Alternative Editorial: Our society needs a new operating system


By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

How many of you reading remember – or were alive! – when Steve Jobs launched the MacOS operating system, as a quick and easy way to access all the clever tricks computers were capable of? Until then data was buried in the machine - only available to experts who offered their ability to access it as a service, to those who could pay for it.

For non-techies like myself, MacOS was a revolution. Suddenly all I had to do was click a cute icon on my screen - renamed a “desktop” – to get access to a plethora of tools I hardly knew existed until then. New ways of organising information that could also be shared, quick access to an email system, an electronic calendar that could take me years into the future and much more. And most importantly, instant and reliable access to the internet, where a world of information and connectivity awaited.

For those not present in that moment, it might be hard to imagine the leap in agency that MacOS delivered to individuals. Whereas once computers merely enabled us do routine jobs defined by our boss – accounts, spreadsheets, data management – now they were gateways to another world, one of almost limitless info-resources. It shifted the possibility of ownership and action from invisible, far-off authorities to anyone who had a computer. Anyone could devise an agenda and pursue it.

Of course, today there are a number of operating systems available – including Windows, Android and Linux. But they are all inheritors of that initial insight into the need for such a system to become available, and take forward the quantum shift in agency that would arise from it.

What might be the equivalent for our politics today - and the society which upholds it? Some might say we need a similar leap in our operating systems. What kind of “user interface” between calls and capacities might be invented: one that would immediately make our essential resources - our individual and collective abilities, our natural resources – much more available for the benefit of the shared public space?

We know how poor our current “interfaces” are in mainstream politics – for example, a party-political culture that only sees its members as the people who knock on doors at the time of an election. Surely this system undervalues the capacities of individuals as real participants in the co-creation of society? Why isn’t every manifesto crowd-sourced in the ways that Alternativet, Podemos and the Pirate Party have modelled, imperfectly but determinedly, in recent years?

Maybe it’s because our societies – we ourselves – are still grossly undervaluing the capacities of human beings? For example, at the moment, too many people are being employed to do jobs that robots could do (and even when they’re doing them, are subjected to robot-like discipline). That’s an organising principle that sees people as the tools to deliver mundane tasks, defined by the captains of industry and the managers of labour committed to national growth at any cost. According to this Gallup poll, only 13% of people are engaged in their jobs but dependent on their them for a living. Within 20 years, many of those deadly-routine jobs will have been taken by actual automatons who don’t need to eat, sleep or assert their rights.

It’s high time that we shifted to a whole new social operating system one that taps into what, until now, has been the wasted talent of people – not just those with the best education, but everyone. Every person reduced to existing on a factory assembly line eight hours a day, or at a desk with mind numbing, repetitive tasks, may well have the ‘dignity’ of a job and a wage. But they are only using a fraction of their capabilities, resources that, with the right social interface could generate so much more for the worker and their communities.

To facilitate that, we need nerds - but ones whose specialism is humanity and its capacities. Those who have always appreciated our bio-psycho-social-spiritual natures and what a fully expressed human can be. Not simply as workers, but as artists, parents, friends, and creators – whether of spaces for gathering, or of tools for enabling wellbeing. In our private spaces, we are all imagineers (maybe what John Lennon called Dreamers in his song Imagine) of alternative ways of living together. But that capacity lies dormant, if we are employing all our energy to merely survive.

As Pat Kane, co-initator of The Alternative UK, describes in our upcoming book Radical Animal, humans are inherently capable of playing their way through the problems they face. But only if they have the safe conditions in which to explore and co-create.

At the other end of the brief to create a new operating system, we need the futurists and science-fiction writers. Those that can see a world driven entirely by renewable resources: solar powered flight, a plant-driven (and post-meat) food industry, artificial intelligence that makes medicine 100% safer. If we have a vision of a world reaching its full (meaning whole and sustainable) potential, we can pull people towards it, looking for those qualities in them that might help us to get there. Only when the task is specified can we articulate the skills required to deliver it.

And in the middle, are those who can see what sorts of vessels and tools are required to link the necessary domains – that is, our inherent complex capacities with our vision of a future we could all get excited about. For example, the people who understand that the data we generate every moment of every day – arising from our every thought, word and deed already being captured on the internet of things – could be individually owned and provide each of us with an income

Or those that see blockchains providing identity, purpose and belonging for every sign-up to a community, as well as give them access to local energy, food and housing. Or others who understand that bringing our busy minds back into alignment with our neglected bodies will give us energy and motivation we could, otherwise, spend our whole adult lives without. And still others that see the arts not as a fringe benefit in an otherwise labouring society, but as the very source of our work - therefore jobs and markets - in the automated future.

These entre- and intra-preneurs will be the Steve Jobs of future societies. They will draw different strands of human behaviour and activity into “windows” of transformative action. They will connect them with a currency - not always money-based - that provides for their existence. And they will move them towards a future they want for themselves and others.

We can see the green shoots – captured by our Daily Alternative, and developing all around us. They start at the very grassroots (indeed the gravel) of community life with projects like Fun Palaces that capture people in their everyday lives to expose them to art and science ideas that open their eyes to a world undreamed of.

Just up from them, you might find the CounterCoin activists, who work to transform depleted shopping centres into entrepreneurial hives. Not simply by renting out pop-up shops, but by rewarding young volunteers – who are willing to offer care and expertise of all kinds to the community – with a special currency for their labours. One which they can spend on local products and services that often have underused capacity.

Up from there you might find local currencies, already serving a community like Brixton or Totnes, helping them to surface the talents of their locals to produce food, offer classes or skills for building homes and businesses and keep the value in the community. And onwards from that, phenomena like the Preston Model – whose councillors persuaded their biggest local industry to stop employing people and services from outside the town and start to invest inwardly. Today they are renewed and resilient to globalisation.

These mechanisms for change have a shared character: they see immense resources within a community when a different “operating system” is applied, creating new value out of them. You could say they keep appearing as new windows – or icons - on our societal desktop. The word “divestment”, for example, used to mean simply selling off subsidiary business interests. Today, when applied to our vision for a safer, cleaner world, divestment means specifically getting rid of those fossil fuel businesses that threaten our bigger vision. Linked to local energy initiatives, it makes switching our supply so much more creative than simply saving a few pounds. 

CodePink – a women’s peace movement in the USA – has launched a campaign to ‘divest from the war machine’. This identifies exactly which businesses, above or below the radar, are playing their part in supporting the military-industrial complex’s control of our economy. So anyone shopping in a supermarket, using their divestment information, can buy products knowing they are directly saving lives. 

Politics has to acknowledge that people living in their own local and virtual communities are best placed to make those links between their own capacities and transformative ideas for change. Politicians might then concentrate more on resourcing the operating system needed to accelerate this change.

What might that look like? Tony Blair’s communitarianism and David Cameron’s Big Society showed that more local autonomy was desirable – even if they could not imagine the mechanisms for that autonomy genuinely arising form the communities themselves. Eric Pickles’ Localism Act, and most recently Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s commitment to devolving power away from Westminster are improvements, at least. They do acknowledge the efficacy of community resilience.

But these policies – which largely amount to a tax break - alone won’t release the potential latent there: not until they are free from the party-political influence which divides communities. And they’re no longer shaped by rules set at the national level, that have little knowledge of local character and potential. Yes, we need a government to guarantee our rights and standards of commercial behaviour. But for communities to flourish, people themselves have to own their own resources and become the creators of their own agendas: that’s motivating and fun.

That’s what Steve Jobs saw back in 1985 and what The Alternative UK is committed to finding new political structures, cultures and practices to enable. .