I guess this text is my way of saying thanks to a person, Aaron Swartz, who was too good for this world. Like most I guess I can’t say that I was close to Aaron, but our paths crossed briefly and his vision for a better world was something that gave me hope. There are only a few in society, let alone so young, that are as dedicated and reflecting as he was. Trying to find a way forward and taking a step back to see the big picture is something that I hope more people will do. I think he was quite unique by recognising the potential in technology (good and bad), engage in concrete projects and still be open to new ideas.
Much of the current discussion about the future is based on the assumption that 19th century western emotions and values will decide the outcome in the 21st Century. Further it is assumed that technology and economy are the drivers forward. Values are often sacrificed on the altar of (presumed) rationality. There is a tendency to live in an illusion of a rational market where everything can be given a price and values are secondary. Or assume that technological development has its own logic unaffected by anything we do or think (see Kevin Kelly for the extreme case). In reality it is obviously the other way around, our values ultimately decide the direction society will move in and very few can and should be given a price.
Markets, technologies, laws, etc. are all tools to help create a world based on our values. Still even many political parties have abdicated from an agenda-setting role and see tools as goals.
Taking a step back we should acknowledge that 19th century western thinking shaped large parts of the global system we have today, but we should also understand that other values are likely to shape the 21st Century. New initiatives, groups and clusters are emerging that will shape the institutions and structures of the 21st century.
The new values will be even more important that yesterday’s values as we live in an increasingly connected and transparent world where values will spread faster. The 20th century was dominated by simplistic economic models and tools based on lack of understanding and a desperation to increase access to material goods. A price tag or a logo was often the only things that were communicated when a decision to purchase something was done. Marketing appealed to fear of not belonging and provided simple material goods (cars, jewellery, make-up, clothing, etc.) that could be shown to others as a way to establish an identity.
In a world where the story behind every product, where decisions and ideas can be communicated and discussed everywhere and all the time, the role of values will become increasingly important. In a time where material needs are met for more people than ever before, where risks to the survival of humanity is a reality, where technologies allows us to shape our lives in ways that are hard to imagine, and more people look beyond material possessions for meaning in life values are likely to take the place of price/money as the main force shaping society.
Two different kind of trends are particular is important to watch with regards to emotions and values, the re-emergence of Asia and the increased connectivity.
Values in Asia are obviously very different depending on the culture/ country/ region/ part of society we look at. Hence, it is difficult to foresee what specific values from Asia that will become part of the global discourse.
Depending on what countries will emerge as thought leaders, what companies and CEOs that will be seen as leader and be active around the world, what entrepreneurs that will set the agenda and be acknowledged by global media, what books that will be read, movies that will be discussed and new communication tools that will dominate our lives the emotions and values that will become global will differ.
The fact that it is difficult to analyse the trends does not make it less important. Already now some rough indications might be possible to identify on an overarching level, assuming that the new values that we are interested in will contribute to change (not just strengthen current values).
We do not have to take a Hegelian dialectic for granted, but the probability that the pendulum will swing back from the current extreme, before stabilising at a new paradigm, at some point the next decade is likely significant. Therefor a focus on values that are polar opposite to those dominating the discourse now are of particular interest.
The main area that most experts focus on with regards to Asian culture is the fact that it has traditionally been more family- and network orientated, where the concept of “us/we” is more important than “I/me”.
In the interesting art project by Pei-Ying Lin, untranslatable emotions from other languages were mapped (that is where the images in this blog comes from). As usual Chinese and Korean could be seen on more social aspects, in this case “togetherness” that is outside the English language. Obviously it is all about emphasis and western languages have a lot of concepts for “togetherness”, including my native language Swedish – “gemenskap” (and as in many western language this is not a concept that is much used beyond shallow nationalistic language, similar to solidarity. So the change is less of a cultural war than a broader shift in emphasis globally.
However, anyone who’s been to China/Korea/Asia knows that the materialistic egoistic trends are well present there and we could see an accelerated egoistic and materialistic trend before things change (Already in 2015 Chinese consumers is expected to account for more than 20 percent of the global luxury market).
So while it is not clear that we will see less materialistic and egocentric emotions and values emerge immediately as Asia re-emerges, such emotions/values are likely to emerge over the coming decade. So in the medium-term we look for new ideas/concepts Asia can provide an antidote to the egocentric/materialistic culture that has dominated at least the last 50 years. In the short term however it is likely that current trends will be further accelerated.
Connectivity Even more important, and less discussed is how the new connectivity will influence the values and ethics of the 21st century. Are there common and deeper emotions that will emerge? Today the simplicity of the web encourage short term reactions
So far the connectivity probably have encouraged mainly short-term emotions, as indicated by the image by Pei-Ying Lin. Still we are in the early ages of the connectivity and there are almost unlimited opportunities to develop and support a structure that would create and support emotions that support transcendence and more reflective emotions.
Two “connectivity developments” are probably key to the future development: 1. Transformative transparency 2. Legacy applications
The first could, if developed in an appropriate way, support an expansion of our ethical boundaries. The fact that we allow people to die out of poverty is a disgrace for an advanced society. If we could see what happens around the world and how we are connected to it we would be aware of our moral choices. If we saw the history behind products when we looked at them (Google glases with ethics) I assume that most people would chose options that help others instead of ignoring their suffering.
Obviously a rapid introduction of the transformative transparency will create a dramatic response. It is not given that this will positive however. With the current culture and vested interests we are likely to see a situation when many would try to turn this new transparency into a tool for increased cynicism and egoism. Even today there are political youth movements among mainstream political parties that support an extreme neo-liberal agenda with focus on individual freedom and nothing about collaboration and responsibility.
Most of the current companies are also so dependent on a destructive consumption society that support for other values will be difficult to find. Think about Google and Facebook for example that could help in supporting a more ethical development of the transparency they are part in creating. Still their business models are close to 100% depending on treating users are products, products to be sold to the companies that want us to consume without thinking.
New clusters and networks is probably what we have to hope for. So get connected beyond current structure and keep your eyes open for opportunities.
The second, legacy applications, is even more important. So much of what is bad in our current society is linked to the myopic perspective in society. The connectivity have accelerated this beyond comprehension, both on a human level (who can expect to say anything lasting and meaningful in 140 characters) and structural (like High-frequency trading). Media is now filled with material that contain no analytical value or understanding of the underlying trends.
The opportunity to create tools that track people, companies, ideas, etc. over time. Any even more interesting the opportunity for us to create tools that allows us to set long-term targets and then get nudged in order to get there. Not sure what groups that will develop these tools, but I can see many candidates, from pension funds and religious groups to old philanthropists and young hackers.
Hopefully Aaron’s too early departure can inspire young hackers to think about their contributions and choices. There is so much that can be done.
Hopefully in a few years there will be new emotions and values developed by the next generation of connectivity tools.