Pendulum: The United States Example, and
Digital Activism: Youth Education in the Plutocratic and Unilateral United States of the Early 21st Century
By John Smart. From Thinking Creatively in Turbulent Times, Howard Didsbury, Ed., World Future Society, 2004.
(minor edits 2005)
Our nonprofit, the Acceleration Studies Foundation, studies the impact of accelerating technological change on the human condition. The following two essays are complementary, so you may wish to read them sequentially.
The first essay, the The Political-Economic Pendulum, offers a big picture perspective on the interrelationships between U.S. political and economic systems, and their historical and expected future dynamics. It suggests that the long-term trend of increasing political and economic plutocracy seen in the U.S. over the last 25 years is on a simple pendulum that must eventually swing back to a more democratic regime in coming years. It also proposes that the pendulum, while important, is a less central issue than the accelerating technological environment in which we find ourselves embedded.
The second essay, Digital Activism, briefly considers accelerating globalization, the emerging intelligent interfaces (conversational (linguistic) user interface, etc.) to the world's computing systems, and the interplay between sociotechnological complexity and youth education. It proposes a few personal steps toward educational reform that we can take within the present plutocratic and unilateral political climate in the United States.
|The Political-Economic Pendulum: The United States Example|
As developmental futurists, systems theorists, and students of accelerating change, one of the broadest questions we can ask about any complex system (an organism, a political structure, an economy) involves the natural constraints on its dynamics. Very few physical systems in the known world undergo sustained acceleration for long. In fact, only computation, as a generalized process, appears to accelerate indefinitely, which suggests it occupies a very special place in our universe. Most elements and attributes of complex systems seem to follow cyclical developmental dynamics. Understanding the cycles can give us great insight into their relative importance in creating the future, in our observed world of continuously accelerating technological and computational change.
Let's turn now to U.S. history. Among the first things many of us learn in high school civics is that the United States has a government based on democracy, and an economy based on free enterprise. We certainly are a uniquely pioneering and privileged nation, but reality is more complicated than we were initially taught.
Complex systems like governments, and economies can be shown to be on a cyclic pendulum between more decentralized (e.g, democracy-promoting, reformist, progressive, free enterprise) and more centralized (wealth-, power-, and control-concentrating, big business, plutocratic) forms of existence. This same cycle is seen in all living systems, from the life cycle of dycostelium, the slime mold, which reliably cycles between independent foraging and group aggregation in reproduction and crisis, to the various patterns of homo sapiens, the self-aware hominid, which engages in predictable oscillations between differentiated independent experience and joining together for a range of reproductive and social functions.
With regard to the political and economic structure of U.S. society, where we are on this natural pendulum at any particular time may be a function of both our recent history and a range of internal and external sociotechnological developmental trends. While it seems an admirable goal to try to dampen its swing, the central dynamic of the political-economic pendulum may be impossible to eliminate. Like our diurnal rhythm, this pendular cycle may represent an optimal approach to developing political economies in which biological human beings play an integral part.
Several Greek philosophers first observed a natural political cycle from democracy to plutocratic dictatorship/ tyranny, and then to revolution or reform that restores a measure of democracy and restarts the cycle. The economist Joseph Schumpeter, among others, describes a similar developmental cycle in emerging economic sectors, beginning with multiple new enterprises, moving to oligopoly and near monopoly and rigidity, followed by a phase of "creative destruction" and divestiture as the dinosaurs either learn to reinvent themselves or are replaced in a world of rapidly changing technologies and business models. But even though it was first observed more than two thousand years ago, the pendular swing from democracy to plutocracy and back through reform is quickly forgotten in the heat of day-to-day debates.
We presently inhabit a highly plutocratic era. Furthermore, while there are some signs of growing citizen empowerment, those willing to look closely will find that most of today's trends are still working predominantly against greater democracy at the present time. As Fareed Zakaria notes in The Future of Freedom, 2003, even with the best of our social activism we continue to subtly drift into an increasingly "illiberal democracy" in the United States, as measured by growing elite and special interest privilege, growing corporate and institutional power versus personal rights, increasing media centralization and social conservatism, U.S. unilateralism on the world stage, and relative loss of resources and standards for the development of the education, skills, and leadership capacity of our youth.
History reveals that our country has experienced several prior periods of high plutocracy, of poor citizen empowerment and comparably few educational resources, of economic policies that favored various social elites, the rich, and big business at the expense of the common person. We have experienced both "hands off," government-minimizing plutocracies, passively transferring control to the wealthy, and ones that actively used state power to advance the interests of the privileged over the common citizen. In either case, plutocratic periods can be defined by a move from relative political freedom to relative control, and the loss of personal wealth of the majority relative to those of elites. But as we will note, the political-economic system always swings back from hierarchical (plutocratic) to network (democratic) control whenever social and technological conditions have sufficiently advanced.
Recounting our country's arc of history, first recall the extreme plutocracy in 18th century America under King George III, the government that incited the American Revolution of 1776. This dynamic was a classic example of the Greek cycle mentioned earlier. The many generations of active democratic action seen after our revolution were rooted in the passion of populists like Thomas Paine and Adam Smith, and egalitarian presidents like Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and James Madison (1809-1817). The reforms of this era became engrained in our constitution and its amendments, and a climate that guaranteed greater political and economic freedoms here than in any other previous environment. Along with an open immigration policy for the type of self-driven people drawn to our country, an unparalleled program of multiethnic integration, and our abundant natural resources, these revolutionary reforms have been the foundation of the U.S. economic miracle during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Consider next the racial plutocracy that was broken by the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). This war also led to a sharp decrease in state's rights, however, so we may note that while one political issue swings democratic, another may swing plutocratic at the same time. Political pendulums that involve historically underrepresented groups are also often slow to build momentum. One example is the gender plutocracy that persisted in America from 1776 to the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
Perhaps most importantly with regard to the political climate, historians like Ronald Inglehart (The Silent Revolution, 1977, Cultural Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, 1990, Modernization and Postmodernization, 1997), Michael Schudson (The Good Citizen, 1999 (author's followup)) and others make the case that maturing industrial societies are continually reforming, broadening and refining their political values. As Inglehart's global surveys show, the most prominent effect of technological development is that it makes every developed nation more tolerant and focused on individual advancement over nationalist or ideological causes. As our technology runs ever faster each year, in diverse and subtle ways it prods us to exercise our personal rights, and to establish increasingly local autonomies. We move from coarse-grained to fine-grained control of the quality of our environment. The evolutionary development of technology, while it does alternate between plutocratic and democratic applications, does not itself appear to be on a pendulum like political and economic systems. Instead, technology seems to be engaged in an accelerating phase transition to a substantially new regime. This transition, the technological singularity, is considered at length in other essays. I refer the reader to those for more information.
The remainder of this essay will consider pendular swings in political and economic systems, and suggest that simple and self-correcting patterns may be discerned.
In at least four clear periods since the birth of our republic, the political and economic pendulum has pushed us toward either monied special interest control (a political plutocracy) or wealth concentration (an economic plutocracy) or some combination of both. As we will see, we are currently in the throes of the fourth major political-economic plutocratic surge. But before we become unduly alarmed, it helps to realize that during each of the prior three surges either wealth concentration or elite privilege or both were effectively reversed soon after, both by the vagaries of a competitive and technologically changing environment and through scores of new democratic laws and institutions. Let's now consider each of the four periods in greater detail.
The first major swing to extreme political-economic plutocracy (1780-1900), emerging as it did in the aftermath of the world's greatest democratic revolution, took over a century to reach its extreme. Big business favoritism grew steadily after the American Revolution, but it markedly accelerated after 1865 in the post-Civil War era of industrial revolution, peaking during the Gilded Age (Mark Twain's derisive term for this period), the last quarter of the 19th century, when the monied interests and the new multi-state corporate trusts rose to great power.
Publicly, big business excess peaked during the scandal-plagued administration of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877), but plutocratic conditions continued for a while further under the mixed presidencies of Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison (1885-1897), which were nominally against special interests but also actively against labor, and which were responsible for the passage of an initially useless and toothless Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. The democratic reversal finally came at the end of William McKinley's smoothly pandering, Ronald Reagan-like tenure of 1897-1901. At this point the balance swung back during reform president Theodore Roosevelt's (1901-1909) trust-busting and "Square Deal" administration. A wave of populism, reacting to the robber barons of the late 1800's, initiated a broad series of reforms beginning in the 1890's, including the first clearly successful strikes of the U.S. labor movement (1890's-1920), the first child labor law (1906), and perhaps most crucially, the Sixteenth Amendment, which created the progressive federal income tax of 1914, a fundamental strategy to counter the natural, gravitational, plutocratic tendency for "property to attract property."
Since then it has turned out that such democratic instruments as income, property, and estate taxes, and the requirements of social insurance are more than sufficient to control the rich-poor gap, given that they are always augmented in the long run by turnover resulting from competition and the natural unpredictability of the market. Furthermore, as scholars like Gary Hamel ("The Quest for Resilience," 2003, Harvard Business Review) have argued, this natural volatility and wealth turnover increases as technological change accelerates.
Brad DeLong, in his 1997 essay "Robber Barons," summarizes the work of a number of scholars who have shown that wealth concentration steadily increased in the top 1% (5%, etc.) of U.S. society from 1776 to the 1865 civil war. This unexpected calamity caused wealth to drop significantly acutely, but the postwar reconstruction agenda maintained the underlying plutocratic political economic climate, which fostered substantial wealth concentration again from 1870 to 1900. Only in the new century was the trend effectively reversed.
The second major swing to an extreme of political-economic plutocracy (1920-1930) was much shorter. While wealth concentration was eroding after 1900 (and especially after 1914 and the new taxation and regulation environment), the elite were doing their best to avoid their new economic strictures by increasing their political influence in government. This influence was stemmed for a time during the progressive eras of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), and the uniquely far-sighted Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921, our only Ph.D. president). But it pushed forward again under Republican William H. Taft (1909-1913) and especially under the combined laissez-faire capitalist Republican tenure of a scandal-plagued Warren Harding, a passive Calvin Coolidge, and a protectionist Herbert Hoover (1921-1933). During this period leading up to the Great Depression, the country increasingly gave way to political plutocracy, special interest pandering, small business Ponzi schemes (named after Charles Ponzi's massive fraud with his Security and Exchange Company in 1920), and generalized big business unaccountability and favoritism.
There is presently no definitive theory of the factors that catalyzed the Great Depression of 1929-1939, but for a reasonably good one, let me recommmend the 1995 Forbes documentary "Happily Ever After?: The 20th Century Struggles for Democracy." The combination of speculator's excess (and the underregulation of margin trading, not mentioned in the film) of the late 1920's, which would be expected to lead naturally to a recession and readjustment in the 1930's, was in this case greatly worsened by the political shortsightedness and global economic ignorance of the Hoover administration. Though consensus on this point is not uniform, several economists have argued that the signing of the Smoot-Hawley tariff act in June 1930 incited a global tariff war and the immediate evaporation of millions of local jobs and economic expectations, as all other developed countries followed the U.S. lead in trade strategy.
What initiated the tariff war is a fascinating and little-appreciated side story. Apparently it was the market and job disruptions induced by greatly increased agricultural automation of the 1920's, perhaps exemplified best by the Fordster tractor coming in large numbers off Henry Ford's new assembly line into American farming communities. Automation always causes short term economic and political disruption, and when the powerful U.S. farm lobby went looking for relief from massive automation-induced deflation in agricultural prices during the 1920's by scapegoating "foreign imports," a shortsighted political administration was unfortunately willing to acquiesce. By mid 1929 (still pre-crash, it must be noted) there were no less than twenty five different industries aggressively seeking legislative protection from global competition. Given the government's ignorance of the nature of the new network paradigm of global economics, and willingness to acquiesce to powerful plutocratic actors, a "perfect storm" of two major negative forces (speculative correction and global tariff war) ensured a major dampening of nonzero sum economic activity in the years ahead.
In the end, the traumatic decade of the 1930's allowed an opportunist reformer, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) and his "New Deal," in a series of dramatic new statutes and guarantees for the common citizen, to rapidly reverse economic and power stratifications that had been accumulating for decades. Among many other advances (and some predictable boondoggles), his administration introduced the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which institutionalized the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, and numerous other democratic firsts. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) continued this pushback toward democracy with such acts as racially integrating the armed forces under significant opposition, firing an errant General Douglas MacArthur, which reasserted civilian control over an increasingly powerful military, and guiding the Marshall Plan for Europe to become a policy of redevelopment, not of punitive reparations or political control. But during Truman's second administration the elites again began to gain noticeable privilege and power.
The third swing to extreme political-economic plutocracy (1950-1965) was also comparatively brief. During this era we saw the rise of the Military Industrial Complex and the multinational corporations (MNC's) under Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61). This was accompanied by increasing civil rights abuses in the 1950's under McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC), and the Red Scare. The ominously restrictive feel of this period climaxed during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 18-29, 1962, historically the closest the U.S. would ever come to open military engagement with our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union. But these plutocratic-autocratic excesses were again broadly rolled back, beginning during the presidency of John F. Kennedy (1961-63), and the pushback was accelerated by the escalating catastrophe of the Vietnam War (1961-70). Even during the Republican and often control-oriented presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (1963-74), this new era was marked by dramatic civil rights reforms, leading to generalized racial integration, women's rights, equal opportunity in employment, and many other substantial civil liberties and economic advances for the common citizen. It also saw permanent cultural revolutions in youth attitude, sexuality, and tolerance of sexual diversity.
In U.S. political history, perhaps the greatest lesson of the return back from the third swing is that we can change the balance rapidly (in ten short years, in this case) if we collectively determine our government is too restrictive or our economy is too unregulated. The shifts always seem to be catalyzed either by particularly egregious plutocratic mismanagement (British tyranny, Robber Baron excess) or some opportune social catastrophe (Civil War, Great Depression, Vietnam War) that the citizenry use to suggest that political or economic authorities have temporarily overstepped their legitimacy and need to be democratized by the network in which they are embedded.
Another implicit lesson in this long-term pendular dynamic is that both plutocracy and democracy can develop to excess. Consider that if too much power is given too quickly and too broadly to the hierarchy, as occurred in restrictive McCarthyism, or to the popular network, as occurred during the idealistic 1960's, we discover that most of the plans being made in that state of the system's development simply won't work for the long term. Think of either HUAC blacklists or Hippie communes as two classic examples of idealistic unsustainability at both poles of the pendulum. Consider also the meme of "mobocracy," or Fareed Zakaria's (The Future of Freedom, 2003) observations on the dangers of giving too much voting power, on complex issues, directly to the citizens of illiberal democracies, without the insulation of plutocratic elected representatives. Balance and tolerance must be maintained in order to create any lasting political-economic structure that integrates all the important social actors.
The fourth swing out to excessive political-economic plutocracy (1975-2004) while not nearly as long as our first 120-year swing, has lasted a surprisingly long time at almost three decades to date. Beginning in the mid-1970's, upper class wealth begun to accelerate upwards again. Recapping causes of the swing back to economic democracy prior to the 1970's, DeLong notes:
But now, in 2004, we have returned to a strongly plutocratic era, in both political and economic terms. The activist Ralph Nader was among the first to chart what he terms a widening "democracy gap" that has been growing in the U.S. since 1979. Kevin Phillips, in Wealth and Democracy, 2002, makes a similar case (with much lamenting). The NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman has also written a valuable book, The Great Unraveling: Losing our Way in the New Century, 2003, that rails against the plutocratic excesses of the Bush presidency (again, perhaps too darkly to be fully accurate), painting the picture of an unusually centralized and privilege-loving United States here in the early 21st century.
Such chronicles are enlightening but too many are also jeremiads, predicting that today's excess will continue unchecked to the ultimate ruin of the nation, unless we heed the author's prescription for salvation. Such manifestos almost always ignore, perhaps for dramatic effect, the fact that complex adaptive systems, whether they be weather systems or world economies, always re-correct themselves. Perhaps the primary function of jeremiads is to provide a reform attitude to rally around, however caricatured or exaggerated it might be in its specific claims.
Perhaps the most important question, given the pendular dynamic, is when and where the balance should be, or will likely be restored. We've seen shrill calls to social action in other areas (environment, overpopulation, nuclear weapons proliferation, sexual liberation, women's rights, social norms) in increasing frequency during the twentieth century. While these often help us to effect important change, their sky-is-falling perspective always has the ring of inauthenticity to it. Complex systems are much more subtle and resilient than that.
When one realizes the pendular nature of political-economic systems, these predictions can be put in the context of self-balancing dynamics. Books like Paul Ray's Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World, 2001, Stephen Moore and Julian Simon's It's Getting Better All the Time, 2000, or Bjorn Lomborg's Skeptical Environmentalist, 2001, highlight the stunning material and social advances that the average person has continued to reap under our increasingly centralized, plutocratic, special-interest capitalism.
Yes, we've seen ridiculous increases in corporate pay at the top of the economic hierarchy, again since the early 1980's. When groups like United for a Fair Economy report, arguably, that the richest 1% of the population owns 38% of it's wealth, while the poorest 40% owns only 0.2%, we know that today's extreme plutocratic trend is again ripe to reverse itself. But when? We've recently seen the encouraging rise of initiative politics, which, with the help of rich opportunists, the general public is increasingly using to recall any politicians, regardless of party, who preside over economic downturns, as occurred with California Governor Gray Davis in 2003. This new political accountability is one of several soft signs of the growing power of the citizen in our increasingly communication-enabled environment.
The popularity of reformers like John McCain (and democratic issues like the McCain-Bradley campaign finance reform bill) also shows that we are ready to make some progressive changes, even though the momentum has not yet gathered major force. All it takes is to look at some significantly more egalitarian countries, like Finland, to see just how much farther we might eventually go. In 2004, Finnish police gave a record $216,900 speeding ticket to Jussi Salonoja, 27, one of their country's richest men under a system where traffic fines are linked to an offender's income.
Not only traffic, but all kinds of fines and judgments under tort law might one day be treated in this highly democratic manner. But don't expect that level of legal progressivism here in the U.S. for many years to come, as it would take away the privilege to selectively ignore the law that our elite have long enjoyed.
The internet-driven appeal of talented populists like Howard Dean in 2003-4 is another indicator that countervailing democratic tendencies can rapidly come to the fore when we want them to. Curiously, the Dean phenomenon occurred with only email and today's primitive social software (e.g., Meetup.com), and without electronic democracy and secure digital identities, which are at least another decade or two away from implementation. At the same time, the fact that Dean, the true reformer, could not generate long term momentum within the Democratic primary is another soft indication that the plutocratic swing, though slowing down, is still not ready to shift its direction, for now at least.
How much further can the present plutocratic swing go? Will it require the convergence of a broader network of progressives, an emerging "Digital Democracy," and an appropriately timed catastrophe (e.g., a milder variant of our historical Great Depression or Vietnam War) to help us reverse the shift? If so, we may be in for a surprisingly long wait, as there is nothing currently transpiring, not our Middle East military activities, not our presently accelerating tech outsourcing economic disruption, nor apparently even our continued deficit spending debacle, that presently looks to be disruptive enough to catalyze reversal of the cycle, though time will tell, of course.
Should there be significant and sustained economic repercussions to the
U.S., based on economic globalization, our tremendous deficits, or other
unpredictable factors (war, terrorism), we would likely see a powerful
response by the citizenry to bring democratic reform politicians into
office. But if we don't see a five or ten year recession while we rebalance
our budget, and are instead able to "grow through" the deficit,
which seems at least possible, if highly uncertain in these still very
human-dependent, pre-singularity years, then our country's current plutocratic
trajectory might continue on through several more political administrations,
slowed but not yet checked.
So in our ongoing civil liberties debates about the incursions of Patriot Act and other potentially alarming centralizations of power, it helps to remember that the McCarthy Era led to the Civil Rights Era within one decade. Consider how quickly the reversal can occur when we all decide we want it. It helps to remember the slowly but steadily growing voting power of the average citizen in an increasingly networked nation. It helps to remember that these issues have pendular dynamics, and the pendulum can swing back as rapidly as circumstances require.
Finally, as mentioned at the beginning of this essay, regardless of the state of the political-economic cycle we can expect that global technological acceleration will continue unchecked. For now, the progression to a technological singularity (http://Acceleration Watch.com/), an imminent era of human-surpassing electronic intelligence, remains the most important and least understood story of the present era of human history.
Now that we have discussed the political economic dynamic behind our great nation's present environment, I'd like to briefly venture into some analysis and policy considerations regarding an important social problem in applied futurism, the education of our country's youth. As practical, change-oriented futurists, we must consider our activism in the context of our present highly plutocratic and unilateral political era, several decades before the arrival of both the CUI and any subsequent greater-than-human computer intelligence.
First, a brief statement of the problem: While they have gained abilities in a few new areas, today's children know either a little or a lot less about a large number of specialized subjects and skills than their "better-schooled" parents did at their age.
This is a simple consequence of our increasingly automated society. We can tick off a growing list of capabilities (food preparation ability, home building, automotive repair, mathematical ability, reading and writing ability, logical reasoning, critical argument, etc.) that are no longer as carefully learned-or studied at all-by today's youth. Such skills have been deprioritized in an increasingly fast-paced and complex world. It shocks some of us to realize that there are kids growing up today who may never become proficient at reading a physical map, if they are given regular access to GPS navigation PDAs and modern cars from birth. What does this mean for the future?
To some, this powerful trend toward an increasingly automation-enhanced, computer-enhanced living is disturbing. Yet in the context of globally accelerating technological change, we cannot conclude that today's youth are less prepared for twenty first century society than someone who has devoted precious time and brain space to becoming adept at the older, manual skills.
In our mapreading example, if GPS map readers become exponentially more affordable, ubiquitous, and powerful each year, manual map reading may eventually become as poor a skill choice as learning to hand weave textiles became in the 20th century. Essentially, once the new technologies are effective, the manual skill loses economic value every year forward by comparison to the technological alternative.
Let us ask a few Socratic questions to elucidate the issues. Are today's children more cortically stimulated than the kids of a generation ago? Most certainly so. Do they have earlier social maturity and a more nuanced emotional intelligence than their parents? Several studies have reached this conclusion. But do today's children have better analytical and critical thinking abilities? Are they more independent thinkers? Most likely not, by many of our traditional measures at least. Here lies the crux of the issue.
We all know that youth math and science abilities have fallen significantly in recent generations Perhaps the definitive study in this area is the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). TIMSS has been conducted in 1995, 1999, and 2003 (data pending). The 1995 results ranked U.S. 12th graders 19th out of 21 countries in math and 16th out of 21 in science. What's more, the relative performance of U.S. eighth graders in 1999 was worse than for fourth graders in 1995. And we've seen several studies that argue a number of related critical thinking and motivational skills that are also less developed in today's "MTV generation" than in the past.
At one level we've all caused this outcome, because we've collectively allowed a plutocratic swing to emerge in our society, a culture where there aren't strong economic and social incentives for every citizen to learn such skills, in competition with all the other enticements of modern life. Rather than dive further into the data regarding homework, aptitude scores, and time spent thinking or learning about mathematical and scientific topics, let's simply grant the point and consider possible solutions we might implement in coming years.
It hurts to realize that a technology-enabled fallback in education for independent thought has occurred in our plutocratic and unilateral U.S. of the early 21st century. Regardless of how many technological skills our youth are learning, it disturbs us to see that they have also, at least in the last few decades, become noticeably less analytical, less able or inclined to understand and objectively evaluate the dynamics of the society they live in. The ability to think independently is a part of the human experience we don't want to see automated. To use an important word from biology, societies that suffer this fate become "clonal," like China under Mao or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Clonal societies are intellectually homogenous, internally weak, and rapidly surpassed by heterogeneous ones. We don't want to think our nation may be heading in this direction.
We will briefly address this educational fallback in the remainder of this essay. How can we, as activist futurists, improve analytical and critical thinking in today's youth? How can we make a stronger and more critical liberal society, the necessary base for any healthy democracy?
Perhaps most importantly as developmental futurists, we should recognize that the fallback in youth abilities has occurred not only due to the political and economic climate, but far more importantly, as a result of the technological one. We are currently engaged in a momentous systems transition from human-based to machine-based educational infrastructures on this planet. We live in a world where the old-guard hierarchical, human-centric educational infrastructure is currently being taken apart and reorganized by our emerging network-based electronic educational infrastructure (digital television, first generation internet, video games, cell phones, etc.). We can expect to see the new electronic ecologies continue to outcompete the more humanizing, more mature, but substantially slower and older biology-based infrastructures during this transition period.
As I've noted before, first generation technological systems are often dehumanizing (see Smart's Third Law of Technology). While today's early digital systems can easily grab the eyeballs and brain space of our youth, and push a lot of raw information, they also deliver much less filtered wisdom, and can't yet offer high levels of personalization, motivation, outcome monitoring, or efficiency. Such systems divert children from the many advantages of the old infrastructure, but without yet offering much real education within the new.
But wait until the intelligent, conversational user interface (CUI)-based internet in 2020, then ask this question about critical thinking skills in technologically advanced countries. By then, if accelerating trends in computation continue as they have for the last century, our digital personalities will be our best coaches and educators, and human performance will have moved to a whole new amazing level that only the future-aware among us truly appreciate today. Our political and economic desires for increasing personal empowerment, development, and democracy will be tremendously aided by the networks of tomorrow. The pendulum will finally swing back, with a vengeance.
As activist futurists, most of us want to catalyze this deeply humanizing transition. To that end, systems theory offers us at least four obvious options, political, economic, social, and technological levers of change. All of these play an important role, but as Archimedes reminds us, technology is the "lever that moves the world." Let's consider each briefly for some insights in that regard.
First, let's recognize that political systems are the oldest dialog of change. I would argue that they were eclipsed in power by economic systems after the rise of mature Mercantilism (1500's to 1700's), aided by the industrial revolution in the 1800's. Economic systems were then transformed by social (mass consumption) and technological systems (mass production) in the 1920's, and ultimately surpassed in importance by technological systems with the dawn of the digital age in the 1950's. Political systems are, grossly, the least relevant lever of accelerating change.
The U.S. political system is presently engaged in a deeply plutocratic and unilateral swing. To me, this argues strongly that powerful political solutions to our national educational problems are highly unlikely to be forthcoming. Indeed, I expect they will be the least effective strategies in the present environment. The vested interests have no strong reason to change the status quo. I stand in solidarity with them, but we must also realize that any educational futurist trying to effect change politically today is in for a very difficult fight.
There is some partial justification for our current administration's unilateral outlook on the world. Leaders are needed in times of crisis, and it does seem very likely that we lead the world in understanding and modeling the way that technology is going to impact culture on the planet, including the way technology is going to build national security, a fundamentally important human need in all world cultures. Furthermore, the tolerant, multicultural, rights-oriented, representative democracy we are building here seems to be a global attractor.
But all this gives us no right to think that because we lead in certain ways, the world revolves around us: it decidedly does not. What the U.S. is going to learn over the next two decades is that the developing nations are going to advance economically much faster than we are, in an absolute sense. U.S. society is an example of the saturation in productivity that occurs when you continue to throw more and more physical goods, wealth, and increasingly pandering programs of higher education at individual human beings. We have an epidemic of obesity, we are less willing to work hard than ever before (though we are fortunately still more productivity- and competition-oriented than several socialist European nations), and we require a burgeoning variety of entitlements and creature comforts. Our youth are attention-distracted by endless entertainment choices.
The United States remains an innovation engine, to be sure. There is yet a chance that our economic productivity will continue to exceed that of other nations, perhaps even China, given our service sector, for several decades. But our growth rate must be flat by comparison to the emerging nations for deep computational reasons. Futurist Glen Hiemstra uses the excellent word "rationalization" to describe the globalization outsourcing we are seeing today. Don't think globalization, think "rationalization" of the world's workforce. The next several decades will see a leveling what has been an increasingly irrational and unsustainable income differential between global haves and have-nots. Today's IT outsourcing is only a feeble early example of what will come the better our global technological and legal infrastructure becomes. Our own music in Earth's symphony will be joined by, and collectively exceeded by many others as hundreds of millions of the world's most enterprising and underpaid workers are connected to and educated by the emerging intelligent global web.
When we consider economic systems as levers of change, especially in the context of our globalizing economy, we realize that there are also problems attempting to effect educational change in the U.S in coming years. In a plutocratic era, many commercial forces will be closely allied with the existing educational power structures, far more concerned with protecting their jobs than creating reform. While they will be open to ventures for improving children's education that fit with their conservative agenda, big textbook and other educational companies are, in general, unlikely to initiate transformational programs for improving the quality of educational systems today.
Furthermore, considering our global economy, we are increasingly realizing that the dominant economic dynamic of coming decades will not be centered around the United States. Now that we have a good first generation internet and global connectivity, the internet economy has discovered that far more productivity can be gained by preferentially developing the emerging nations. Because computing and networks have unified economic and cultural interchange, all enterprise is increasingly able to form international partnerships, to seek global solutions.
Let me make a clear prediction that the Information, Income and Wealth Gaps between First and Third Worlds, which grew throughout the 20th century, will be narrowing in the 21st. We see unmistakable signs of this already. Because globalization is a strongly nonzero sum game, we are definitely going to see the U.S. standard of living increase in this process. But it will increase far less than the emerging nations standards in coming years, making up for past imbalances, as it should.
The U.S. is only 4% of the world's population. By simple mathematics, the third world tech support staff will soon outnumber the first world's five to one, perhaps eventually even ten to one. We can't expect U.S. youth, presently grappling with the consequences of our culture's material success, to provide the dominant tech support for the most important transition coming our way: the building of the next generation planetary internet, a conversational user interface, and all the amazing global technological intelligence and new economic enterprise that tomorrow's network will enable.
It is the hungry emerging nations youth who will do the bulk of IT tech support for Earth's next generation internet economy in coming decades, just like the hard working Chinese and Irish immigrants built out the railroads, the dominant network of 19th century. If we are foresighted and global in our education, U.S. youth can creatively collaborate and partner with the world's workforce in this monumental task, and they will do so on their own initiative in increasingly powerful groupware and simulation environments in coming decades, in myriad ways we can scarcely imagine today. We are heading into a truly global transition, now that we have the network to do so (the first generation internet). The sooner realize this the better we will be able to help our youth participate meaningfully in the rapid economic development now occurring in emerging nations.
Many of today's social systems, at the cultural level, have their own problems as levers of change. They can be expected to aggressively perpetuate consumerist distractions in a highly plutocratic society. As Dean Kamen notes, dominant youth heroes in today's U.S. are athletes or entertainers bent on pushing you product, individuals who certainly play a valuable role in society but who have disproportionately displaced many of the great social welfare and justice role models of science, industry, medicine, or politics that our 19th century youth idealized.
We know we are in an era of cultural poverty when dominant musical genres of the modern era celebrate sex, money, power, fame and ego in clearly simplistic terms, rather than personal advancement, global awareness, empathy, and the more nuanced human needs. This is not a tirade against modern culture, merely a recognition of one of several costs of extreme plutocracy and unilateralism in any advanced industrial nation. We can fight this to some degree, but much more effectively at the personal and small group than at the broader cultural, political, or economic levels, at least for the near term. Again, we have to be conscious of our environmental context and its natural constraints.
That leaves us with technology, the fastest growing and most dynamic segment of current society, as the major lever for affecting the problem of youth education today. While some technologies enforce the hierarchical status quo and perpetuate what scholar Richard Rhodes in Visions of Technology, 2000, calls "structural violence," many others promote openness, distributed intelligence, transparency, and other strongly democratic values. We must learn the difference, and advocate for appropriate technologies.
I see at least two powerful personal strategies for practical implementation of the technological lever on education by futurists today. The first is learning how to use technology to increase your own and your children's educational sophistication, and the second is using it to create local businesses that have, as a clear goal, the effect of increasing the intelligence, independence, wisdom and worldliness of their employees and customers, both young and old. Let me close with a few brief words on each of these strategies, to spur you into your own additional research.
For your family, you could start by reading any of a number of interesting surveys of the social effect of computing technologies, such as Don Tapscott's Growing Up Digital, 1999 (and http://www.growingupdigital.com/). Get a subscription to a few good computer magazines, like PC Magazine, or Smart Computing: In Plain English. Use the internet on a daily basis. Create a personal website. Post your digital pictures to it. Get broadband, and get your grandparents on broadband. Start having webcam phone conversations with them (Apple's iChat AV is excellent). Buy goods on eBay.com and use PayPal to support the emerging global digital marketplace for consumer goods. Sell your used goods there as well, or take them to your local AuctionDrop.com warehouse, where they'll sell them for you on eBay themselves for a small fee. Use Amazon.com to buy your books. Use Netflix.com to rent your DVDs. Try dating through a good internet relationships site like eHarmony.com. Buy your clothes through places like LandsEnd.com, who will keep your measurements online, to simplify future clothing decisions. Do your banking with an online bank, like Everbank.com. Get a penpal in a foreign country through an internet café, and support their family financially and interpersonally. Upgrade your operating system, software, and computer regularly. If you haven't already, get your kid digital.
For your business, you might start with Slywotsky and Morrison's How Digital is Your Business, 2000, or Bill Gate's Business at the Speed of Thought, 2000. Ask yourself how you can employ youth who are interested in learning information technology (IT) skills, and how you can use IT and other technologies to improve your business. Sometimes its better to spend a lot less money, a lot smarter, on slightly older technologies. Look for ways where you can replace existing processes and systems with mature, cheap, dependable technologies. Unless you are a market leader, be careful about spending money on unproven new business technologies. Watch other technology adopters carefully before you spend, and use the internet for competitive intelligence. When you are considering spending nondiscretionary income on technology for competitive advantage, always study a technology carefully first, and spend only after you understand value inherent in the older, cheaper, and more mature technologies.
Finally, if you want to understand and selectively employ some of the newest technologies that are leading us to the next generation intelligent internet, you might start with John Patrick's Net Attitude, 2001. You can also review some of my internet essays on the conversational user interface, or CUI, as mentioned earlier. A new, increasingly intelligent conversational computing infrastructure and interface is coming, both to the internet and to every device with a wireless connection, one that will arrive incrementally between now and 2025 by most estimates. Systems theory gives us every reason to expect that the CUI, personality capture, persuasive computing, and other intelligent interface technologies are going to usher in a much smarter, more self-actualized, less culturally-controlled, more democratically active, empowered youth.
What we do every day can either accelerate or delay the coming transition,
so ask yourself how you can be a digital activist for educational empowerment
in your daily life.