Alternative Editorial: Accelerating Ourselves

Miguel Angel Martin Bordera,  Stepping Forward , an over 20-foot-tall marionette that moves about Black Rock City at Burning Man 2017. Courtesy of the Burning Man Journal/John Curley

Miguel Angel Martin Bordera, Stepping Forward, an over 20-foot-tall marionette that moves about Black Rock City at Burning Man 2017. Courtesy of the Burning Man Journal/John Curley

A positive story about technology on the front pages of the mainstream papers caught me by surprise today. Artificial intelligence has been shown capable of predicting how tumours will grow, evolve and spread. Robot War on Cancer! says the Daily Express.

It comes in the midst of an otherwise constant media war on robots and all technology that might significantly change our lives. Loss of jobs , loss of human autonomy, loss of democracy – the total fear agenda levied against the possibilities of technology as progress (the complexities of which are explored in this conversation between Jon Cruddas and David Wood).

But this sudden change of direction gave me a glimpse of how it might be if that suddenly reversed. When an unknown quantity in our midst suddenly looks more friendly than threatening, what happens next? Will people begin to welcome it in, letting down all their previous barriers, suddenly embarrassed to have appeared so luddite?

One would hope, as David Wood describes, that this shift would occur on the back of a carefully worked out transition. From a society currently defined by labour and the growth economy to one that gave us all more time to think and play, a universal basic income to survive and the general lowering of costs for food, energy and housing to fit our new income and balanced lifestyle.

That’s a big ask – and of whom? There are no political parties currently committed to such a human-centred transition: like Cruddas, they feel their obligations lie in protecting people from the ravages of largely American tech companies. All the while, nevertheless, giving those same companies tax breaks that ensure they will continue to invest in the UK. It’s like inviting that stranger I mentioned above into your house but telling the kids to stay away from him: it’s not a recipe for a happy household.

What we urgently need now is a way to get ourselves – all of us – up to speed with what is really on offer in the next few decades. What is artificial intelligence, how can it be the answer to some of our heretofore insoluble problems as well as be a threat to our society? What is the promise of blockchain, holochain? How can sortition offer an entirely new way of looking at representation? How many people know this stuff - and shouldn’t we all? (Big picture thinkers like Yuval Noah Harari are inviting “poets, philosophers, artists” to answer these and similar questions – see this week’s blog.)

Alongside a better understanding of the new phenomena, we need to acknowledge the importance of self-knowledge and self-mastery. In an age in which social media, fake news and aggressive algorithms are regularly cited, even by the mainstream media, as a threat to our freedom: how are we teaching ourselves to stand up to them – maintain our autonomy?  What is the personal development programme that ensures we can become what Tomas Bjorkman calls “active, conscious co-creators of the future”.

Before you go any further with this editorial, I recommend you listen to Tomas’ TEDx Berlin talk that we posted this week. He describes how, in a moment of national bankruptcy at the end of the 19th century, up to 10% of the population in Denmark, Sweden and Norway - largely poor farmers and young people without jobs – were invited to attend what he describes as “retreat centres”. Their aim was to help them find an inner source of strength and capability for a rapidly developing future. It laid the foundation of a public confidence from the grassroots up – one that ushered in an era of flourishing for all three Scandinavian countries.

While our conditions in the UK are not yet as extreme – despite Brexit headlines about our economy falling off a cliff – we share some of the symptoms. Increasing inequality, epidemics of depression, addiction and crime and – something the Scandis could not have imagined in that time – a planet in crisis. Levels of confidence in authority – politicians, priests, police, press, and other professionals – are at an all-time low. The feeling that we are in unmanageable complexity, with power concentrated in the hands of the few who got us into this mess in the first place, is not without foundation. Brexit was an illustration of our collective confusion – half the country unable to reconcile with the other half, with no resolution in sight a year later.

If we suddenly experienced rapid technological growth and radical innovation at this point, these deep divisions would have little chance of healing. If direct democracy – including liquid democracy – was thrust upon a polity in which cities and regions are already at loggerheads, it would only exacerbate those divisions. Referenda that are framed as binary issues – for or against, Left or Right, Leave or Remain – never do justice to the more complex issues of social development that need our collective wisdom to progress.

On the other hand, if we could bring our needs for personal and social development into line with technological growth – as David Wood’s piece describes – we could begin to think of an exciting future as something we should aspire to, become capable of, even begin to master. Community-friendly tech (such as sortition and Citizens Assemblies), emphasizing deliberation rather than debate, are great accompaniments to the building of citizens networks and community well-being. What other tech would be useful here?

And in a more institutional and organisational sense, what could be the containers for that sort of development today? National programmes for youth or citizens development have been unsuccessful – meaning they have been considered bad value for money, with no measurable results such as increased volunteering. But if we were instead trying to equip ourselves for a future we cannot yet fully understand, what would “measuring success” actually mean?

I prefer the ideas behind Kaos Pilots – founded by Uffe Elbaek, who later went on the found Alternativet in Denmark (our sister organisation). On their courses - as the title suggests - young people build their inner capacities to deal with whatever is coming down the line. Self-mastery as much as creativity – which involves all the elements of personal and then collective agency.

And of course it is not only the young that need development: all of us who have grown up in 20th century cultures and structures have plenty to aspire to. We could start at the programmes of inner and outer development that more wealthy, middle class citizens already pay for, as indications of potentially useful learning for all of us. How can we translate the insights and new practices of personal responsibility from Burning Man, or the psychological and motivational understandings from The School of Life, into simple, direct lessons that all of us can have for free?

What this might look like - and of course, how it would be paid for or otherwise resourced - is one of the tasks we are taking on in our community laboratories. Not only because communities are where the impact of any further disruption to our daily lives through accelerated technology would be felt. But also because communities – be they at the level of towns, cities or even regions; zones where people could find some belonging and connection through physically meeting each other – have a store of solutions ready and waiting for alignment and investment.

If you are interested in starting or joining a community laboratory, sign up today.