Friday, 6 November 2015

Weltschmerz and Technological Optimism

Now doesn't seem to be a good time for optimism. "The world turns on its dark side," as Michael Tippett begins his oratorio "A child of our time". That was 1939. And now? Are we on the threshold of a third world war? Might it have already started in the Middle East? - warfare is no longer declared, after all (what a odd concept it is to declare a war - that's some speech act!). To be sure, many of the ingredients are there: the immense forces of powerful technologies we can't understand or control, rampant globalisation, economic inequality, environmental degradation, the collapse of democracy into authoritarianism (Turkey looks like it's the latest casualty), endemic fear, runaway markets and political ineptitude. Elites are now global corporations rather than national rulers, and although corporations cannot directly raise arms, indirectly they can and do: oil barons are notoriously trigger-happy with cruise-missiles. History gives us parallels: the complexity of forces looks like 1914; corporate adventurism looks like the East India Company; the increasing array of unpleasant national leaders all bear resemblance to monsters of the past. But we're somewhere new, strange and scary.

Now is the time for optimism. Whatever unfolds in the coming years, only a determined belief that our problems can be solved will deliver us from catastrophe. Indeed, we might hope that we find our way out of the current crisis without major conflict. But the deep problems have to be resolved, and I believe that these problems concern a rift that we have forced upon ourselves between our technologies and our humanity. We have allowed technology to create problems it can solve - and war, unfortunately, is the ultimate problem that technology has always solved. To address this, and to solve our real problem, we have to ask what technologies our society actually needs. This is not the world of Cohen and March's 'garbage can' model of decision-making: that is precisely what has taken us to where we are - technologies in search of a problem create problems. It is, rather, a world of intersubjective acknowledgement which has to engage each person with the responsible work of caring for the "commons of humanity". What technologies do we require to support 10 billion custodians of humanity's commons?

Perhaps another way of phrasing this is to ask how we should understand the tools that we have. Our most powerful tool is the global communications network. It has complexity and potential beyond anything we can imagine. Yet we have allowed our aspiration to be limited and our imaginations dulled by crude capitalism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in education. Here we take our extraordinary communications networks and decide that we can re-make our dire educational practices on a gargantuan scale: a lecture theatre for 2 million people! How 'innovative'.

But what if we were to ask, What (or who) is each person who is connected to this network? What are their learning needs? What are the needs of the society to which they belong? How can we make the connection between the two? In reality, we spend most of our time in education reinforcing the barriers between the learning needs of individuals and the needs of society as we allow elite institutions to create scarcity in certifying deficient educational practices. In so doing, we've encouraged the formation of a 'market' in the game of status acquisition which now stands for "meeting the learning needs of the individual". Marketised education is a technology which creates problems it can solve. This won't help us.

The deep question is about the person: you, me, men, women and children. But the question about the person is a question about relations: the relation between you and me; the relation between men and women. We are, in the final analysis, custodians of relationships. What tools might we use to help us perform this? I can only suggest a vague answer. I believe we need tools to help us understand and coordinate the constraints within which each of us lives. Our communication network can be harnessed to help us understand global constraints. It can monitor the constraints that we ourselves create. It is interesting to reflect that if such technology was possible, it would represent an inversion of government. Governments coordinate society by attenuating its complexity by introducing constraints (laws) which are often arbitrary. It does this because we are often unaware of each others (and our own) constraints. But if a technology could help us become aware of our constraints, the role of government in creating constraints becomes unnecessary as individuals in their communities work within known constraints to contribute to the viability of their communities and the wider world. The learning need of the individual is knowledge of constraint; the need of society is viability.

Our technologies give us powerful ways we can understand each other and ourselves. New developments like VR and the Internet of Things provide deeper ways in which we can come to know each other: they are constraint amplifiers. When we truly know another person, we understand what constrains them. If we are in trouble at the moment, it is because we have fallen into a trap of allowing technology to create constraints that we struggle to understand. 

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