You are an educated and up-to-date reader, of course, but just to make certain that you haven’t missed it, I would like to underscore that we are today living in a time of unparalleled social, technological and cultural change and development. The scientific revolution of the 17th century, the Enlightenment of the 18th, the industrial and chemical revolutions of the 19th century and even the combustion engine and the communications of the 20th century were all peanuts in comparison to the scope of what is going on today. It is as if all of these revolutions were happening at once.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: a metamodern guide to politics, book one’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter named “Crisis-Revolution” which investigates the newly dug trenches in contemporary politics, the new classes and polarization to emerge and the rise of “trumpism” in the US and populist nationalism in Europe.
Today we are experiencing an era in which several extremely far-reaching revolutions of technology, thinking and behavior are occurring simultaneously. For better and/or worse, profound changes are very likely to take place in the coming decades.
The first such change is simply the maturing of information and communication technology itself. We live in an information age and this affects all parts of our lives. We think differently, we act differently, we socialize differently. Our worldviews begin to evolve much faster, as we begin sifting through more and more information. New challenges appear – from Facebook time wasted and gaming addictions to grooming pedophiles entering the bedrooms of children via computer screens, to new ways of distinguishing ourselves that tempt us to create emotionally inauthentic virtual identities, to the selectivity in our reading of news articles – the list goes on. As I write this, the so-called “dark net” is booming: anonymity at last, married of course to a stupefying quantity of criminality and all manner of online depravities.
Computers saturate every aspect of everyone’s life, changing governance, production, distribution, transportation, travelling and science. Education is being made available through MOOCs (massive open online courses), Khan Academy and Coursera, and soon it will be transformed in a massive surge of gamification.
Given the dramatic changes of the last twenty years, and that these have been accelerating and becoming all the more radical, we are looking at an entirely new form of society. The amount of information is growing at what appears to be an exponential rate – and yes, here “exponential” is the correct term. The same goes for the total of computational power available, with the possibility of quantum computing becoming increasingly tangible. From the bankers of Wall Street to the Mumbai rickshaw taxi driver’s daughter, the basic conditions of life are shifting. And we haven’t even entered step two of this revolution: virtual reality, now appearing as gadgets, but soon as a strong opium for the people in the form of games, pornography, travel, work interfaces or online meetings in realistic 3D environments.
And peace be with us, this is only one out of several technological revolutions that seem to be at our doorstep. Another, related one, is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics – and self-learning machines, “deep learning” through “stacked neural networks”. We will increasingly be able to exchange complex human work with machine labor. This may or may not “cause unemployment” (a question that is likely to look sillier by the year), but it can and will cause profound shifts in the way that we live our lives, as the robots become better at learning new tasks that go far beyond running a production plant and beyond self-driving cars. The employments of doctors, teachers, programmers, musicians and research assistants can all, in principle, be challenged by the AI. The more dramatic forecasts of futurists, like those of Ray Kurzweil, suggest that we are approaching “the singularity”, when computers begin to take control of their own development. Even without accepting such fanciful speculations, we can safely assume that AI will be a major force of change.
Another budding revolution is the nanotechnological one. Nanotech is likely to solve fundamental problems of scarcity and has the potential to create abundance of a whole new magnitude. The growing ability to manipulate structures at the atomic level – and the tremendous drive in scientists to successfully do so – can create all manner of useful substances with incredible properties from virtually no raw material. Nanotech also faces us with perhaps the greatest environmental risks to date; much, much worse than plastics. Not to mention the implications of its medical uses and the closing gap between organic and non-organic applied chemistry.
And then there is the even stronger and more well-funded drive to manipulate life itself. We have an ongoing genetics revolution, nearing the possibility to manipulate and shape the human genetic code – which just took a giant leap with the CRISPR technology (Clustered Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) – allowing anybody with a lab to alter genetic code. To this category we should add not only epigenetics, the study of gene activation and deactivation in living organisms, but also the broader field of “human enhancement”, i.e. the use of various technologies to change or improve upon the human body itself – not least by merging our bodies with machine parts. The so-called transhumanist movement is gaining traction with its radical ideas about the how technology can and should be applied to change humanity itself. And transhumanist philosophers draw a following consisting largely of tech-savvy scientists, doctors and engineers who show an almost frightening zeal in their quest to remake humanity. Bio-hacking is growing in peer-to-peer communities, a form of applied do-it-yourself biology. Even within the humanities, starting with Donna Haraway (a biologist gone humanities professor), people are talking about “the cyborg”, the merging of humanity and the machine, and how it relates to gender issues and whatnot.
Beyond that, we have a host of ongoing developments that by themselves are revolutionary. Look at energy prices – how solar panel energy is becoming cheaper and how many innovations are beginning to show up in this area, including new forms of nuclear power. Take a look at housing, where we are beginning to construct homes that are largely self-supporting – and cheaper, and designed by the customer with modules. Look at the 3D-printers and drones, democratizing customized production and distribution (as well as the distribution of bombs, in the case of drones). Look at the Internet of Things – connecting all of our everyday objects to the same cooperating network.
Look at the peer-to-peer production movements, in which people have begun to be able to produce cars at only a small percentage of the previous costs.
Look at cradle-to-cradle production and the sharing economy and what in Germany is called Industrie 4.0 (when the customer orders a full tailor-made industrial production from scratch).
Look at the mobile revolution, today driving the ongoing migration (the waves of immigrants are harder to stop because they share information with one another).
Look at Big Data and data mining – the explosively useful and dangerous analysis of vast quantities of real-life information gathered by registering user behavior.
Look at the Quantified Self movement and the increasing ability to measure yourself in a myriad of ways and create your own data, including information on your own genetics.
Look at the Effective Altruists and their increasingly evidence-based forms of charity showing up in so many areas.
Look at the staggering number and diversity of hi-tech companies being born, bought and sold. Not to mention the growing number of world-altering innovations brought about by talented children.
Look at the block chain technologies, Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, and the increasingly vocal and serious critique of the monetary system, banking and rents.
And then turn your gaze to the seismic shifts of perspective that are taking place across our conceptual maps of the world. The physicists are giving us an entirely new view of reality, called string theory, where potentiality is real and multiple universes may be possible. Fundamental notions such as causality are being attacked as illusions of the senses and our living, participatory perspectives are proving to be ingrained into – entangled with – the very fabric of space, time and matter. The cosmologists are bending reality farther and farther beyond what we can recognize or may even comprehend. The philosophers and mystics are tearing down the idea of a separate self, an ego at the center of existence, from all sides – leaving only a longing, empty space that needs to be filled with relations and participation. Neuroscience is exploding, with its philosophical cousin cognitive science following suit and the strange next cousin computational neuroscience still being born. So-called posthumanist thinkers are radically challenging humanity’s biased view of herself in relation to the other animals and the rest of reality, taking us beyond the anthropocentric (human-biased) perspectives we have hitherto lived by. The mathematicians are teaching us that most things in reality emerge through chaos and complexity and that so many of our modes of thought are outdated and dangerous, since we are oblivious of the non-linear patterns and relationships that matter the most. Systems science and systems perspectives are breaking through, from their home bases in computer science, information science, chemistry and ecology – to all aspects of life, including the interactions between physiology and psychology. The social scientists are tearing down the foundations of the state, of the market, of money and of science itself as we have known them. Economists are telling us that the economy we took so seriously was really a myth all along, just a story. Radically new spiritual movements are cropping up, notably the “atheist” practice of Syntheism. And musicians are creating stranger and stranger electrical sounds and rhythms, mixing them with strained voices, as if to underscore just how mysterious, yet peculiarly familiar, it all seems. And fashionable, tattooed young female DJs play that music on the dance floor, and we dance under flashing lights into the darkness and get high and drunk and make out, as the reality we thought we knew is being torn down and we plunge into the sublime and the unknown. And far out into the desert, under the clear skies of that luminous, open blackness lit by perfect stars, we find each other in an intimate, loving embrace. Without the slightest effort we converse for hours and all of reality melts away as we let go of our inner shields and become one. In that timeless moment of forgiving embrace we lose ourselves and find ourselves, both at once.
The next morning we wake up in new outlandish company. Or are we still dreaming? Are we alone, or are we together? Can we ever be alone or together? We’ll have to discuss these questions later. This is also a time of deep, multifarious crisis. However mysteriously terrifying and sublime our age may be, we must remain sober, clear sighted, responsible.
The Multidimensional Crisis-Revolution
Now look at the demographics, especially the ongoing population booms in countries like the unstable Nigeria, the quickly aging demographics of Japan and Europe (and increasingly other parts of the world, with birthrates below replacement rates from China to southern India to the Caribbean and Latin America). This brings us to the colossal growth of the world economy at large, with an even more radical growth in trade, and a yet sharper growth in FDI (Foreign Direct Investment). Look at all the new financial instruments, growing in size, speed and influence as the quants (mathematicians and theoretical physicists working for investment banks) use some of the sharpest minds on the planet to continuously make automated stock trading more competitive. Look at the unprecedented volume of knowledge in the hands of the equally unprecedented masses of highly educated people that are more intimately and effectively connected than ever before. Look at the sheer volume of PhDs – within more areas than I could dream of naming or even imagine.
Look at the global political power structure of the world shifting with China, India and Brazil blazing into world prominence, their vast populations rising above poverty (whereas the middle classes of Western societies are shrinking and new poverty growing), and the order of international security changing (with Russia still dangerously stagnating, economically, politically and culturally). Look at the budding global institutions of trade, development and security, from the IMF and WTO to OECD to NATO and IPCC and the many heads of the UN hydra, not to mention the floundering EU – taking us closer, step by step to a proto- form of global polity (a World State), whether we like it or not. In a similar vein, the number of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has kept exploding during the last few decades.
We face no less than nine simultaneous major global ecological crises, according to the Stockholm Resilience Centre (or at least three very acute ones). We are living in an age of mass extinction of species, comparable to the one that ended the age of dinosaurs some 60 million years ago. Almost all animal biomass on land (discounting insects and the like) consists of humans and our enslaved, tortured animals under global industrial farming. Even if wildlife fauna isn’t necessarily happier than domesticated animal life, the exploitative behavior towards non-human animals must be seen not only as unsustainable but also, and primarily, as ethically inexcusable.
Most of the oceans have collapsing ecosystems and most fish are dead or dying (a truly explosive development since 1950: over a trillion aquatic animals are killed per year). The soil is eroding and climate change is striking at the heart of the frail meteorological equilibrium that constitutes our rather young current meteorological epoch. The scientists tell us that we have entered a new geological epoch, the anthropocene, in which humanity shapes the environment more than volcano eruptions and erosion.
To the definite risks we must add the uncertain but even more dramatic ones. There is the threat of nuclear war – and a host of other doomsday scenarios are surfacing as we begin to comprehend the sheer power unleashed by our own gazing into the secrets of the universe – and the universe winks right back at us with a vengeance. Haywire AI, erratic nanotech and global epidemics are the major ones. Senior scientists like Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and physicist Max Tegmark (both of whom founded the Future of Life Institute) warn our leaders at special UN conferences.
And the global capitalist system is based upon perpetual growth. But we have yet to see economic growth without increased exploitation of natural resources – resources that are already overused by a wide margin. Something will have to change for this system to compute and be sustainable. The financial system seems to generate both growth and crisis – and it increasingly concentrates wealth at the top, which in turn seems to hijack our politics by way of lobbying and other artful machinations. Each financial crisis reveals that our political systems are inept to deal with the dramatic changes at hand. And the political system itself is – as outlined above – in a more subtle kind of crisis, losing its grip of a runaway, globalized world.
At the micro-sociological level, most humans are doing better than ever. Yet there is so much confusion, suffering and bitter resentment. How many beautiful, privileged people have I not heard whisper to me, late at night, that if it were up to them, they would never have been born; that they are angry with the world; that they were let down; that they live with guilt and self-doubt; that their friends and families are hypocrites? These are signs of the alienation suffered by modern human beings.
If you don’t already know about the things I have mentioned, you should go back up the list and look them up. You may have serious holes in your education and worldview. To consider yourself up-to-date with the current state of the world you should at least know the basic outline of our day and age.
This is all just to point out a simple fact: the times are changing. And how could they not be? After all – just compare today to a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago. How can we expect immobility from a universe that literally evolved from dust to Shakespeare, as one author wrote? Whatever will come, it is not likely to be business as usual. We need to bet on a good future. And the stakes are very high.
Just consider that right now, this moment, there are a million people out there, working eagerly on something that the rest of us don’t yet quite understand – knowing, knowing that “this will change everything”. If even one percent of them are not mistaken, we will literally have thousands of discoveries, inventions and insights that, each one by itself, changes society in profound and unexpected ways.
Even if some of the things I have mentioned turn out to be exaggerated or based on misconceptions, the totality will certainly be something dramatically new and different as the world-system evolves over the coming decades. What I have not ventured to discuss is that every one of these mentioned phenomena interact with the others at an accelerating pace. We live in a time of “peer-to-peer digitalized nano-bio-tech employed by means of virtual 3D to solve energy problems to address climate change” – and so forth. All of this is happening simultaneously, day by day, in one great web of interacting, evolving nodes.
Do the math – an increasing number of accelerating revolutions and crises, all cross-pollinating at an accelerating pace (the solution to the equation is “boom!” – we just don’t know if it’s fireworks or atom bombs).
When a multiplicity of things explode all at once, in a multidimensional crisis-revolution, our linear models of the world rarely work out – they cannot take on so many different variables (and variables with qualitatively different properties) and their mutual interactions. But that does not mean we should refrain from attempting to understand the times we live in; au contraire, we have even greater reason to analyze society and to try to see the deeper patterns that connect in the chaos.
We need directions, but these directions must necessarily be of an abstract, open-ended nature. We don’t need cookbooks; we need general ideas on how to create good cookbooks, so to speak. We need stories about stories. Meta-narratives.
In circumstances such as these, it is only seemly to anticipate corresponding changes of the political system and how society functions in daily life. Indeed, to ignore the necessary adaptations of political, cultural and psychological development in the face of a multidimensional crisis-revolution would be highly irresponsible. In order to take responsibility we must use an intricate understanding of psychology – the science of the human soul and the behavior of the human organism – to develop social technologies that address the deeper issues at hand.
Politics has changed for all time. This change is part of a wide and profound shift of the world at large. We’ve just got our trembling hands on the boom-stick. Where do we go from here?
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of the upcoming books ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.