As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, it is time to question our institutions of governance and commerce that mostly originated during the 18th century Enlightenment. Linearity and Cartesian logic are no longer suitable for a connected and complex world. To change our systems, first we have to understand them, and where they came from. This is the great societal learning challenge today — sensemaking in a networked world. Our existing education and training systems are not designed for this task. We have to figure this out together, outside the ‘system’.
About 500 years ago 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 followed, which brought not just gold and silver to the coffers of Europe, but new foods such as potatoes from the Americas, to fuel the Industrial Revolution. These new foods increased the population and in turn brought about the demise of the indigenous people of the Americas.
Print was the most recent communications technology to shift society. It was preceded by the written word.
All forager-hunter societies were oral cultures, steeped in mythological consciousness. The great hydraulic agricultural civilizations were organized around writing and gave rise to theological consciousness. Print technology became the communication medium to organize the myriad activities of the coal- and steam-powered first Industrial Revolution, 200 years ago. Print communication also led to a transformation from theological to ideological consciousness during the Enlightenment. In the 20th century, electronic communications became the command and control mechanism to manage a second industrial revolution, based on the oil economy and the automobile. Electronic communication spawned a new psychological consciousness.
Today we are on the verge of another seismic shift. Distributed information and communication technologies are converging with distributed renewable energies, creating the infrastructure for a third industrial revolution. In the 21st century, hundreds of millions of people will transform their buildings into power plants to harvest renewable energies on-site, store those energies in the form of hydrogen, and share electricity with one other across continental grids that act much like the Internet. The open-source sharing of energy will give rise to collaborative energy spaces, not unlike the collaborative social spaces on the Internet.
The third industrial revolution paves the way for biosphere consciousness. —The Third Industrial Revolution
But each revolution is different. We may discern some patterns from the past but our current challenges — as we shift to an electric-digital-networked age — are unique.
“There are three major differences between our networked age and the era that followed the advent of European printing. First, and most obviously, our networking revolution is much faster and more geographically extensive than the wave of revolutions unleashed by the German printing press … Secondly, the distributional consequences of our revolution are quite different from those of the early-modern revolution … The printing press created no billionaires … Nevertheless, few people foresaw that the giant networks made possible by the Internet, despite their propaganda about the democratization of knowledge, would be so profoundly inegalitarian. A generation removed from the conflict — the baby boomers — had failed to learn the lesson that it is not unregulated networks that reduce inequality but wars, revolutions, hyperinflation, and other forms of expropriation … Third, and finally, the printing press had the effect of disrupting religious life in Western Christendom before it disrupted anything else. By contrast, the Internet began by disrupting commerce; only very recently did it begin to disrupt politics and it has really only disrupted one religion, namely Islam.” —The Square and the Tower
We live in a time where technology provides immense potential for human communications but we lack the organizational structures to take advantage of this. Faith in the future is low, especially in democratic and developed countries. An Ipsos Public Affairs survey in 2016 showed that a majority of people in countries such as the USA, France, Sweden, and Germany generally feel that their governing institutions are ‘off on the wrong track’.
The Enlightenment is over. Reason and linear thinking are becoming obsolete. But none of our institutions, including our markets, are designed for what is to come.
In the last age, the Age of Enlightenment, we learned that nature followed laws. By understanding these laws, we could predict and manipulate. We invented science. We learned to break the code of nature and thus empowered, we began to shape the world in the pursuit of our own happiness … With our newfound knowledge of natural laws we orchestrated fantastic chains of causes and effect in our political, legal, and economic systems as well as in our mechanisms. Our philosophies neatly separated man and nature, mind and matter, cause and effect. We learned to control. —The Enlightenment is Dead …
The coming age — the Entanglement — will require meta-modern thinking and new structures for a connected world.
Unlike the Enlightenment, where progress was analytic and came from taking things apart, progress in the Age of Entanglement is synthetic and comes from putting things together. Instead of classifying organisms, we construct them. Instead of discovering new worlds, we create them. And our process of creation is very different. Think of the canonical image of collaboration during the Enlightenment: fifty-five white men in powdered wigs sitting in a Philadelphia room, writing the rules of the American Constitution. Contrast that with an image of the global collaboration that constructed the Wikipedia, an interconnected document that is too large and too rapidly changing for any single contributor to even read. … As we are becoming more entangled with our technologies, we are also becoming more entangled with each other. The power (physical, political, and social) has shifted from comprehensible hierarchies to less-intelligible networks. —… Long Live the Entanglement
Next: the end of control