Being a knowledge catalyst means taking the time to add value to your knowledge. One way is to simplify what you know. Make your work human understandable. Speak in non-geek terms. If experts do not do this they will become surrounded by less informed people over time. This has become evident over the course of the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, now in its third year. We seem to be collectively getting more stupid. People are voting for bombastic populists and supporting policies that make all of us poorer or less free to pursue our goals.
One way out of this mess is to make our social networks, and our society, smarter. Leadership today is helping our networks make better decisions.
In countering populism, I wrote three years ago — and before the pandemic — that populism is the first refuge of a scoundrel and that a literate, engaged, and networked citizenry should give no such refuge. Even highly educated people can be bigots, racists, and misogynists. Society’s answer to populism should not be a return to the old ‘traditional’ ways — nor an ironic post-modernist shrug — but rather a new multi-layered, relational, and international approach.
I used Marshall & Eric McLuhan’s laws of media as a method to help us understand the potential effects of any technology. Every medium — such as digital networks — 1. extends a human property (as the car extends the foot), 2. obsolesces the previous medium by turning it into a luxury (as the automobile horses and carriages unaffordable for most ), 3. retrieves a much older medium that was obsolesced before (as the automobile brings back the shining armour of the chevalier), and 4. flips or reverses its properties into the opposite effect when pushed to its limits (as does the automobile, which in large numbers creates gridlock).
The third quadrant — retrieval — is most interesting because we can see what is coming back from our history, but in a new form. The tribal affiliations being retrieved particularly via social media have to be countered with a more compelling and hopeful story. The way to address tribalism is not by creating a new tribe, but by discounting the tribal perspective and focusing on our common humanity instead. Understanding retrieval gives us a tool to counter the negative effects — or potential reversal — of new technologies.
Recently, the ruling conservative government in the Canadian province of Alberta elected a populist leader — Danielle Smith.
“Populists like Premier Smith succeed when they are able to do three things:
1. Convince a dominant group they are being marginalized.
2. Convince that group they are in ‘the silent majority’.
3. Convince the broader public that the group is both a victim and too dominant to challenge.
The first two moves appear contradictory. How can someone be both disparaged and part of the mainstream?
Smith’s day-one comments feed into myths about the lack of power held by rural libertarians in this province. In a very real sense, they have prime seats around the cabinet table, and they have enjoyed over-representation in the legislature throughout the province’s history. How can they then be alienated from power?
Populists overcome this contradiction by persuading folks they are less powerful than they are, are being ‘left behind’ by forces beyond their control, and are victims of ‘the system’ run by a ‘corrupt elite’ against the interests of ‘the real people’.”
Countering right-wing populism requires that we weave better stories for a better world. The populist message cannot be the dominant narrative. We need unifying stories for the network age. For example, which would most of us prefer to guide our society — Realpolitik or Noopolitik? If the latter, let’s start telling those stories.