Public Interest at the Planetary Scale
I'm always surprised when I meet someone who shares my fuzzy vision of globally networked democracy as the plausibly positive planetary prospectus.
This idea is out there, in the air. People sense kind of intuitively that easy/instant global communication will probably change the way we govern ourselves, but even in the thought bubble of San Francisco it's not something that seems to get a lot of direct attention.
I recently had a couple of run-ins, one with a future-focused magazine curator in SF and another with a Berkeley PhD turned Goldman Sachs wizard in New York. It got me thinking about why it's so surprising to find these types of connections.
Tech people tend to be lower-level in their interests — debating the bits and bytes of different languages, products, techniques and companies — and the business-end of the change we're living tends to get a lot more media attention than the broader social implications. Not surprising given the cultural context we inhabit, but still kind of a shame.
To the extent that "big picture" ideas get much play on the nerd scene, people seemed more taken by the Singularity, the computation-driven quasi-apocalypse. It's a neat sci-fi diversion — an interesting enough Dark Future, good for a pulpy novel or two — but doesn't strike me as imminently practical model for anticipating or piloting the future. Other big-think doomsayers fixate on Peak Oil, or the collapse of the global economy, etc.
While I'm as big a fan as anyone of Red Dawn disaster fantasies, I don't really believe preparation for total societal collapse is a wise use of resources. Human beings always believe the end of the world is coming, and we tend to be wrong. The future will bring change, no doubt, but the operative question (to me) is not "how can we ride this out in a compound?" but rather "how do we get ourselves to a new Golden Age?"
So, as long I'm getting back into the swing of being a public communicator, I thought I might try to outline and expound on the ideas along these lines that I wish got more attention and consideration.
Science is my Religion, Culture is my Church
To me, all of this begins with existential questions like "why are we here?" The satisfactory answers break down into two basic categories:
- To explore the universe.
- To improve the human condition.
These two basic imperatives provide an effectively endless wellspring of meaning. Sheer scale insures that the universe isn't going to stop providing us with mysteries anytime soon, whether that's looking out into the cosmos or inward to the nature of reality.
As for serving the human condition, well, you never really reach Utopia. When it comes to anything that's about people, ultimately it's always a moving target with infinite potential for improvement, variation and creativity.
Given this, how do we characterize a Golden Age? What does a post-modern renaissance look like?
One key to the way I think about things is that the future is all about the planet, and I don't mean that in an environmentalist way. I'm sympathetic to the cause of preservation — it's good to try and keep beautiful or interesting or rare things around, and there's an implicit message about stewardship in any planetary-scale thinking — but I mean this in a very pragmatic sense.
The most pithy phrase to describe my perspective is Buckminster Fuller's "Spaceship Earth" notion: think of our planet as a ship on a journey. We have resources, space, people, but everything is finite. Earth is a vessel on which we transit the universe. There are no significant frontiers left here, and it's high time we realized we're literally all in the same boat.
The universe is infinitely bigger than us, and we're only just beginning what is hopefully a very long journey to discover more about it, and about ourselves. The first thing we've got to learn to do is manage our ship. Eventually we'll get off-planet — indeed, this is an important thing to work on — but the immediate task of running the show a bit better is fracking obvious.
We're In It For The Species, People
Another component to that planetary perspective is looking at humanity holistically. We share quarters on our spaceship, and ultimately if we're going to operate it optimally we need to coordinate pretty much everyone.
There's such an enormous amount of work to be done, I really can't see it coming together without as many people participating as possible. Setting aside issues of justice and equality, from a purely practical standpoint we need all hands on deck.
That means upgrading the places where human potential is squandered due to ancient problems like famine and pestilence. Primary infrastructure needs to be up to par; not just in terms of roads and plumbing and communications, but also social infrastructure like access to quality education and the opportunity to be creative.
It also means addressing places where opportunity is lacking, or where human capital is squandered on tedious, trivial or even tragic pursuits. Just as much as we need to continue progress in the "developing" parts of the world, we need to get our act together in places like the Estados Unidos, where we're increasingly unhealthy, diverted with spectacle, and over-invested in legacy pursuits (war machine, suburbia, academic trivia, etc) that don't provide much value.
Globalization For The Rest of Us
Practically this means more dialogue and exchange — commercially, intellectually, and aesthetically. And not just more by volume, but more democratized. It shouldn't be just mega-corporations, VIPs, and heads of state who enjoy the fruits of globalization. Again, I'm skipping the basic argument about fairness here and making a practical point: it's going to take wide spectrum access to really build a future worth having.
With much respect to the fine people I know who roll on the Davos/Aspen circuit or help out around the UN, etc, our existing global institutions are clearly not up to the task of managing the planet. The existing elites and experts are too narrow in their perspectives, experiences, and personal bandwidth to drive the change we need to see. It's going to take pressure and participation from orders of magnitude more people in order for the existing systems to evolve, do the right thing, or at a minimum just get out of the way as new systems emerge.
What we need to see in the 21st Century is for the upsides of Globalization to be delivered broad swaths of the population, and I don't mean cheap electronics. While it's true that vast (and fragile) middle classes are being incubated in Asia, the initial stages of planetary integration have mostly been about liberating capital, driving inequality and elitism as much as development.
The real benefits are agency and participation in a world community, the ability to be a real world-citizen. These boons have been limited to a small group of companies and individuals that have emerged over the past 30 years. That's starting to change, and not a minute too soon.
If I'm lucky enough not to be dreaming here, if any of this starts coming to pass, these ideas are going to meet resistance. The implied re-allocation of resources will threaten entrenched powers and incumbent business interests. Expect to see a lot of scoffing, marginalization and legal pushback from the powers that be; even though broad prosperity should be good for their long-term self-interest, not many of them really think that way.
Separately, isolationist nations and conservative cultures will not welcome the intrusion of a globalized culture that seeks to enforce a baseline equality and places a value on diversity and freedom of expresion. The politburo in China's not going to suddenly have an epiphany and open up their internet. If anything, I would expect them to take steps to disengage further, lest they lose control.
This change is going to sweep things away. Traditions will be lost. Languages may die out. Economies will be disrupted and entire ways of life could cease to exist. This is nothing new, but it's worth keeping in mind that even though I am talking about an optimistic future, it's not going to come without struggle, and it won't always be pretty.
The Only Way Out Is Through
But it's got to happen. I don't see any positive alternatives. We've spent the better part of four centuries conducting an accidental geo-engineering experiment, digging up millions of years worth of stored sunlight — various hydrocarbons — and using it to power a population boom that led us to the point of being able to realize what we're now responsible for. The only way to keep it together is to keep it together.
Conservationist regression or isolationist survivalism aren't real answers. They aren't a global vision. I think there's something solid in this idea of Resilient Communities, being robust and largely self-reliant is great, but not as a flavor of retreat. There's no going back.
And I don't think we have to consider going back. I don't believe we're over a sustainable human carrying capacity for the planet, and even if we are it's not by a huge amount, and we aught to be able to manage a soft landing. There's no reason to assume a crash or crisis are necessary outcomes, especially if we can act.
But I digress. TL;DR, the point is that:
- A near-term goal for the human species is to globally coordinate in managing planetary resources effectively.
- Existing institutions and political frameworks are insufficient to the task.
- Our best bet is to foster and extend meaningful conversation and coordination using the Public internet.
- If successful, this will result in the first potential realization of a planetary-scale public interest.
Some of this is achievable through direct action — literally just getting more people talking to more people via better tools and network access — and some of it requires the capture of existing (or creation of new) institutions, the development of a widely-held vision. In other words, we can and should start now, but it's not a quick flip.