We live in a time that seems to rarely be bounded by what we know. All around us are what appears to be an unlimited number of new scientific facts and imaginative ideas. Yet with all of the great products of our minds, we live in uncertain times. Great theories about economic systems have collapsed in disaster. Terrific advances in medicine are not available to everyone because we can’t figure out how to pay for them. Our political system lurches from one gridlocked intersection to another like a New York cabbie punching the accelerator and the brakes in rapid succession.
For all the smarts we have, our world doesn’t look all that smart.
But it’s not the smarts that limits us – it’s our ability to do something with it that is the hard part. Reducing an idea to practical use requires connections to be made to people with skills and to the market. As we learn to navigate the connections needed to reap the promise that is all around us, we can expect our understanding of the world to change as rapidly as the world itself does. Taking that from an intellectual understanding of, “Yes, I get it,” to an instinctive, “Oh, now I really get it!” is likely to define our politics and how people in the near future connect to the world around them.
The way connections between different skills and people developed technology throughout history was gleefully documented by James Burke in the 1970s. He boiled it down to the observation that technological advances nearly always come once all the bits and pieces of knowledge and art are already lying around waiting for someone, anyone to connect them in a way that is useful. What alarmed Burke was how each new thing in our world spawns many new connections, accelerating the rate of change. The ultimate connection, that between people and the world that they live in, often becomes frustration, ignorance and utter lack of control. Once we all became “appliance users”, the world was one big appliance and all we could do is push the buttons and pray.
If that frightens you to the core of your belief in something called “Freedom,” welcome to the club.
It’s not just that we have so many new gadgets and gizmos around us. Many new ideas that sure seemed like a good idea at the time have run through our economic and political systems as well. Ways of managing risk in the market, IRAs and the interstate highway system are just some of the systems critical to how our world operates implemented without a deep understanding of the practical consequences if, or when, something went terribly wrong. We’re now deeply in debt to other nations because we didn’t bother to understand how the new ideas made new connections once we turned them into systems.
The primary problem is one of scale, which is to say that we weren’t properly terrified when many of the institutions that make up these systems went from “too big to fail” to “too big to understand”. If anything, the 20th Century taught us that Big was always a good thing in and of itself. Let the smart people handle it, the thinking went, they’ll take care of everything. But that cannot last. Our opinions about Big – big government, big business, big thinking in general – are about to become more important than all the chattering political teevee shows and blogs are currently able to imagine.
If the ability to make and manage our connections is the limiting factor in our world, it goes without saying that understanding connections should become very valuable. The limits of our minds and our guts to do this will likely break us into two camps.
One group will be those who are willing to say, “Nevermind the issues of scale. People can get together to form institutions that manage things collectively, operating systems that are bigger than themselves. The critical issue is one of governance, which is how the institutions are managed and strategically directed.”
The other group will be less interested in the deep connections required to do this, saying, “We have at our disposal new technologies that allow us to make the connections we need when we need them. As long as the big institutions don’t try to squash us and block our access to markets and information, we’ll all be able to take on exactly what we can handle.”
Each of these ways of looking at the world comes down to the most basic of all human social values – Trust. Understanding the connections that make technology possible is easy because we don’t have to trust objects, and the systems that deliver things like electricity and fresh water can be judged based on their past performance. Connections to people and the institutions that do the daily grind of making our systems work are a lot trickier. How any of us trust people in large groups is more of a gut reaction, not something we usually think out.
We can reasonably expect a tremendous amount of change is in front of us as our world restructures. The USofA today has developed a large number of systems that are clearly not sustainable – economically, politically, ecologically, socially, morally, or historically. Because the situation is not sustainable, it follows that it will all change one way or another, one day or another.
If we are to get a handle on the change we can expect, we have to look at the connections that make up the systems of our lives. They are the source of all our promise and quite a few of our problems. How we understand and manage these connections is certain to be the subject of a lot of debate. The sooner we turn down the noise that appears to be social and political debate and engage each other in the critical debate that is coming, the sooner we can all understand where we are going.