Many of the changes we face today are similar to a time when a new communications technology came along and changed the face of Europe — print. The Protestant Reformation saw the rise of religious wars, which were later followed by the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. An age of exploration and colonialism followed, which brought not just gold and silver to the coffers of Europe, but new foods such as potatoes, to fuel the Industrial Revolution.
Today the world is dealing with another new communications technology — electric, now in its digital form. It too is and will continue to change a now globally connected society. These changes continue, with the concurrent challenges of natural resource depletion, pollution, over-population, and the effects of climate change. We are now all members of Marshall McLuhan’s “global village”. What happens in one remote location can be felt across the world through our collective digital nervous system. Our senses are overwhelmed.
The impact of the electric revolution, which started with the telegraph, are now evident and reactions vary across societies and cultures. For example, new technologies and scientific breakthroughs show great promise while these new discoveries put into question older scientific work. This is a natural process for scientists but this can be jarring for citizens, many of whom seek solace in certainty from those selling easy answers, such as anti-vaxxers or homeopathic healers. We humans have difficulties dealing with complex answers.
Marginalized groups are now able to break through broadcast media and are questioning the status quo. Rapid changes in traditional, often patriarchal, values increase the appeal of populism and xenophobia. Meanwhile, surveillance capitalism has many of us acting like prisoners in a panopticon. The “strategic and purposeful production of ignorance” becomes appealing for both purveyors and buyers.
What can we do? The answer may lie in Marshall McLuhan’s media tetrad. We can use it to examine the effects of technology. Of particular interest is the Retrieve quadrant. One aspect of work that these digital technologies, that now make up our collective nervous system, are retrieving is a new way of organizing for work — artisans and guilds. No single person can make sense of all the emerging global complexities alone. We need to work, and learn, together. Humans evolved to live and cooperate in small groups. Reconnecting is how we can make sense together. But we cannot rely on these alone.
We need to find these trusted groups — communities of practice — to help us make sense in a connected world. At the same time we have to reach out and cooperate in larger global networks so that we can understand the diversity of our common humanity. Curiosity about people yields empathy. The answer to populism is not a return to the old ways, nor an ironic post-modern shrug, but rather a new meta-modernity — multi-layered, relational, & global.