancient wisdom. Similarly, Martin Luther managed to ignite his Protestant Reformation in 1517, not only because his 95 Theses On Indulgences spread faster than the Catholic Church could tear them up, but also because his theses landed on a print culture that was ready to doubt the Church’s monopoly on truth. (How could the Church claim to be infallible, when every printed Bible since Gutenberg’s had textual differences?)
At its advent, authorities welcomed print as an instrument of humanity’s ascendance. In 1470, the Vatican’s own librarian reflected that ‘One can hardly report inventions of like importance for mankind, whether in ancient or modern times.’ But as the unwanted consequences mounted—the spreading of lies, the fanning of zealotry and bigotry, the deepening of linguistic and national divides—that official welcome was replaced by attempts to halt the corrosion of society’s moral and political order. They all backfired.
In the extreme case, the Islamic Ottoman Empire banned the printing press early and outright, in the 1480s—and missed out on the Scientific Revolution. Within Europe, Catholic countries began to censor Copernicus, Galileo and other scholars whose discoveries undermined Church dogma—and the weight of ‘scientific’ printing shifted toward Protestant countries where publishers faced fewer risks.
And everywhere, the growing insistence of church or state to judge which content was fit for print inspired new philosophies that ultimately reinvented both. By the mid-1600s, resistance to state control by printers and authors had established a new political and artistic principle in society—the “freedom of the press”. The glaring contrast between the absolute truths claimed by kings and popes, and the accumulating evidence for alternatives, created the public space in which philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Immanuel Kant challenged the very nature of monarchy and religion. Those investigations, widely published and debated throughout Europe, established concepts like free markets and constitutional democracy, and shaped new attitudes of skepticism and secularism.
Everything That Breaks…Needed Fixing
The print medium made “one-to-many” communications common. Social media makes “many-to-many” society’s new norm. Given the history of the former, who dares bet against the arrival of unintended, unforeseeable transformations powered by the latter?
These consequences are indeed coming. Let’s get to them as quickly as possible. Rather than repeat the mistake of medieval church and state, by pouring energies into a fraught, futile effort to control this new medium, let’s focus our attention instead upon fixing the flaws in our society as it reveals—or causes—them.
Social media has already produced a couple big ones.
First, it’s revealed that we’re not honest enough about the gap between our public politics and our private beliefs. Did Russian Facebook posts win Trump his presidency? No. As Tuesday’s off-year elections demonstrated, they don’t determine down-ballot races, either. No matter how expertly Russian bots nudged Americans’ voting behavior, their algorithms produced a tiny fraction of the 10 billion political likes, shares and comments that Facebook logged during the 2016 election cycle. But skim through the messages generated by those algorithms: they are a cold, clinical diagnosis of the views Americans harbor in the privacy of the voting booth. We should all invite these tough insights, courtesy of the Russian taxpayers, because democratic discourse is a polite sham unless it begins with that honesty.
Second, social media is triggering a regress to oral culture. In print culture, the relative scarcity of access to a press gave each published title a certain gravitas. And over 500 years, we refined skills of critical inquiry to separate the great from the garbage. Now everyone has access to a press, all words are published words, and the skills we had refined to sort them are obsolete. We find ourselves swayed mainly by who says the words—again. That is why, in the US for example, names like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks are now freely floated as presidential contenders—not because they have demonstrated interest in public service, but because of our demonstrated interest in them.
Social media may offer a new means for foreign interference or false idolatry to harm our democracy, but these flaws offer the opportunity. To try to censor or shield ourselves from their consequences is dangerous. We risk deluding ourselves into thinking our society is safe again, when instead we’re ducking the real challenges we face. We must depend instead upon our ability to sort through them.
The upside of letting social media run free
In doing so, we should summon the courage not just to tweak, but reinvent liberal democracy.
At the advent of print, a moral and political order that felt finished was, in hindsight, medieval. It gave way to modernity.
It’s a safe bet that 2017 isn’t the endpoint of history either, and that society will be ordered quite differently 500 years from now. With our physical technologies, we are already embarking on voyages of discovery to disrupt the present way of things: in artificial intelligence, autonomous robotics, genetic modification, quantum computing and additive manufacturing. But our social technologies—our legal, tax and education systems, asset and labour markets, public values and private ethics—are evolving slowly in response. Too slowly, given that society’s prevailing trend is to grow apart, not together.
If the history of the adoption of print is any guide, our new many-to-many medium will be the catalyst we need to accelerate social evolution. The printing press was a force for secularism and skepticism even as it enabled a century of religious war. Social media is a force for inclusion even as it fosters divisions. To take the most recent example: since mid-October, when allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein were published, the #metoo hashtag has been published over 80 million times, victims of harassment have found a supportive social space in which grievances are taken seriously, and workplace norms are suddenly, markedly shifting. In China—a place where social media has zero power to seize the agenda—no national conversation on gender equity or sexual harassment is taking place right now. The Communist Party of China, for all its proud rhetoric of meritocracy, unveiled a new leadership team of precisely seven men on October 25. By contrast, in every advanced democracy, an unscheduled reality check is taking place. That bodes well for our future. In an aging world, prosperity depends upon bringing every marginalized talent to bear.
Let social media run amok. Everything it breaks, needed fixing. Everything else needs a renaissance.
Last week, executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared together before the U.S. Congress. Senators grilled them about Russia’s ongoing use of their social media platforms to influence U.S. public opinion—and, last year, to nudge the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Prior to the hearing, Facebook admitted that over 140 million Americans were exposed to Russia-sponsored content during the presidential campaign season.
The advent of social media, and the speed with which it has displaced other media as citizens’ go-to source for news and opinion, forces every democratic society around the world to ask itself two tough questions:
- How do we maintain the free and open discourse upon which democracy depends, without it being drowned in unaccountable lawlessness (“fake news”) or divided into tribes that don’t respect each other?
- How do we maintain the sovereignty of our own citizens, when our domestic discourse easily admits foreign interference?
Artificial intelligence, whose capabilities are strengthening daily, makes these questions doubly urgent. With growing success, any well-financed interest group can develop algorithms to figure out which citizens to target with which messages in order to influence their political choice-making.
What can, or should, democracies do to address fake news and foreign interference on social media platforms? Should governments try to regulate away these threats to democratic discourse, by treating these platforms as media companies? (Under a new law in Germany, social media companies can be fined up to €50 million if they fail to take down illegal hate speech from their sites within 24 hours of being notified. The U.S. is contemplating new laws that would require big social media platforms to track and disclose political ad-buyers—just as TV and radio must do already.)
Or should we leave the Facebooks and Twitters of the world free to self-regulate—effectively, accepting their argument that they are not media companies, but rather neutral technology platforms with little responsibility for the content they host? Facebook, in an effort to show governments that self-regulation can work, has begun to pay fact-checkers to weed out some of the fake news from among the most popular stories on its platforms. But in a world of self-regulating platforms, the ultimate responsibility for sorting the wheat from the chaff would remain with citizen-users. (This week, Italy began rolling out a “fake news awareness” class across 8,000 high schools to help equip the country’s next generation of adults with the skills to do just that.)
Fake news and foreign influence put democracy itself at risk. With stakes so high, it’s no wonder that governments want to step in to limit the downside risks of social media.
The power of the unintended
But history suggests this thinking may be backwards. The unintended upside of letting social media run wild may far exceed the unintended downside.
That is the lesson from the advent of print—which, as I’ve argued before, is history’s best analogue to the advent of the internet and social media. The former was history’s first true “one-to-many” communications medium. The latter is history’s first true “many-to-many” medium.
The arrival of a “one-to-many” era of communications was dominated by unintended, unforeseeable consequences. Print made it possible for one man, Martin Luther, to ignite a Protestant Reformation that broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly on spiritual truth in 16th-century Europe. The printing press accomplished that feat, not only by spreading Luther’s famous 95 Theses far and wide, but by spreading different versions of the Bible, which eroded public belief in the existence of a single infallible text.
Print made it possible for another man, Nicolaus Copernicus, to shift Europe’s understanding of reality from an earth-centered to a sun-centered universe. Print accomplished that feat, not simply by publishing widely his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. For decades leading up to Copernicus’ publication, print changed the cadence of knowledge creation and knowledge sharing in Europe, so that, more and more, people began to trust in the accumulation of new discoveries more than the wisdom handed down from ancients.
The adoption of this new, print medium was a chaotic experience, full of contradictions. Print did as much to perpetuate blatant errors as it did to spread enlightened truth. It fanned religious extremism and bigotry while fostering a new concern for the poor. It deepened linguistic and national divides, but also created a more cosmopolitan “commonwealth of learning” among artists and scholars. The same technology that helped begin a hundred years of religious war across the continent also helped fuel individuality and usher in the Scientific Revolution.
Many states tried to control print’s impact upon society’s moral and political order. That control came at a price. On the extreme, the Islamic Ottoman Empire banned the printing press outright in 1485, just a few decades after print’s emergence in Europe—and maintained the ban until the 19th century. The Islamic world had been the global seat of scientific progress from 750 to 1100 AD, but lost that seat to Europe’s Scientific Revolution.
Within Europe, censorship regimes tried to suppress “dangerous” aspects of the print medium. Catholic countries censored Copernicus, Galileo and other scientists whose discoveries ran against dogma heavily. In 1543, the Catholic Church decreed that no book could be printed or sold without its permission. In 1563, Charles IX of France decreed that nothing could be printed without the king’s permission, either. Inquisitions, imprisonments and public burnings enforced those decrees through fear.
But ultimately, they were self-defeating. Catholic bans pushed scientific printing toward Protestant countries where the risks of publication were smaller. Resistance to state control, by printers and authors, helped establish the “freedom of the press” as a new political and artistic principle by the mid-1600s. And the contrast between the stubborn efforts of Church and state to monopolize truth and the emerging evidence of alternative truths created a space for philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Immanuel Kant to question the nature of religion and absolute monarchy. Those investigations, widely published and debated throughout Europe, introduced concepts of free-market capitalism and democracy and shaped new attitudes of skepticism, secularism and individualism. The American and French Revolutions followed not long after.
The history of print offers three principles to inform present debates over the regulation of our new, many-to-many medium. First, attempts to control society’s use of social media may prove self-defeating, by inspiring new philosophies that undermine existing institutions. Second, the unintended consequences of social media will likely dominate any results we may intend to bring about. The greatest gains will go to those societies that explore the upside of the medium, not those that protect against the downside. And finally, the adoption of this new medium is a long term enterprise. If unintended consequences are going to dominate our future, it would be a good idea to get to those consequences as quickly as possible—and hasten our adaptation to them.
For this week’s letter, I want to share with you an article that I just co-published with my good friend and intellectual maestro, Massimo Portincaso. Massimo is a partner at my old stomping grounds, The Boston Consulting Group, and these days, he runs BCG’s global marketing and communications. So, he does lots of intellectual outreach to alumni like moi. He also posts his own thought-pieces on blockchain, AI and other stuff.
Our article has got a business focus, but I think everyone can draw wisdom from it. You’ll find many of the broad themes I touch on familiar…
In an Age of Discovery, Executives Must Become Map-Makers
The world always makes sense. But it doesn’t always make sense to us. What we see depends on how we look at it. Surprise, a constant theme nowadays in the C-suite, is a sign that whatever perspective we’ve been using to see the world no longer shows us things as they really are.
It is when the world stops making sense to us that we need a new map of the world, a new narrative that better represents reality. But coming up with one, and making it stick, is not easy. Consider this: In the early 1500s, Copernicus taught us that the Earth revolves around the sun — not the other way around. We’ve lived with this insight for 500 years. Why, then, do we still gather at, say, the Valentino Pier in Brooklyn to watch the “sunset”?
The reality — as any picture of the same moment from space would make clear — is “earthspin.” We, not the sun, are traveling across the sky to turn day into night. But that simple, centuries-old truth hasn’t yet penetrated our language. It hasn’t yet penetrated our thinking. Every “sunrise” and “sunset” should be a powerful reminder that our everyday narratives can warp and distort our ability to see things as they really are.
Our “maps” of the world exist mainly in the language, or narratives, we use to frame concepts and issues. Words are just the shared mental maps we use to navigate through the world. Executives steeped in classic business strategy may be skeptical of the power of mental maps, or narratives, to shape our understanding of industries, problems, or priorities. But consider how the multiplication of information has diminished leaders’ capacity to articulate the world to themselves, often forcing them to become consumers of other people’s narratives. For example, we may talk about “disruption” in our own industries because that is the narrative being passed around — but what we mean when we use it remains fuzzy to ourselves and others. So, too, are the actions that follow.
Map-making (or map-remaking) is an essential activity when steering an organization during times of rapid change. In such periods, executives must regularly interrogate and update the narratives by which the organization navigates. If they do not, the maps that once guided the organization instead trap it in outdated worldviews. They conceal and distort, rather than reveal, the paths ahead.
If, however, executives do curate the corporate narrative and update their mental maps, their organizations will be better equipped to evolve along with the fast-changing world around them. Such corporate map-making aligns employees’ judgment and intuitions more closely with external reality in ways that generate better questions and decision making; it helps identify deeply buried mismatches between the organization and its environment; and it can powerfully transform employees’ shared behaviors.
Renaissance Wisdom on Mapping New Worlds
In other periods of rapid change, the ability to create new maps (that is, new narratives) separated those who adapted successfully to — and shaped — events from those who were paralyzed by the pace of change.
Take the Renaissance, an analogous moment of transformation driven by “globalization” (the voyages of discovery) and “digitization” (Gutenberg’s printing press). How people saw the present — their narrative — drove their adaptations and led their transformations. Let’s look at three revised narratives that helped define that time of discovery and change.
From Flat Maps to Globes. The first successful Atlantic empire-builders, Spain and Portugal, switched from modeling the world as flat to modeling it as spherical not because they suddenly discovered that the world was round (Europe had known that since the time of Ancient Greece), but to better visualize crucial business questions. The oceans to Europe’s east and west had both been proven navigable, and in 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas drew a single vertical line (through what is now Brazil) to divide the lands beyond Europe between the two countries. All that lay to the east of the line was Portugal’s; the lands to the west were Spain’s. But in whose territory did the economically significant Spice Islands (present-day Indonesia, on the other side of the globe) lie? And which way, east or west, was the shortest route to getting there? Visualizing the Earth as a sphere helped clarify — and answer — those strategic questions.
From Sacred to Inspired Art. Medieval art was flat and formulaic. Its main purpose was religious — to tell a sacred story. Plagiarism was common practice; innovation was irreverent. The invention of linear perspective (showing depth on a flat canvas by drawing far-away objects smaller), plus new knowledge in anatomy and natural science, were absent from European art until Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, da Vinci, and others validated them within a new narrative: the artist’s job was to capture a fragment of God’s creation as he saw it. These artists became famous for works that presented increasingly lifelike, original, and secular visions of the world.
From Luxury to Mass Market. Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press in the 1450s, ended life bankrupt. Why? Because books were a luxury — useful to few, owned by even fewer — and the economics of Gutenberg’s printing press made sense only in large-volume runs. Gutenberg struggled to find books that demanded mass production. But over time, the new printing technology helped change people’s ideas about books and the purpose they could serve. By the 1520s, when Martin Luther directed all laypeople to read the Bible as a way to care for their own souls, books were becoming the new medium in which ideas reached mass audiences. Indeed, the Bible has since been printed 5 billion to 6 billion times, and counting.
It’s Time to Update Our Narratives
In order to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, Europeans during the Renaissance completely remade many of their mental maps. Today, many of ours need remaking, too. Here are three examples of outdated narratives/maps in wide use today whose revision could accelerate organizations’ ability to adapt and unleash creativity.
From Infrastructure to Interstructure. What is infrastructure? Literally, it is the structure that lies below. The word “infrastructure” in English dates back to the 1880s, to the second industrial revolution (that is, the advent of mass manufacturing). The way the term has long been used envisages an industry that is stable, permanent, and fixed — something that underlies the busy social and economic activity that all takes place atop it. That was an accurate narrative, once. The idea was that the builders/operators/producers of mass enablers (like electricity grids) were separated from the users.
But that is the opposite of the future being articulated today — by executives in electricity, water, transport, and other industries — of business models that increasingly operate within and between all manner of transaction. Increasingly, infrastructure is being re-conceived as a platform, which — like platforms in the digital economy — blurs the division between producers and users, and enables uses that may be completely unanticipated by the network builders. If all that elected officials, consumers, or employees know of a given industry is that it involves “infrastructure,” then they lack the awareness to be a good partner in these transformations.
“Inter-structure” more closely captures the models that are emerging in these industries. Smart electrical grids enable businesses and individuals to create, trade, and arbitrage electricity with their own generation and storage assets attached to the network. Owners of rights-of-way, from water utilities to railway companies, may enable flows of autonomous vehicles and drones along private transportation routes that do not conflict with public traffic. Owners of physical facilities of all kinds, from parking lots to warehouses to attics, will enable autonomous material flows by supplying staging sites and recharging sites.
From Mechanical to Biological Thinking. As Danny Hillis brilliantly describes in the Journal of Design and Science, “The Enlightenment is dead, long live the Entanglement.” The Age of Enlightenment was characterized by linearity and predictability. It was a world where causal relationships were apparent, Moore’s law had not yet accelerated the pace of change, and economic and social systems were not yet intricately intertwined. But now, as a result of technological and scientific advances and the rise of globalization, the world consists of several big and small complex adaptive systems, which are highly entangled. Whereas we used to be able to use a narrative of linearity and mechanics to explain the world, we now need a narrative inspired by biological and other natural systems. Biological thinking is not linear. Instead, as Martin Reeves has written, it is messy. It focuses on experimentation rather than managing a process to produce a certain effect.
From Automation to Augmentation. Most corporate and policy research regarding artificial intelligence and the “future of work” is centered on automation — the replacement of human labor and cognition with machines. Multiple studies report some variation of the same narrative: about half of all jobs in advanced economies may be automated away by 2050, if not earlier.
This stark human-versus-machine dichotomy gives rise to a number of blind spots and neglects important dimensions, such as the spread of complex adaptive systems and the network effects caused by their entanglement. Most important, it skips the most promising opportunity space for business and for every sector of society: the human-machine interface.
A narrative of augmentation, instead of automation, invites business leaders, policy makers, researchers, and the labor force to pay much more attention to this middle space. Companies and society need to create a narrative that focuses on the potential of AI to switch the scale of reference for several tasks, often by several orders of magnitude. A good example is personalization. Brands that leverage AI and proprietary data can move from tens or hundreds to hundreds of thousands of customer segments and see revenue increase by 6% to 10%, two to three times faster than those that don’t harness this potential.
Amazon is a good example of AI as a source of augmentation rather than just automation. The company, one of the heaviest users of AI and of robots (in its fulfillment centers, the number of robots grew from 1,400 in 2014 to 45,000 in 2016), more than doubled its workforce in the past three years and expects to hire another 100,000 workers in the coming year (many of them in fulfillment centers).
The point is that we need a narrative that encourages us to generate more with available (human) resources by leveraging AI and technology, not one that looks at a finite game of optimizing away labor costs wherever they exist.
The augmentation narrative is not limited to products and processes; it also affects professions and management. Just as what it means to be a doctor is going to be reshaped by access to millions of records and machine learning, what it means to be a manager and run an organization will change significantly. The current trend to decentralize decisions will be fundamentally redefined and accelerated as decisions are increasingly supported by AI and data, “augmenting” decision makers and allowing for new management tools and new organizational structures.
Cartography as Competitive Imperative
Much has already been written about the overwhelming amount of data and information now available to executives. What is often missing in this discussion is that the main challenge does not lie in having too much information (our brains are always flooded with more information than we can process), but in the information overflow that occurs when we lack an apt framework to make the flood meaningful.
Map-making is an essential, but mostly overlooked, part of adapting to rapid change. As the example with New York at sunset shows us, narrative and language can indeed trap us in outdated views of the world. We must gain awareness of our mental maps, and redraw those that need redrawing, if we want the world to make sense to us again. It’s a corporate leadership imperative, and a societal one.
With 73% of CEOs seeing rapid technological change as one of their key issues (up from 64% last year), it’s also a competitive imperative. Conscious map-making helps us to adapt to change, but it also drives it. Five hundred years after the Renaissance, we remember Columbus, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, da Vinci, and others because their maps defined the terrain in which their age explored. Today’s voyages of discovery are likewise unveiling a new world to us. New maps, new narratives, will emerge and will define how we understand it. If we are not writing them, someone else is…
Three links to help navigate the now:
- Read about the next flu pandemic in The Daily Mail. Can we see the next shock…before it hits? The Daily Mail interviewed me for this feature piece. A bit of scare-mongering (it is the Daily Mail, after all), but my point is—like with my Brexit and Trump predictions last year—that we need to start taking these risks seriously. They’re more likely than we’ve been lulled into believing.
- Read about Our New Robot Overlords in The New Yorker. This is a long piece about robots taking jobs away. Instead of statistics, it tells the stories. Beautifully done.
- Read “How do we solve a problem like the future?”, an essay by prominent Aussie tech journalist, Sandy Plunkett. Over 25 years in Silicon Valley, Sandy befriended every generation of tech leaders, from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg. Now back in her native Australia, she’s helping Aussies craft their role in the 21st century.
As you know, I like to talk about our collective need to “make new maps” to better navigate this age we live. Another way to think about this same need is to question the fitness of our “social technologies”.
An economist and historian at Columbia University, Richard Nelson, points out that we humans employ two types of technology: physical technologies (which is all the stuff we normally think of when we hear “technology”—things like steam engines and semiconductors); but also social technologies, which are the ways we organize ourselves to do things—ways like settled agriculture, the rule of law, money…and democracy.
These two classes of technology evolve with each other. This co-evolution is easy to see: just look at how the list of subjects taught in universities changes over time. In an earlier letter about artificial intelligence, I gave the example of mass manufacturing—a new physical technology that challenged society to deal with a new scale and complexity of inputs, outputs and money flows. Our accounting systems couldn’t cope, and so in response, we evolved a new social technology—finance—to help us to help society to cope with, and more fully leverage the possibilities of these mass production systems.
But sometimes this co-evolution falls badly out of sync. Lately, we’ve been innovating our physical technologies very rapidly (or, as I argued in Age of Discovery, at a revolutionary pace reminiscent of the Renaissance). But our social technologies—our legal frameworks, tax systems, education systems, political systems and so on—are adapting at an evolutionary pace. That is a very simple, intuitive way to explain the widening anxiety that has been observed across the world’s advanced countries today.
One branch of social technology where the need for innovation is urgent, but not urgently pursued, is in our politics—and specifically, in our democracy.
Democracy in its modern form has been with us since Magna Carta, an agreement signed in 1215 between King John of England and his feudal barons, which recognized that the powers of the king had limits. (As a pure aside, I’ve seen one of the few surviving copies of Magna Carta several times during my years at Oxford University. It’s gorgeous. Magna Carta is often trotted out when VIPs come to town. When it’s not on display, it’s kept deep underground in a nuclear bomb-proof shelter, along with a Gutenberg Bible and other precious artifacts.)
Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution and other seminal moments set the basic features that define all liberal democracies today. And the most basic feature of this social technology called “democracy” is the idea that (A) we choose our representatives, who are then (B) accountable to us for how well they protect, and advance, our well-being.
A still works. B makes less sense with every passing day.
The basic problem is that 21st-century humanity is tangled together now—and not, as people say, “connected”. The distinction is crucial to understanding what ails democracy today. In a tangled world, cause-and-effect are hard to see; goods and bads flow globally; and we can’t disentangle ourselves from risks and shocks that originate elsewhere.
In reality, humanity’s well-being is all tangled. But in our politics, we gather in discrete national groupings to choose people to advance our group’s well-being. The people we nominate (our elected representatives) make promises to our group: to grow the economy, to create jobs, to keep us safe, to clean up the environment. But given our tangled reality, in many situations they lack the power to deliver.
Take, for example, the US president. Donald Trump’s presidency is an example of…well, it’s an example of many things…but it is also an example of the widening gap between the promises our democratically elected leaders make to us and their capacity to fulfil them.
Across the world’s democracies, the US president is arguably the elected representatives with the most power to shape the world according to the interests of his national group. But that power is proving illusory. Take just one big example: jobs, specifically jobs in the US coal industry. Donald Trump got elected in part because he promised voters in key states to save the American coal industry. And yet, since he was elected, no new coal plants have been announced or opened in the US. Instead, 10 more coal plants have announced they will shut down. Trump is powerless to deliver on his promise to create new jobs for American coal miners, because scientific consensus about climate change, because advances in clean energy and electric vehicles, and other broad trends that entangle the coal industry overpower any actions one country might take on the issue.
What aspects of public well-being can our elected officials deliver on? The list keeps shrinking. Public safety and security? Such promises are challenged by the online radicalization of our own neighbours, or by anonymous hacks to steal our data and identities.
Public health? It’s only as secure as the weakest link in the world’s quarantine capabilities. Remember SARS? We were all lucky that the easy-to-spread pandemic hit Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore and Toronto first—all cities with very strong public health authorities. Remember Ebola? The public health authorities in those West African countries where it struck were quickly overwhelmed. The rest of the world was just lucky that Ebola, unlike SARS, can’t spread through the air.
This coming winter’s flu season is likely to be severe across the northern hemisphere—not because public health officials are asleep at the wheel, but because southern countries like Australia, whose winter ended a couple weeks ago, have just endured one of their toughest flu seasons on record. And right now, those strains of flu virus are spreading globally through our airports.
Obviously, many determinants of our well-being remain local. The world isn’t flat; it’s more mountainous than ever. And local government policy (say, over housing prices, public transit and migration) does a lot to determine how high its residents can reach.
But many of the biggest determinants of our well-being are now beyond the power of our own political community to decide: environmental change, pandemics, tax avoidance, industrial growth and collapse, commodity prices, technological change, personal privacy and the integrity of our public discourse.
What, then, is the contract we are making with our political leaders when we elect them? Across the democratic world, trust in political institutions fell sharply after the global financial crisis. Did our politicians betray our trust? Or did we make the mistake, by believing that financial stability was within their power to maintain?
Calling all innovators
Now is the next critical moment in the long story of the social technology we call “democracy”. To help us face many of the biggest threats to our well-being, we might need to give our political leaders more trust, not less. More authority, not less. But we can’t do that, because it demands a trust we don’t feel.
Can we innovate this social technology, democracy, to suit the new world we find ourselves in? Tune in next week…
Three links to help navigate the now:
- Follow Geoff Mulgan. He’s the Chief Exec of Nesta, one of the world’s biggest policy innovation labs. Also a writer, social entrepreneur and policy geek. Everything he retweets is a “must-read”.
- Watch a brilliant, one-hour debate hosted by The Guardian between Jeffrey Sachs, David Miliband and Ngaire Woods on the question, “Are we facing a crisis of democracy?” (Or, if you only have two minutes, here’s a brief highlight and another.)
- Read Eileen Donahoe’s essay on whether government, or the big tech companies, should be in charge of protecting our public discourse from fake news. It begins, “Democracies face an existential threat: information is being weaponized against them with digital tools…” (Eileen works on global digital policy at Stanford.)
Society does not serve the economy. The economy serves society.
That seems obvious, and yet core to redrawing the maps that guide us toward “prosperity”.
The first Renaissance proved powerfully that society’s progress is a bigger concept than economic progress. Historians look back on the Renaissance century, from 1450 to 1550, as Europe’s break from the medieval ages to the early modern era. In the 1450s, Europe lagged the rest of the world on many measures of civilizational progress (e.g. science, exploration, navigation, iron- and steel-making, weaponry, agriculture, textiles and timekeeping), but by 1550 Europe was leapfrogging every other region, and boasted more organizational and energy resources than any previous civilization on earth.
But look back at the same time period through the lens of economic growth, and, according to economic historians, nothing happened. Western civilization achieved some historic transitions: from local to intercontinental Empire, or from looking for truth in Revelation to finding answers in present-day observation. (That philosophical shift led ultimately to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.) But “GDP per capita” barely budged. Economic growth statistics failed to capture these monumental shifts, for the simple reason that the economy is only one dimension of society. Some shifts transcend the economic dimension.
Our notions of “progress” and “prosperity” must do the same.
To that end, Bhutan famously measures national progress according to its Gross National Happiness index. The GNH a home-grown substitute to GDP that combines economic prosperity, social cohesion and environmental sustainability “in search of a more balanced society”. We’ve all heard about Bhutan’s happiness index in the media at one time or another. It’s worth taking two minutes out of our busy lives to browse the specific dimensions that Bhutan’s government measures in its report of public “happiness”, such as: emotional balance, spirituality, “healthy days” (as opposed to sick days), artisan skills (like painting and weaving), hours of sleep, victimhood (by crime, abuse or other), pollution levels and housing quality. Sounds sensible. Every household is classified on a spectrum from “Unhappy” to “Deeply Happy”.
My friends at the Boston Consulting Group, where I once worked, have developed a substitute to GDP called SEDA—the Sustainable Economic Development Assessment—as another way to shift the national goal from “wealth” (i.e., GDP) to “well-being”. It considers a narrower, but perhaps more familiar, set of indicators: economic factors like GDP, unemployment and inequality; public infrastructure, health, education and the like. Like my letter last week, SEDA makes the point that, while tracking economic growth makes sense, focusing on growth alone misses the point. Converting economic growth into general well-being is not automatic, and it occurs very differently from country to country.
In China, the ruling Communist Party, which has made economic growth its main focus for the past 30 years, looks set to reform its Constitution at its once-every-five-years powwow in mid-October to enshrine a winder notion of prosperity. To quote the official translation of the official draft text from the official propaganda bureau: “The people-oriented development thought should be implemented to solve the conspicuous problems faced by the country and…to promote balanced economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological progress.”
The Wake Up Foundation, run by a former chief editor of The Economist, thinks about prosperity less in terms of progress and growth, and more in terms of resilience in a time of flourishing risk. It ranks 35 rich democracies according to how prepared they seem to “deal with the big forces we all know will pummel us over the next decades”. Their ranking considers demography, education, innovation, globalization and institutional strength. They rank Switzerland 1st, my own Canada 12th and the USA 23rd…
Even the pope is taking part in this conversation. In his second encyclical, Laudato Si’ (2015), Pope Francis writes:
A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and a higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes—by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources—in the midst of economic growth.
From macro to micro
My plan was to switch gears at this point, away from the big-picture macro question of “What does prosperity mean?”, and start exploring the micro question of “What does it look like to pursue something other than growth within the economy?”
I was going to share some of the thinking from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation about shifting from a linear to a circular economy. I was going to share some examples of startup companies that aim for long-term, stable profits rather than short-term, lucrative exits—like Meetup.org or Pando Daily.
But I’ve hit my word limit again, so…tune in next week.
Three more links to help navigate the now:
- Listen to Oxford psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist. In this interview on Australian national radio, he helps us to make better sense of the world by using our left- and right-brain—or, as he calls them, the Master and his Emissary.
- Follow Max Tegmark. He’s a physicist at MIT and tries to make the issues presented by Artificial Intelligence accessible to everyone, so that we can all take part in the conversation about it.
- Watch a clip about Being Abroad in Japan, by my friend and professional YouTuber Chris Broad. We met on a long flight from London to Singapore earlier this year. In one of his latest clips (they’re all short), he lives through the experience of being awoken by a North Korean missile flying overhead. Ah, the times we live in…
This year is the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, a book that, in the midst of the political, social and technological upheavals of the first Renaissance, imagined a radically different society. “Utopia” literally means “no-place”, and over time the word has come to mean a fantasy land where all our problems have been solved.
I have argued elsewhere that the 21st century can be humanity’s best. This can be the century when we solve poverty and disease, and flip the human condition from scarcity to abundance—for all.
But I doubt that we will reach that utopia by following the same economic map that guides us today. In too many contexts, we concentrate faster than we distribute. We deplete faster than we regenerate. Society serves the economy, when surely it should be the other way around.
A new map is needed to navigate this new economic world of global markets, global finance, digital monopolies, automation and aging workforces. And it begins with rethinking our destination, “growth”.
Economic growth matters
Today’s economic map aims for a place marked “growth”.
As destinations go, economic growth matters. Bigly. If we live in the “developing” world—say, in Nambia—our community has a long list of development needs: physical infrastructure, like roads, water systems, power systems, sewage, telecom and ports; social infrastructure, like schools and hospitals; and government infrastructure like courts, police, statistics agencies, public health bureaus and all the bureaucracies that help hold society together. All these things make life better, all these things cost money, and the faster we grow our economy the faster we can afford to build (and maintain) them.
China is the headline example of how sustained economic growth can end poverty—and, in the space of two generations, transform a society whose main economic output was cheap manufactures into one that is poised to lead the way in new technologies like AI and quantum computing.
Economic growth is an important destination for “developed” countries, too. First, because every developed country has a lot of developing left to do (in my home province of Saskatchewan, Canada, one in four children still live in poverty). Second, because our domestic politics gets uglier and uglier the closer we get to the opposite destination (i.e., economic stagnation).
To see why, look first at a fast-growing country—again, take China. China’s economy is growing at a rate of about 6.5% this year. All else being equal, that means the Chinese government’s total tax revenues will grow about 6.5%, too. That means the government can afford to spend on every stakeholder in society this year the same amount that it spent on them last year, and has a big pot of totally new money to dish out however it wants. No wonder people are happy with their government. No hard choices.
But in a slow-growth country (which is to say, all the world’s advanced economies), if government wants to spend more money somewhere, it either needs to: (a) raise taxes or (b) spend less money somewhere else. Either way, the process creates winners and losers. Hard choices. Bitter politics, and bitter partisan divides. (Sound familiar?)
So economic growth matters. Our problem is: it matters too much to us. The environmental movement has been hammering this point into all of our heads for more than 50 years. Economic growth at the expense of our climate, of fresh water, of fresh air, of nonrenewable resources or of the global commons like oceans and fisheries and forests doesn’t move civilization forward in any long-term sense.
The bad consequences of our growth addiction show up in the short-term, too. We all saw this, spectacularly, in the finance industry during the global financial crisis. An industry pursued growth, but broke the ecosystem upon which growth depends.
We are seeing this addiction again today—this time, in the tech industry. From Facebook to Uber to AirBnb and Amazon, tech businesses are rushing to build “platform monopolies”. They, and the venture capital that funds them, believe that “network effects” within our digital society make these games “winner-take-all”. And so the emphasis across the tech startup sector is almost exclusively on growth. Society can sort out the risks later—whether it’s how to protect domestic political discourse from foreign interference, how to protect workers and consumers in the gig economy, or how to usefully re-employ whole labor markets that have been displaced by AI and automation.
We are naïve if we think that these risks will sort themselves out. They won’t.
There is good evidence, for example, that within developed countries “the economy” is now splitting into two: the one, a “dynamic sector” of high-value industries where AI, robotics and other technologies are creating tremendous gains in wealth and productivity; and the other, a “stagnant sector” of low-value industries with low job security and low pay.
Now, depending on your political stripes, conditions in the stagnant sector are either “deeply worrying” or “the way the world works”.
But what we should all be worried by evidence that these conditions are beginning to drag down the overall economy. (For econ-geeks, here’s the paper. For the rest of us: It’s like we’re all at a house party playing Monopoly. As the game goes on, more and more of us go bankrupt. The crowd sitting bored on the sofa, waiting for the game to end, is getting bigger, while the group still having fun around the table is getting smaller and smaller. The whole party’s getting dull. But then, the rules aren’t designed to keep everyone in play. They’re designed to declare a winner.)
Question our destination
Again and again, we steer for growth with a single-mindedness that would make Ahab proud—and again and again, we risk wrecking our ship en route.
So it’s time to ask ourselves some utopian questions: Is our economy aimed at the right destination? And if that destination’s not “growth”, then where?
Three links to help navigate the now
- Sign up for monthly updates from the Institute for New Economic Thinking. INET was founded by Nobel economists after the financial crisis with a mission is to make economics serve society. The best resource on the web for…yep, you guessed it…new economic thinking.
- Read Douglas Rushkoff’s book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. Doug and I shared the stage at a summit on the “circular economy” this summer. Doug’s the one who coined the phrase “social media”, and his latest book shakes popular faith in today’s tech sector.
- Follow Adair Turner. He’s a former financial regulator (in the UK), and the one banker who just makes sense. His last book, Between Debt and the Devil, is wonkish but…just makes sense.