Alternative Editorial: Can You See The Promised Land?

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

On the recent – and annual – coincidence of the poet Maya Angelou’s birthday and civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s death, I - like millions of others I imagine – was thrown into pondering the Dream of possible futures for our world.

The day before King died, in what turned out to be his last speech, he shared that he had “stood on the Mountaintop and seen the Promised Land”. Seen it. And that vision of what was possible for his people, freed him from fear. Such was the power of his imagination.

Although Maya Angelou never celebrated her birthday again after her mentor’s assassination, she stepped forward with her commitment to the unleashing of the human spirit in every waking moment. It’s a testament to her ongoing soft power – the influence of her work and her persona – that Google’s home page made her the subject of its attention in this tribute on what would have been her 90th.

That anniversary coincided in my diary with a discussion hosted by Dark Matter Labs, School of International Futures (SOIF) and Radicle on the Future of Being Human. A nice small topic, with contributions from bright minds at Superflux, Future of Humanity Institute, Royal Society, London Futurists and Future Heritage and more.

I’ll leave a summary to the hosts. But what was particularly useful to The Alternative UK’s project were the tensions around where we should focus our resources for developing the human condition. When foresight exercises are shaped by radical innovations in sci-tech, the energy in the room quickly goes to previously unimaginable fixes – human enhancement achieving brighter, smarter, faster people. A number of men at the table were ready to completely re-invent humans without fixed emotional needs, limiting fears or selfish characteristics (also known as robots, said one woman).

But a more subtle human enhancement was also explored: anti-ageing as the best defence against disease, epigenetics to trigger new responses from our inherited DNA and quantum materiality – the ultimate response to scarcity in our physical world. But in a real world where resources usually come with some price tag, how would this theory of change be applied and how quickly? If we choose to put most of our eggs in the science and tech-dependent basket at this moment in time – the very wealthy in Switzerland can already ‘buy’ ten years of extra life - isn’t it inevitable that the gap between the elites and the 99% will stretch to breaking point? Hasn’t it already? Cognitive historian Jeremy Lent calls this the potential for “TechnoSplit”.

As the socio-political fall-out from Brexit and the election of President Trump suggests, any solutions that don’t take the majority of citizens with them will be sabotaged by those who know how to harness the left-behind. Or, as unashamed plutocrat Nick Banauer coined it: the pitchforks are coming.

It took a while for a counter-conversation to arise in our space. Isn’t it the case that 21C human beings are still vastly under-potentialized, trapped in jobs and lifestyles that use only a fraction of their capabilities? We fear robots taking over our jobs, but aren’t those jobs already mostly fit for robots – with the new activities, fit for the multitudinous capacities we are each born to develop, barely imagined yet? We bemoan our flawed characters – so often forged out of frustration with our limiting societal conditions. But we forget to emphasise the depth of human emotion that makes life beautiful. Or the power of human ingenuity that comes to the fore in the most challenging conditions.

Isn’t there a danger that if we assess the potential of humans, as they stumble around in their current post-industrial condition, we will end up enhancing the wrong characteristics of humanity? Or, equally disturbing, will we choose parts to inhibit (through, say, gene editing or mood drugs) without recognising their role in our survival? It would be rather like investing in faster, smarter, more enduring caterpillars - instead of creating the conditions for more butterflies to get past the pupa stage. Should we build vast greenhouses to hot-house their development - or somehow helping Nature do its own job better?

To some extent this is the challenge of shifting our societies out of the lingering industrial age where humans were mostly servants to economic growth, or the casualties of its demise. Given our very human capacities for beauty, ingenuity, humour, can we not make better lives for our species? Imagine looking back from the future at this early part of the 21C, amazed at how we agreed to spend eight to ten hours a day working at jobs we hated, to earn barely enough money to buy junk we don’t need, to impress people we don’t know?

Since the advent of Facebook and other social media, it has become more obvious that humans are hungrily searching for their own enhancement – more self-understanding, more agency, more impact upon the world. But there is little time to get this collective desire for self-actualisation met in a balanced way – ways that might benefit the whole of society rather than just each atomised individual, sitting in front of a screen, implicitly yearning to be more.

Technologies of the self – exercise, meditation and mindfulness, some drugs – play a vitally important part. Not just for creating emotional equilibrium that allows us to grow and persist with difficult endeavours. But also, for helping practitioners gain vastly more elevated perspectives – for example, from the point of view of others around us, or from the needs of the planet. The opening of the mind through physical practice is relatively cheap and is available to everyone, if only they had the time and space to consider it.

Successful collaboration between humans depends upon these kinds of enhancements. Without empathy, connectivity is only conducive to more speed and scale. But it may not provide better solutions to the problems we face of living together successfully, which require insight into the self and others.

Many of these insights would come naturally with age and maturity. But when people live stressed, robotic lives in toxic environments, with minimal contact with those that care for them, our development is halted. Those who work in the poorest environments, or who have suffered extreme deprivation, are traumatised by their long-term experience of powerlessness.

In their important book, The Nordic Secret, Tomas Bjorkman and Lene Anderson describe a period in Scandinavian history when bankruptcy forced Denmark, Sweden and Norway to take desperate measures. Instead of printing money and bailing out the banks, these countries invested their scarce resources in new educational initiatives aimed at both youth and adult development.

New learning clubs and retreats offered the concept of bildung, an education in response-ability – meaning to become capable of managing the vicissitudes of the modern age, moving into active citizenship. This “folk education” was an investment in people’s potential and their capacity for richer lives.

In these years of bildung and development, all three countries climbed from the bottom of the European economy around 1860 to the very top as of the 1930s, and they have remained prosperous and progressive ever since. Finland, which had a comparable movement, made a similar journey after 1918 in just 30 years.

Of course, the market for adult development apps – from digital psychotherapy to entrepreneurial training – is huge, but may not be accessible yet to those that need it most. Are there ways for communities to become more self-sufficient in providing these needs for their own members? With some resources from local or municipal budgets, can they build better networks for mutual development? If so, it would create the win-win of building stronger social relations too, giving people the belonging and social status they need

And within the bigger picture of a future in which there will be less routinized and “human-robot” jobs, investment in human development is key. Without that, we won’t have the capacities for citizenship and imaginative leisure pursuits that could give rise to whole new industries of play, care and even creative forms of governance to take us forward.

We need a strong vision for a future based on the fulfilment of human potential. Hope alone is not enough: we need confidence. We take it as our job at The Alternative UK - through the Daily Alternative, Networking the Networks and Political Laboratories - to build the evidence that alternatives are present and can lead to the change we want to see.

And the clearer it gets, as Martin Luther King shared with us, the less fear we will feel.