Last November, I gave a talk at the TEDx Conference in Brussels in which I argued that human society had undergone three ‘cultural explosions’ as the result of disruptive inventions in communications technology. And that, in fact, communications technology has been the main catalyst for the evolution of society throughout history.
In each case design is everything. A key requirement for each cultural explosion was that the technology which enabled it had to be simple enough for the ‘average person’ of the time to use.
The first technology, inspired from the Egyptians but commoditized by the Phoenicians in ~1200 BC, was the phonetic alphabet. It enabled ordinary people to transfer knowledge easily from a spoken form to the written form. Rather than learn complex pictograms, they had only to memorize a short series of symbols, each of which corresponded to a spoken sound. Western and Near Eastern civilizations, and their recorded histories, accelerated at an unprecedented rate thereafter.
The second invention was a printing press using movable type, which a blacksmith (Yohannes Gutenberg) created out of economic desperation. It’s worth noting that the Chinese had invented woodblock printing a millennium sooner but it wasn’t cheap. Gutenberg’s invention allowed others, often also blacksmiths, to create multiple copies of a single text quickly and cheaply. The capability of distributing knowledge had itself become more widely available. The first text to be printed was the Bible, but the Venetians and other pioneers of the Renaissance actively spread the emergent scientific ideas of that period too. The scientific and industrial revolutions were ultimately born not from the royal courts but from regular men and women being exposed to humanity’s aggregate knowledge and building on top of it.
Although mechanized transportation and the telephone had a remarkable effect on the speed of communication, the third explosion, I contend, actually came much later in 1991 with the advent of the worldwide web, which provided almost anyone instant access to knowledge, irrespective of where it resided (so long as it had been committed to digital form). People’s natural propensity (for commerce, recognition and so on) to connect their ideas into the web also meant that humanity’s available catalogue of information grew exponentially within a matter of years.
As the internet took hold, human civilization chose to map its offline hierarchy of needs directly into the web’s new services: we developed sex, banking, and shopping sites to meet our most primal desires for affection and survival; a decade or so later with ‘Web 2.0’ average people, now comfortable with the basics, started to understand the benefits of existing online, belonging to communities, discovering and sharing knowledge through these trusted nodes. The social media revolution is really a testament to that urge to belong and be recognized by others. But what happens next is what motivates me…can we really map our increasing need for fulfillment and self-actualization into an online service?
It seems like a safe bet to assume the next cultural explosion will follow the same rule as before: making something accessible to all that had previously been available to a few. And this shift, I contend, will occur in part due to the emergence of efficient mass participation, something that happens only rarely today because of systemic constraints in the information technology infrastructure.
The world is still organized around established centers of distribution and influence, through systems that are asymmetrical. In other words: a small group of people do most of the talking, everyone else has to listen. But while our collective bandwidth for information consumption is finite, our collective capacity for producing information continues to grow.
If people do participate en masse today, we can’t parse their activity quickly or accurately enough to extract a meaningful result. So most of us don’t even bother. In fact, organic collective action is still so arduous and rare (online or offline) that it must remain focused on only the most potent of issues: avoiding war, protesting civil rights abuses, expressing horror at a tragedy, unwanted tax increases, and deterring a foreign government from stoning a woman to death. The vast majority of things bubbling up implicitly across the collective mind of society remain hidden from view.
The solution to this rests in part, I believe, within the internet. But the internet needs to get smarter, more equitable, and transparent than it is currently. It is this challenge that motivated me and my brother Mark to create State. A globally accessible concept-based network, we hoped, could provide one way of capturing and organizing the world’s views so we get smarter faster: as individual citizens and collectively as a polity.
State’s vision, therefore, was an internet organized not around who people know, but what people think. A platform that gives average people the ability to express their views on anything, to be counted, and to feel like it’s actually doing something.
If we want the world to adapt to our desires, we must express ourselves proactively. Alas, guesswork or inference won’t cut it. We have to stand up for our views, whatever they may be, because it is only in the act of expressing them that we begin a process of deliberation with our fellow humans about how to develop our societies more intelligently.
The idea is not new. This is how it continues to work in most tribes and villages – your leader lives next door so complaints and suggestions are easier to lodge. But at a civilizational scale these cooperative dynamics no longer apply. The impact of our ‘Global Village’ has exceeded our abilities to collectively influence it.
In order to make smart decisions about things that will affect people, we need to know more about what those people think. Essentially, society needs a better mirror to hold up to its face.
Society is blind partly because those pondering its needs can only infer so much via observation about what people think - the tools for authentically sampling peoples’ views are pretty lousy. Allowing people to state explicitly what they think gives our leaders the opportunity to respond to a debate that is real. Doing so can also be immensely rewarding to those whose views have been counted.
The vast majority of people in today’s society are muzzled without knowing it; in practice the impact of their views is very limited. This is due not to a fiendish plot hatched by an evil cabal– it’s just a systemic constraint of our civilizational development, one which became gradually more complex in the millennia since humans formed the first urban polities in Mesopotamia around 8000 years ago. As I mentioned above, various technological innovations since then have done much to make life more livable.
Now, it has been argued by some that unleashing the views of ‘regular people’ is a sure way to bring chaos and anarchy upon ourselves. ‘The Masses’, it is argued, do not have the capacity to consider what is best for them and must leave such things to those assigned the seats the power (by whatever flawed mechanism those seats might have been won). We are content being passive, consumptive blobs in the ever-grinding machinery of industrialized society, it is likewise argued.
Well, that might be true at times. We all do need leadership in various parts of our lives. In fact we quite often demand it. Leadership might be one of those inalienable phenomena of human civilization that we implicitly selected for in our evolution as a species: groups of people who found a capable leader would just achieve more in a shorter time.
Allowing everyone to participate equally in the discussion is not mutually exclusive from the emergence of great leadership and governance. If anything, good leaders emerge because they listen attentively. They actively seek counsel from the people they represent so they may synthesize their desires to chart a smarter course. And conversely, those whose counsel has been sought will more willingly trust the leader that does so.
There is also a staggering difference between what people may grumble casually and what they fight for explicitly in a public forum. The fact that one’s opinion might actually matter has a remarkable effect on the form and the manner of its expression. On the whole, we behave quite differently, often quite responsibly, when we’re given the microphone. We check ourselves. And we tend to complain when we don’t have that right.
There’s also the effect that our complaining tends to subside if our actions contributed to the situation we are complaining about. This is partly why democracies based on freedom of speech can work: everyone agrees in principle that the majority should have sway and so as long as each citizen is given the right to speak and vote freely: an unwanted result is easier to swallow because it was produced by an equitable process.
Ultimately, a society empowered in this fashion (locally, nationally and globally) might begin a conversation with itself: one that is authentic, inclusive, and coherent with the full spectrum of reality. Like any system attempting to reach equilibrium, there is a chance that it will swing in one direction or another. It may take some time to prove out, too, like other civilizational shifts.
I’m not sure we have a choice – the shift is inescapable. Our greatest communications tools have, since our earliest days, always ended up empowering everyone in society to do what was previously accessible only to a few. They have catalyzed the distribution of knowledge and placed us on a trajectory towards greater equality and transparency. It’s no different today, we just need to grow up once again and take our principles to the next level.
A society actively embracing this shift will rise as a whole because its constituents have been empowered to stand up for their views, to play their part in transforming the world around them, rather than acquiesce the status quo; to participate actively for better products and policies; to become connected and discover empathy for strangers near and far who share things in common; and ultimately to emerge into a life of greater awareness, wisdom, responsibility, kindness….and laughter.