In my last essay, I looked at the coming “Great Transition” which, I believe, is the kind of event that happens every 1,000 or 10,000 years. In such a disruption, we must understand that most of our “civilization toolkit” will have to be entirely re-invented. I find that it can often be difficult to process this level of reinvention. Even when we consciously try to hold ourselves to a high standard, our habits of mind inevitably impose themselves on what we envision — and we unconsciously smuggle much of our current world into our imagined future. We look to the future and imagine flying cars.
The approach that I’ve learned to take when tasked with a deeply disruptive imagination is to tear contemporary institutions down to their baseline fundamentals. “Boil off” the medium and mechanism and get to the core social or human-level functions that these institutions are attempting to satisfy. From here, we can dip into our provisional “toolkit from the future” and invent new institutional architectures that satisfy the fundamental needs — but in an entirely rethought fashion.
By example, about seven years ago now, I was invited to contemplate the “future of journalism” by the Knight Foundation. This was an intriguing problem as, having been born just before Watergate, I had never known American Journalism as anything other than the caricature that it was to become.
So, when we look at a function like “journalism” we first must be clear: it has absolutely nothing to do with the medium. Journalism is not a function of journals. Or radio, television, newsapers, blogs, etc. These are all instantiations of the “generator function,” but they aren’t the essence. Nor even are many of the good practices taught at journalism school of the essence.
It is only when we apply enough heat to boil off all of the transients, that we get down to the core: journalism is the function whereby society sources, orients and processes information. It is part of a larger complex that includes science and education. Sourcing information about the world and disseminating it within the social environment to maximize its richness, accuracy and generativity for our “collective intelligence.” Within this larger complex, if we pull at the threads of “journalism” specifically, we might say that it focuses on the “realtime edge” — good journalism makes sure that new information is routed to the right people with fidelity and clarity.
As we go through the process of reinventing, we are going to consistently come face-to-face with the perhaps unpleasant reality that all of our contemporary institutions are failing at doing what they are supposed to do. Ultimately, this is a good thing. It means that every day it gets both easier and more important that we detach from obsolete institutions and replace them with reinvented ones. In some cases, this will be a relatively easy task. For example, given the contemporary state of our legacy journalism institutions, replacing them with nothing would be a decided improvement.
But, of course, we don’t intend to replace these core functions with nothing. In the second, constructive, move, we take a pass at trying to implement structures that will richly satisfy our needs (e.g., the function of journalism) — using our “toolkit from the future”. In a previous post, I presented a heuristic for what these tools might look like:
We can conjecture, for example, that the journalism of the future will be distributed — with every individual in society playing a continuous role in providing the function. Indeed, given the primary importance and power of True Information to a well functioning Abundance Society, we might well expect that providing honest and thoughtful evaluation of experiences will become one of the principal activities in the future. Perhaps a main portion of the economy of Abundance will involve having experiences, evaluating them and curating them in a collective effort to ensure that every member of society is consistently presented with the best possible set of experiences for them to encounter at every moment.
A conspicuous feature of the journalism of the future will be a deep lack of Authority. There will be no notion of looking for The One Right Answer from an Unimpeachable Authority. Consequently, we might also expect to be spared Authority’s repressive sibling: rendering everything into a porridge of “opinion”.
Rather, a good collective intent would be a refreshing sense of humility. An ethos for the collective journalism of the future: don’t have opinions and don’t expect that you or anyone will ever have the Truth. Instead, speak your personal truth with honesty and integrity — and constantly endeavour to become more capable of discernment and clarity. In a society where this ethos becomes a daily practice of everyone, we can produce a truly awe-inspiring “collective intelligence.”
It’s important, of course, not to get Utopian. Error, capriciousness, lassitude, and self-righteousness are, and will continue to be, all-too-human. Yet, for all of their flaws, contemporary architectures like Reddit, Yelp and to a lesser extent Wikipedia are embryonic forms of what our future “attention management” architectures will look like. The buzzing confusion of social media demonstrates that our ancient communal instincts for sharing and social signaling are as robust as ever. The challenge lies not in human nature, but in how we architect our environment to express the aspects of human nature that are most collaborative and generative.
It is certainly not a trivial task to architect “attention economies” that reward honesty and integrity while downregulating “defection” behaviour. But from what we know in cognitive-neuroscience and behavioural economics, it is well within the realm of the possible. And we don’t have to be close to perfect to be vastly better than anything we’ve seen before.
Obviously, this is not an effort to fully or even partially detail out the richness of an attention management solution adequate to replace our current journalism functions. The intent right now is only to use journalism as an example of how, at a high level, we can go about the general process of “reinvention”.
This process of reducing a core social function to its baseline, ruthlessly carving away the artifacts of how we have satisfied it in the past, and then recreating it using “tools from the future” is generalizable. Over the next few months, we will apply it to many of the functions that are necessary to present enough of the Society of Abundance that more and more people can begin to emigrate to those far shores.
We should always be mindful, of course, that little of what we conjecture, architect and design will survive first contact with reality. We should be certain that the pioneers of Abundance will discover, create and construct in ways that we can only vaguely sense. Nonetheless, if you want to get to the New World, you must first build some boats.
Provisionally, I will offer Max Neef’s work on human needs as a resource. The Chilean economist has done much of the necessary work articulating “fundamental human needs” at a level that is both deeper than and abstracted from the institutional structures that societies use to satisfy those needs. Though we likely need not articulate a social architecture that satisfies all of these needs before we are at a tipping point, we can be sure that all of these needs will ultimately need to be satisfied — and satisfied well — by the Abundance Society.
As I contemplate this list, two things occur to me. The first is how poorly our current institutions satisfy our real human needs. It’s not their fault, of course, they were invented a long time ago and have had a pretty darn good run. But over the decades they’ve suffered from what Joseph Tainter calls “decreasing returns to complexity”. Which is to say that their only response to any new challenge is “more of the same.” And “the same” isn’t working any more. What’s happening now is that rather than providing healthy, effective “satisfiers”, what our current model tends to provide is “pseudo-satisfiers” like social media that present themselves as satisfying needs, when they really don’t. Or, worse, “violators” like fast food that present themselves as satisfying needs when they really make things worse. It really is the toolkit itself that needs replacing.
The second thing that occurs to me is how simple it really can be. Imagine two coffee shops. The first is Starbucks, the second is a thriving local shop. The first kind of solves a human need — you can get your coffee. Relatively quickly. Cheaply enough that you feel fine about the transaction. But then consider the second shop. There you can also get your coffee. It might be a little more expensive, it might be a little higher quality. But the big difference is in the sense of community. The second place is alive. You see friends greeting each-other. You feel conversation and conviviality. The barista knows your name and the way you like your latte.
There are four or five different human needs being satisfied all at once in a place like this. This is called a “synergistic satisfier”. It seems clear that the Abundance Society will be constructed largely from synergistic satisfiers. We can already see that happening — its a big piece of “social capital” and why services like AirBnB are so explosive. Because it turns out that a little human-ness goes a long way.
The other piece of our task will be to imagine our migration strategy. Human beings and our social institutions are naturally conservative. For good reason — in general, change is dangerous. And for those who have power in the legacy architecture, change can be perceived as a threat. Consequently, we can be sure that the movement from the Society of Scarcity to the Society of Abundance will not be seamless. Forces of control — both from within and from without — will react with fear and all the behaviours that come from fear. It will take some care to construct a new social architecture that can detach from the old without devolving into darkness.
5) Connection to the new system is a function of desire/membership and a willingness to live by a set of rules, both at the individual level and at the level of the resilient community. Membership is not based on geography or accident of birth, it is earned through behavior.
Constructing this system will be no mean feat. At the same time, we should be reminded of the fact that our existing institutions are failing. In a very important sense, those ships have sailed. The crisis is upon us. Waiting and hoping that “things will work out” will be to no avail. Our construction of a New Society is as much a consequence of necessity as opportunity. The longer we wait the more the balance will move from opportunity to necessity.
Right now most of the world still lives in relative comfort. The longer we delay our courage, the more intense our situation. Of course, at the same time, the future is constantly becoming present — and every day, each of our various tools from the future become more mature. So perhaps our mantra:slow is smooth; smooth is fast. Deliberate. Thoughtful. Smooth.
In this context, my next essay will examine the strategic situation — the lay of the land and how poised the current system is for transformation. At least from a few aspects that I think are important. After that, we can take a deep dive into a few aspects that are clearly in need of reinventing.