The opening keynote speaker at this weekend’s World Future 2012 conference this weekend was Lee Rainie, the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Lee’s topic, “Future of the Internet”, was described as follows in the conference agenda:
In this keynote presentation based on his latest book, Networked: The New Social Operating System (co-authored with Barry Wellman), Dr. Rainie will discuss the findings of the most recent expert surveys on the future of teens’ brains, the future of universities, the future of money, the impact of Big Data, the battle between apps and the Web, the spread of gamefication, and the impact of smart systems on consumers.
That was a lot to cover in 45 minutes, but Lee said he would speak fast – and he did!
Analysis of the Pew Internet expert surveys Lee mentions is available online at http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/2012survey/ – where you’ll find a wealth of fascinating material.
But Lee’s summary of the summary (if I can put it like that) is that there are two potential pathways ahead, between now and 2020, regarding what happens with Internet technology:
- In one pathway, we all benefit: the fruits of improving Internet technologies are widely shared
- In another pathway, the benefits are much more restricted, to “them”.
Hence the question: “More for us all, or more for them?”
“Them” could be political leaders, or it could be corporate leaders.
Listening to Lee’s words, I was struck by a powerful resonance with the main theme of a BIG book on history that I’m the processing of reading. (Actually, I’m listening to an Audible version of it on my iPod.)
The book is “Why nations fail the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty“, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. It has a marvelous sweep through events in all eras of human history and in all corners of the globe.
I’m only six hours into what will be a 15 hour long listen, but I already suspect this to be the most important book about history that I’ve ever read. (And as regular readers of this blog know, I read a lot.)
It’s not just “one thing after another” (fascinating though that kind of history book can be), but a profound analysis of the causes of divergence between societies with prosperity and societies with poverty.
In brief, the primary differentiator is the kind of political institutions that exist:
- Are they extractive, in which the outputs of society are siphoned by a relatively small elite
- Or are they inclusive, which a much greater sharing of power, influence, and potential benefit?
The nature of political institutions in turn influence the nature and operation of economic institutions.
The book has many striking examples of how ruling elites blocked the development or the wider application of technology and/or market reforms, fearing the “creative destruction” which would be likely to follow – threatening their grip on power.
One example in the book is the story of the reaction of the Roman emperor Tiberius to the invention of unbreakable glass. This story is also told by, for example, Computer World blogger John Riley, in his article “Why innovation is not always welcomed with open arms“:
The story of the Roman inventor of flexible glass 2000 years ago is a salutary lesson for all innovators, especially those within organisations.
As Isadore of Seville tells it, the inventor went to the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) with a drinking bowl made of this flexible and ductile glass, and threw in on the ground to demonstrate that it didn’t shatter.
Tiberius asked him if anyone else knew about the invention. The inventor said he’d told no-one.
And he was instantly beheaded.
What the unfortunate inventor hadn’t seen was the big picture – Tiberius had instantly realised that cheap, easily produced flexible glass that didn’t break would wreck the Imperial monopoly on gold and silver!
That, sadly is too often the case in big companies, where someone comes up with a bright idea which in practice means interfering with a profitable short term operation or disintermediating a product line.
In such cases innovators these days don’t get killed – they get ignored, sidelined, blocked or gagged under non-disclosures. Many innovative products have been rejected by large suppliers controlling projects when they threaten monopolistic inefficiencies. There are many cases of other innovations being bought up and mothballed…
As Acemoglu and Robinson point out, in a different political climate, the inventor could have taken his invention to market without the explicit knowledge and permission of the ruling elite (such as the emperor). That would be a world in which, to return to my opening question, there would more likely be technology benefits for everyone, rather than control of technology being subordinated to the benefits of a clique.
But our current political climate is highly troubled. My friend and Humanity+ UK co-organiser Amon Kalkin describes the situation like this:
We are in a time of crisis. Large numbers of people are increasingly disenfranchised, squeezed on all sides and with no hope of appeal to authorities. Why? Because those very same authorities – our governments – are virtually indistinguishable from the corporate interests who are gaining most from the current situation. We live under a system where our votes essentially don’t matter. You can pick a team, but you’re not allowed to change the rules of the game. Even worse, we have been trained to think of this as a normal and natural situation. Who are we to question these powerful people? Who are we to awaken, to unify and demand change?
Rather than just considering the topic “Why Nations Fail“, we might well consider “Why Transnational Institutions Fail” – referring to, for example, the evident problems within the Eurozone and within the United Nations.
The same imperative applies: we need to find a mode of collaboration that avoids being subverted by the special interests of ruling minorities – whether these minorities be economic elites or political elites.
That imperative has led Amon to found the Zero State movement:
Zero State is a movement for positive social change through technology.
We’re a grass-roots world community pursuing smart, compassionate solutions to problems, and improving the human condition.
Personal transformative technologies we pursue include life extension and Artificial Intelligence. Social projects include accelerating change, basic income, Meshnet and Bitcoin, while lifestyle initiatives explore areas such as the arts, spirituality, fashion and culture.
More recently, Amon and various other Zero State members are launching a political party, “Consensus“, to promote their Zero State vision. My quote above (“We are in a time of crisis…”) comes from Amon’s description of what he plans to say at the launch meeting for Consensus that will take place next weekend in London.
For more details about this launch event, see this announcement on the London Futurist meetup site:
The case for a Zero State political movement
Many futurists envisage a better, more compassionate society, organized in terms of using technological developments to maximize well-being rather than simply concentrating resources in a few ultra-rich hands and leaving everybody else increasingly worse off. But all too often, futurists talk about positive outcomes as if such things come without work or struggle. They are apparently oblivious to the fact that right now our society is stalling, strangled by a tiny proportion of citizens who do not share our values.
There have been few moments in the history of our society like the one facing us now, where deep crisis also offers the opportunity for deep, positive change. It’s the time for futurists to step up to actively guide our society toward the better futures we envisage.
The CONSENSUS is a newly-formed UK-based political party which seeks to harness the intelligence and compassion to be found among futurists and other subcultures to the design of a real, improved future, for us and our children. Drawing inspiration from the eight principles of the Zero State movement, the CONSENSUS will encourage people to think about the possibilities open to society once again.
The CONSENSUS is the first party of its kind. We intend to reach out to other parties and groups who share similar views and goals. If we are successful, there will soon be a number of CONSENSUS parties at the national level around the world, all part of an organization known as the Consensus of Democratic Futurist Parties (CDFP). The UK CONSENSUS is already affiliated with an international futurist organization in the Zero State movement, and the seeds of multiple local political parties have been sown.
We welcome the opportunity to hear your views about the state of society today and its future, and what are the issues and goals that we should focus on. No matter what your own views are, this is your chance to have your say, and to have it influence a concrete course of action.
If you care about our future, and the possibility of finding intelligent, compassionate solutions to our problems, then we encourage you to come to this meeting to:
- find out how you can help
- join the conversation
- offer your views on how we should move forward…