Do Unto / "Cognitive Surplus", "The New Capitalist Manifesto" and "Cloud Atlas"
Three books I consumed in the past three weeks:
The through-line question raised by these volumes is the classic conundrum of humanity's in/humanity to itself, how we'll engage in the collective enterprise of operating Spaceship Earth. We've reached unprecedented dominion over land, sea and sky in the past century. Moreover, most everyone can talk to most everyone. As Shirky points out, "more is different," and no one really knows how Homo Sapiens behave under such circumstances. Great challenges. Great opportunities.
Indeed, I've been a Clay Shirky fanboy for a long time for just that kind of insight. He's one of a couple "internet personalities" from whom I have imbibed sufficient content to have an embarrassingly celebrity-like response to; but hey, that's because he's so dang smart, and he's tapped into the same stream of human advancement that I fancy myself to be.
To wit, he's a hacker who's trancended the view that technology is the critical element in driving outcomes. This is a very rare combination of perspectives: deep technical literacy combined with a worldly viewpoint on history and human nature. Most technologiest go so deep into "how stuff works" they lose critical perspective on "how things happen." On the flip side, most pundit-types suffer from a paucity of tangible understanding which renders their observations facile, skin-deep and unconvincing (paging Thomas Friedman...). If I were ten years younger I'd be thrilled to have Clay as a Professor. As it is, I'll settle for what's publicly available.
His latest publication — Cognitive Surplus — is subtitled "Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age" and it examines the whole "social media" phenomena by plumbing the depths of human nature. Shirky examines recurring patterns in social organization and common features of motivation and psychology to try and glimpse some real insight into where we are headed as a connected species. The touchstone of a "cognitive surplus" is that people seem to be steadily shifting away from one-way pure-consumption media (Television being the prime example) and back towards two-way social media, and as a result the brain-cycles that were onces occupied by Gilligan's Island are being put to more social, creative, and even civic use. A lot of wonderful new things are happening.
To begin to get a flavor, you might want to check out his great TED Talk:
By complimentary contrast, Umair Haque is an economist, a real one, but also one of a younger generation who aren't so wedded to the status quo. As such, The New Capitalist Manifesto takes a more focused look on the challenges of the 21st Century, that of the potential for entrepreneurs and businesses to make the transition to post-industrial prosperity. This requires rethinking just about everything we take for granted about "Capitalism."
While I think Haque over-values the role of companies and under-values the role of government (as well as the new forms of large-scale human organization Shirky is tracking), that's understandable given his background and perspective. Being an entrepreneur myself, I enjoy and appreciate a rational economic analysis of the bewildering chaos we confront daily. It's also highly refreshing to read someone extol the values of sustainability and global consciousness in non-hippy-dippy terms.
In essence, Haque is advocating a re-evaluation of "value", something that can't come a moment too soon. His vision is for an economic system that's based on real costs and which produces meaningful outcomes. Consider: the real cost (via "negative externalities") of a Big Mac is probably an order of magnitude more than its over-the-counter price, meaning it's a net-loss for humanity when one is sold. This is "thin value" in the Manifesto's lexicon. Transactions that produce real benefits for people — make their lives actually better and don't have large un-priced negative externalities, or possibly even improve the state of the world — constitute "thick" value, and are the way of the future.
I'm skeptical that this sort of shift will happen spontaneously. Indeed, Old Man Dewey has convinced me that management of negative externalities is one of the prime reasons the Public exists. However, credit Haque for cogently explaining how many companies (including 20th Century villains like Wal*Mart and Nike) are adopting a "thick value" perspective and outpacing their competitors.
Finally there's David MItchell's Cloud Atlas, a novelly constructed novel which stitches together six interlocking narratives spanning the 17th to (presumably) 22nd Centuries. In addition to a gripping set of adventure stories and satisfyingly elegant literary style shifts, the book manages an admirable meditation on the nature of power and hierarchy in human relationships, beginning and ending with the question of slavery.
It's something of an achievement to address these kinds of topics without slipping into didactic bombast, dry intellectualism, or flaccid cliche. Mitchell's ability to build his themes via subtle repetition across separate contexts serves him well here, and I recommend the book regardless of whether to dig the rest of my non-fictional diet. It's a cracking good read. Without spoiling the plot I can quote a lengthy passage which has some cumulative clout:
If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being... You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the "natural" (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?
Why? Because of this:—one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
Is this the doom written within our nature?
If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
A life spent shaping a world I want [my son] to inherit, not one I fear [he] shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living.
And ok, so that passage might seem cliche, but coming after the rest of the novel it hits better and harder.
When I was out in NYC over the holidays, I had a pretty awesome seafood dinner with my sister and her special man friend Bret, at the end of which he gave a compelling case for why a novel (and art generally) matters: it removes the mind from the smooth plastic and consistent flow of life in a commodified consumer democracy — what Randall Kent Cohn poetically referred to as "our fluorescent, cheeseburger day to day" one afternoon back in Theater School — and creates the opportunity for perspective.
Arts and Letters literally obstruct our senses, presenting an alternative universe for however long our attention can be held. There's the tension for artists: can't bore people while tickling their consciousness-bone, but can't just feed 'em pap either unless you're just banging it out for ducats ala Dan Brown.
In that sprit, chasing two non-fictional meditations on the here-and-now transformation gripping the world with a century-spanning literary digestif was a stroke of good luck for my powers of comprehension. Bully for me. Here's what this all led me to think.
In this great Century the potential exists for the first time to create an effective and non-oppressive set of rules that span the entire globe. Only within such a framework of global scope is a working post-industrial economy with 6 billion participants humanely possible.
However, envisioning this future is an enormous challenge. The future renders self-evident what was inconceivable (or blasphemous) in the past. The contours of the 21st Century are so murky because they seem to be headed for such a gross departure from life as we know it:
- A global 21st Century won't be governed by 20th Century institutions. A global future doesn't mean a next-gen UN, but rather a conception of humanity that begins to transcend "national interest" in a broad-based way.
- It's more about people in the countries currently rising (India, China, Latin America, etc) than the "superpowers" of yesteryear. This is confusing and bewildering for many in the US, but it's really not our world.
- This future requires developing a viable alternative to the current system of wages-based labor, and consumer culture. The servitude/consumer economy is a dead-end, and producing meaning globally won't provide conventional full-time employment for three billion.
Those are enormous challenges, but barring massive catastrophe they are going to play out one way or another. The wheels are already in motion, but I think a critical question as to how things develop is that of inequality, and what it is that people like you and me decide to do.
The bright future essentially requires the rise of a something like a global middle class or a global Public: a connected and conscious population of educated and economically stable people who are able to shape the course of events worldwide though the exercise rational discourse and locally-based influence. If that can develop — via the kind qualities evidenced in Shirky's book and the enlightened competition envisioned by Haque's — things should go pretty well for humanity.
The alternative of continued leadership by a narrow economic/political elite is untenable. The interest alignment just isn't there to produce good outcomes, and a continuation of the current trajectories will result in something akin to a new Dark Ages, with a corpulent aristocracy hanging on to its existing privilege to the detriment of other human progress.
This isn't to suggest that elites (or even just us enviable folks with a little disposable income) are evil or morally deficient. Some are and some arent, but the point is that broadly these kinds of motivations don't and can't align with the notion of a world-spanning Public.
Why? This elite cohort is already sufficiently empowered as to transcend local allegiances. They are accountable primarily to one another, not to the species. Worse, as they are not great in number the world still seems relatively big and empty: they can continue charting a course to global ruin while maintaining plenty of cozy places to congregate and enjoy one anothers company.
Indeed, that's how a lot of the world already works, and it's a replicable pattern down to regular people. The huge potential downside of the internet is the ability to selectively tune your consciousnes via accessing information selectively. You don't need a private jet to bliss out inside a bubble.
As Mitchell wrote, "You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds." The question is whether and how long we are content merely to "fare not so badly."