So it’s changing. So what?
So what? I see the world changing, largely due to technologies that few people understand and even fewer feel empowered to control. The world has always been changing, but now the rate of change is proportional to the sum of all changes that have occurred before. That’s what we mean by the term, “exponential,” a term used so often in the media that it is accepted as meaning “large,” without the understanding that it means larger than large. The purpose of these pages is to offer an analytical review of where we’ve come, and where we’re going, and why. The WHY is embedded in the unnoticed rules by which humans affect each other. Understanding the rules by which the individual parts affect each other—that’s the key to understanding and to controlling complex systems, about which these pages will say more.
Yes, population, commerce, interconnectedness, geopolitics, land development, and knowledge are all changing—but these changes are largely the result of expanding technologies: agriculture, machines, transportation, communication. Unfortunately, we have a technologically illiterate society in which the average individual feels alienated or helpless in the face of forces he cannot see, understand, or influence. About half of the people believe early humans lived near the same time as the dinosaurs; most cannot define a molecule; a majority lacks a clear understanding of the scientific process; and many do not distinguish scientific facts on climate change from political opinion. Is it necessary to be an expert in a technology to understand it or to control it? Are we doomed to become a technical heteronomy—a place where existence is subordinate to the exigencies of our tools? We’re getting close.
You don’t need to understand the inner workings of your cel phone. However, if a democracy is to be governed more by facts than by fears, I suggest the average person must understand how technology changes culture, and how a culture, attempting to avoid its own evolution, will in turn attempt to control technology. The U.S. does not now act as one country. It’s a continent with several cultures. An ignorant culture or an alienated individual will use violence to repress the ideas that come with technology. You may understand the switch on your wall well enough to control the room light, but you also need to understand the interconnection of power plants and fuels and environment and people if you want anything better than political polemic to control the electric grid. Or climate change.
Will the rate of change outpace our adaptation?
The human world has always been changing, but now the rate of change is proportional to the sum of all the previous changes. The increasing tempo of the world is like the rate of change of the population of rabbits in a field offering unlimited food without predators. The rate of change of the rabbit population is proportional to how many rabbits exist. In mathematics, that’s called exponential. The exponential growth abruptly stops if the food runs out or coyotes find the clover field. That, too, is a change, albeit an unpleasant one for the rabbits. Can human social development keep up with the evolving technology and the impacts on everything else?
The present is the bridge between future and past, the place we need to understand and appreciate before we apply the next fix to the social symptom that currently pains us the most. I’ll deal with that in the next few blogs on society as a complex system.