In this transformative time, we question once-unassailable pillars — democracy, capitalism, freedom of expression, equality — and the sacred stories that have supported them. They founder in the face of new realities: technological upheaval, information overload, and massive inequities.
We need to openheartedly reshape and reimagine those institutions and stories. Yet we’re hampered by a crisis of accountability and transparency. The platforms we use to collaborate are increasingly closed. The companies and people that control them wield more unfettered power over us than many national governments – we don’t have a vote or any say. We’ve got to break down those walls, so that we can innovate in novel ways, at scale.
Still, technology can help us only so much. It ultimately amplifies destabilizing human forces already in play, for better and for worse. The current global pandemic is a similar shock to the system that also underlines what’s at stake. It exposes existing societal fissures and widens them with impunity. Look to how we mistrust each other, our growing poverty, and the disparities in who has suffered most.
Early in my career as a conflict zone journalist, I learned that with crisis, comes clarity. As dire as the present is, we also have a glimpse of a way forward. Previously obscured paths have suddenly been cleared as we scramble for new ideas, especially when the tried and true suddenly lose their traction
We need to weave a more unifying narrative around how we can imagine something better, together.
Here’s what’s really at stake. Our seemingly immutable obstacles — climate change, pandemics, social and economic injustice — are just symptoms of a greater affliction. We simply find it harder than ever to trust other people. Without that trust, we can hardly agree on the same set of facts, let alone the solutions required to resolve our most pressing challenges.
We certainly have concocted sacred stories around our land, our faith or our people to unify “us” against “them.” Digital platforms only exacerbate this. It affords ridiculously easy access to like-minded members of our respective enclaves. We amplify and reinforce narratives that support exclusivity at all costs. These strong social bonds fortify us against the chaos “out there.”
In the past, a similar approach inspired us to reach out to strangers who believe as we do, and collaborate. That level of trust led to the creation of nations, cities, and communities — human constructs that would not have otherwise existed in the real world but for our imagination and confidence in strangers.
Today, that confidence has ebbed and we feel our loss of agency. Perhaps a small number of actors have consolidated enormous power by taking whatever control we once had. Maybe we never had much. Now, we either want more power, or we’re afraid that we’ve lost our place to someone else. We lash out at a system and hierarchy that no longer serve us, We find solace and reinforcement in these more fragmented groups.
So, we need new stories to support a different kind of social infrastructure. Our world is increasingly complex. Our stories should adapt to that reality. We can no longer be locked in with an immutable code of conduct. These narratives must be open and subject to interpretation based on the shifting needs of the community.
We need to gather as equals to reclaim that agency. We should mobilize innovation in the face of this power mismatch. We must be able to demand parley with a head of state, a tech giant, a chief executive or a newly-minted philanthropist. To do so requires the capacity to engage cogently. They will respect our power if we understand how these systems work, if we’ve developed our own community-facing innovation – and if we can forcefully advocate for ourselves.
“When the future comes without warning, we are shocked into a crisis or endurance or survival…what will we need to endure?” asked Margaret Heffernan in her 2020 book, “Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future”
We endure by creating a more universally-accessible ecosystem to ideate, research, design and deploy our own emergent solutions. Success leads to a redistribution of power that benefits us all, even as it sparks our ability to meet each of our communities’ unique needs. This recalibrates how we solve problems together, developing and adopting technology when necessary and appropriate.
It begins with how we learn to trust each other again.
[Excerpted from a fellowship application to the Shuttleworth Foundation — given the long odds of becoming a fellow in support of my MIRA! initiative, I decided to share it publicly now as we ponder both post-election America and the global pandemic. It’s also consistent with my current worldview, which I shared in that recent local tv news story, included in this post. ]