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There are people who think we can transcend all human limits. And on the other side, there are people who think that human civilisation is about to collapse – this could even be the end of humanity. That tension feels so much of the discussion about our future.
But what has this got to do with systems?
We’ve built a very interconnected, interdependent world. It’s a world of linked systems. We’ve seen that in the collapse of supply chains, and the rocketing price of commodities like microchips. And, most urgently, we’ve seen our impact on the Earth’s ecosystem.
We can’t go on like this. Our system is unsustainable. We’re heading for a systems crash. We need a new system, and that means thinking in a new way. Likewise, we need systemic transformation.
But, before we can do that, we need to somehow crystallise our choice of possible option, to devise a framework for collective action. We already have the progressive versus conservative framework, that has shaped our thinking for the last few centuries. Conservatives believe in slow change, while progressives are much more convinced of our ability to remake the world in a new image.
The broken framework of modernity
This framework is broken. It no longer makes sense. It was devised to help us make sense of modernity. It’s been so successful, it’s exploded the framework. The world is being rammed by the year, the month, even the day. If we do things as we are now, everything will change. We’ll hit a climate breakdown.
If keeping things the same changes everything, the conservative versus progressive framework no longer makes sense.
A new framework is emerging. And it’s about human limits.
- Some people believe we can transcend human limits, and become akin to gods
- Some people think we’re heading towards collapse, and we need to impose limits on ourselves to survive.
Technology has always been a tool to transcend limits. We can go faster, further and communicate better. And that continues, with ideas like Web3. Praxis wants to create a new city, building a new human society based on blockchains.
A lot of these movements ignore the climate emergency. But not all. Solarpunk is all about imagining high-tech, sustainable futures. Here’s a yoghurt brand (!) imaging it:
This view of the world has focused around organisations like Extinction Rebellion, which are trying to convince the world that we need action now to prevent collapse.
But this movement is about embracing our limits. There’s an entire movement that believes that collapse is inevitable, but we need to prepare for it.
One camp thinks Elon Musk is a saviour. The other thinks he’s a scam artist. And, in the end, a lot of this comes down to technology: more of it, or less of it? Do we grow the economy, or do we degrow it?
David doesn’t know. Maybe nobody knows. As a culture, we’re oscillating between those two positions. Deep Mind has solved the protein folding problem – that speaks to a full-speed-ahead approach. But then you look at the weather over the last summer – and you think it’s time to slam on the brakes.
As humans, we are embodied things, but we’re also capable of imagining the infinite. When you understand that tension, you are empowered to see the moment in a new way. Those who never think about consequences are as unrealistic as those who argue we should cease to strive forwards.
A new framework for post-modernity
We need a new framework of values that allows us to navigate this conflict better. It will be the work of a generation to do that.
- Make the adoption of tech optional. Allow people to be fully functioning members of society whether you embrace or reject tech. We’re building a world where it’s hard to be part of society without a phone.
- We need a world of democratised technology, not one centralised in a few companies.
- We need flexible cities, that allow us to both transcend our limits, and embrace them. Can we build cities where people can work the land?
- Can we build an economy that rewards all work, be it economic, caring or environmental? Can a universal basic income help that?
China is building a techno-authoritarianism the like we have never seen.
A new spirituality
This project to transcend limits is never going to go away. So, we need a spiritual revolution, a sense of what we are reaching towards. What will be the human good life?
- The Earth system is sacred. It may be the only place we can live without the use of technology. Technology should never take us to the place where we destroy that.
- The human way of seeing is sacred. Machine intelligence has its own way of seeing the world. The human way is different, sacred, and precious.
- We are not separate from the world. We are the world, seeing itself. That’s the truth at the heart of many philosophies.
David Mattin is the founder of New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society. David’s business, innovation and trends journalism has appeared everywhere from Fast Company to the Guardian to Google Think Quarterly.