Month: December 2020

False Economies

We assign value to proxies. Initially, this is always for the sake of convenience. It is far easier to exchange the value of a cow than to exchange the physical cow itself. In a similar vein, it is far easier to use the proxy of grades and certifications to simulate learning to express accomplishment. As time goes on, however, these value proxies become increasingly separated from the realities that they are supposed to represent and create their own economies that operate under a self-contained logic of exchange. When you divorce currency from what it is supposed to represent, transactions become its highest expression of vitality. The purpose of those transactions becomes increasingly irrelevant to the act of the transaction itself. Growth itself becomes the highest calling and what the transactions themselves represent becomes mere ciphers or inputs to the system, subject to speculation and manipulation.

So what is real in this world? Is the true purpose of this transactional activity acquisition or human augmentation? These are not the same thing. If you are struggling for survival in a world of scarce resources, acquisition can easily turn into a matter of physical survival. Even in the prosperous parts of the world, the memory of this is well within living memory. Indeed, countries like the United States still struggle with issues of food security even today.

However, the problems are often ones of distribution and equity rather than true scarcity in many societies around the world. Looking at just food supply, it is clear that we produce enough food to feed every person in the world (arguably overfeed them). This is clearly illustrated that there is still localized hunger even in countries such the United States that produce over 4000 calories per day per person.

I argued last week that our chief scarcity in the world was one of imagination but economies depend on scarcity to sustain their logic. This is particularly true where the good is intangible and difficult to measure objectively like educational achievement (“I’ll take a ¼ pound of European Economic History 322, please.”) Scarcity is a truism. There must always be more consumers to chase goods than there are goods to chase or prices will collapse. Sure, at a certain level having a surplus of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial console games is a localized catastrophe but this can never be allowed to happen to globalized requirements such as food and energy. We can’t bury those mistakes in the New Mexico desert.

Acquisitional thinking leads to all kinds of distortions. For instance, economists have been worried about leveling or declining populations for decades now because there are no recorded examples in history of economies in demographically-declining populations growing. The theory is that a steady stream of consumers and producers is necessary to maintain the acquisitional paradigm that drives measures like GDP. As discussed in my blog from last week , however, this kind of thinking is merely a paradigm that assigns worth to the fiction of money based on its power to acquire tangible (and sometimes intangible) products. However strongly based this is on the flow of human history, it is still a paradigm that drives behavior and behavior shapes reality. 

In The Ministry for the Future, Bryan Alexander’s book club reading, Kim Stanley Robinson seems to be suggesting that economics has become more of a religion than offering any sort of explanatory value. “Macroeconomics had thus long ago entered a zone of confusion, either early in the century or perhaps from the moment of its birth, and now was revealed for the pseudoscience it had always been.” (Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future (p. 344). Orbit. Kindle Edition). The central thesis underlying the book is that since this is all a fiction anyway, the trick to creating sustainable economic systems is to change the goals of the incentive structures that drive it.

This is an intriguing proposition when viewed through the lens of systems theory. Systems reinforce behaviors that are internally logical (like rent-seeking, grade-seeking, and success metrics, to cite just a few examples). All of these things trickle down to individual behavior and are, in turn, reinforced by the behavior of individuals operating within the system. These kinds of interactions create strong circular behavioral patterns that sustain the systemic paradigm. 

As Robinson describes in The Ministry for the Future, however, current economic incentives are incredibly destructive to the sustainability of the natural systems of human growth (of the individual, not the population kind) and planetary ecology. He envisions the reorientation of systemic acquisitional impulses toward something that is actually scarce: the future of the planetary ecosystem. Robinson does not discard the growth paradigm, he merely reorients it toward the goal of augmenting the planet rather than depleting it. This is perhaps the most interesting idea in the book.

As I alluded to earlier, there are other economies that have become divorced from their original purposes. In my own world of education, the acquisition paradigm has filtered into systems of learning across a wide range of activities. Chris Newfield points out that, “Academia’s senior managers have helped two generations of policymakers to overvalue the private benefits of higher education, which has given an artificial, unmerited advantage to the forces of privatization over those of the public good.” (Newfield, Christopher. The Great Mistake, Johns Hopkins University Press) In this formulation, a focus on individual economic gain is the private good. This demonstrates an abdication to the acquisition paradigm. College is there to turn students into employees. Certification becomes more important than actual achievement. The basis for certification is grades and/or high stakes testing to make sure you “earned” the certification because that is closely tied to individual economic gain. Individual economic acquisition is the point of the system.

Like global economics, these goals are also divorced from their intent. Employers complain that students emerge from this certification process lacking the key thinking skills that they expect from college graduates. Students are just going through the motions. And this is where Robinson’s book  and higher education intersect (despite his book’s lack of discussion of the issue): it is the products of our acquisitional educational systems that construct the disciplinary silos and blinders that impede paradigmatic change. If you are interested in economics, why are you studying biology or ecology? It’s not going to help you get a job at a hedge fund or even a university appointment. Yet, it is precisely these kinds of nonconformist ideas that we need to solve the world’s challenges today. As Newfield writes: 

Today’s problems—climate change, overgrown financialization, and continuous warfare, to name three—require interdisciplinary expertise, hybrid methods, and continuous creativity on the part of the whole population. Universities are the only social institutions devoted to helping the rising generation master coherent parts of the vastness of human knowledge and acquire personal capabilities that will renew themselves throughout their lives. (Newfield, 2018)

In order to meet the planetary challenges of climate change, we are going to need thinkers that are able to move between ideas and disciplines effortlessly. In The Ministry for the Future, Robinson seems to throw ideas against the wall with wild abandon just to see what will stick. This is also central to the concept of “emergent design” advocated for by Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown in their 2018 books Design Unbound (MIT Press, 2018). We need economies of the mind that are geared toward augmenting us as individuals, not enriching us by some false paradigm of economy. This is the only way we will save our species. 

We will never get there if the vast majority of our thinkers are products of systems of certification that emphasize certification over true learning. Universities store vast quantities of collective information but all too often these are segmented and never intersect into creating holistic knowledge paradigms. There are strong systemic forces (tenure, publications, grades, majors, funding, programs, etc.) that work against that. As a first order of business, we need to figure out how to more equitably distribute information if we hope to create the knowledge that can save our children. Before we can do that we need to take a hard look at the transactions that inhibit its growth. Without that, we will never augment human intellect and without a massive augmentation of human intellect we will never be able to think our way out of our current crises.


The Scarcity Paradigm

It often amazes me how often humans skate past the real issue and fail to address the actual substance that they are trying to address. I see this in my world of education when the focus of activity often becomes the proposed solution to a challenge rather than removing the challenge from its context and examining it in its raw form. In education, this challenge is actually quite simple at its root: it is about creating learning for humans. And yet we get lost in mazes of accreditation, grades, class scheduling, learning modalities, enrollment, and so on. The same thing can be said for many aspects of climate change. At its root creating a sustainable future is about how we power the niceties of human civilization without destroying the planet. It is about energy. Both education and climate change are also deeply intertwingled with the problem of how to create a just polity.

All three of these areas are subject to scarcity paradigms often rooted in Industrial Age economics. There are only so many resources to teach students effectively. There is a finite amount of energy available to power our societies. Human societies have always suffered from a misallocation of justice that favors the rich and powerful. It’s in our nature. And they all miss the point.

Within the contexts of their respective paradigms all three of these resource scarcity statements are true. However, where the true scarcity lies is in our ability to imagine how our paradigms of learning, energy, and power are shaping our perceptions of what is possible in each of these areas. Donella Meadows calls this “the power to transcend paradigms” and, among all of the leverage points of her 1999 article, this is the hardest to achieve and the one most likely to be resisted because people cling to their paradigms fiercely. This is because those paradigms form the bedrock of what they use to make sense of the world. 

It would be simpler if humans would recognize paradigms as existing within a universe of paradigmatic possibilities and for that to form their basis for understanding the world. But this requires a level of perspective that few, even the educated, have. One of the reasons for this is that education today is based on constructing disciplinary paradigms and so, as you become more educated, you become more indoctrinated in a particular set of rules. These have their utility as a set of tools to organize thought (a critical function) but if all that’s in your toolbox is a box of hammers everything looks like a nail to you, no matter how beautiful or sophisticated those hammers may be.

The thread of running up against paradigmatic walls runs through many of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books. This is particularly true of the book we are reading as part of Bryan Alexander’s book club, The Ministry for the Future. Robinson goes so far as to employ as a narrative device his chapter structure to explode paradigms, writing them from the perspective of everything from the protagonist to a carbon molecule (something I should try in my own writing). 

I find a lot of parallels between Robinson’s thinking and my own work in education. Those that argue that change is impractical in both arenas tend to do so from a position of scarcity and sacrifice. Robinson argues persistently through his book that this is a false choice, as do I. There is plenty of energy and economic power to reshape how we approach the problems of climate change. Likewise, there are plenty of opportunities to communicate learning to our students as well. We are just blinded by our paradigmatic blinders from considering possibilities beyond those dictated by the dominant approaches to economics and the systemic structures it creates.

If you think in terms of energy, we have plenty to sustain our needs outside of a fossil fuel paradigm that is both rooted in scarcity and the source of climate change. If you think in terms of learning, we have plenty to sustain our needs out of the Industrial schooling paradigm that creates scarcities often based on artificial structures and inefficiencies. Likewise opportunity in achievement need not be a scarce resource. It just needs to be liberated from its inequalities. We need to shed these scarcity paradigms if we hope to create sustainable futures for our children, whether we’re talking about their minds, their life chances, or their planet. 

The challenge is moving up to a higher level of abstraction from the paradigms that currently shackle our thinking. All of the paradigms of scarcity have at their roots the industrial economic paradigm. If you accept that, all politics, learning, and energy needs revolve around managing scarcity. When I asserted that this shouldn’t necessarily be the case in one of the discussions about the book, I was challenged in my assertions. Steve Foerster argued, “But scarcity of resources is real. I don’t see economics as inherently about acquisition, or inherently including assumptions either way about the propriety of using natural resources. It’s simply the social science studying how humans deal with that scarcity.” He is not wrong. However, I would counter this by arguing that economics is limited in arguing about resources in a way that misses huge opportunities. It is easy to look beyond industrial economics to see how humans have constantly redefined resources and scarcity.

To cite just one example, I argued in another recent blog about the book that we have reshaped scarcity in information resources in a fundamental way by digitizing it. Robinson argues that we can and should do the same when it comes to economics and scarcity of all kinds. His protagonist repeatedly finds herself in paradigmatic arguments with those invested in the existing paradigms. “Experts” on the subject who have been fully educated in “this is the way things are” outlook on the world are the central villains in the book. To be more precise, the villain is often not the person but the blinders under which they operate. The Ministry for the Future is fundamentally a book about the dangers of disciplinary blinders and the compartmentalization of thinking. Siloed thinking is fundamentally out of alignment with the realities of the Digital Age.

A central theme of my own work has been to look at the possibilities of a Digital Age paradigm and apply them to a whole range of issues that face us as societies and as a species. This is what I argued in “Rain” and this is what I apply to teaching and learning in the pandemic (and beyond) in my new book Learn at Your Own Risk. It is the central argument of my forthcoming book, Discovering Digital Humanity as well. 

Robinson also argues that there are plenty of resources to create a sustainable existence on our planet. What both of our work has in common is that I think we are both frustrated by the extent that efforts to address both wicked problems (and I would extend that to the political sphere) are bounded by paradigmatic and, by extension, rhetorical straightjackets. This is not about capitalism vs. socialism. Both of those are bound by economic resource arguments. They just differ on how those resources should be distributed throughout society. This is also not about who deserves access to education, or, more appropriately, access to learning. It is about creating ecosystems of learning (and learning to learn beyond paradigms) that make human beings capable of imagining the new paradigms fundamental to our collective futures, whether we are talking about the future of democracy or the larger future of humans as a species on this planet.

The true scarcity is one of imagination, not energy or knowledge. Yet, this seems to offer a major challenge to our traditional dichotomies of have and have-not. At their roots both of these concepts are products of paradigms of industrial economics and everything that flows from it. Economics reached its maturity during the Industrial Age, indeed it is hard to separate the two. It drives our politics and educational systems. Until we transcend Industrial Age thinking in all of these, we will miss the opportunities of both the Digital Age and the post-Fossil Fuel Age, the latter failure spelling the potential doom of humanity itself.



“For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” ― Henri Cartier-Bresson

I have been asked a couple of times over the last couple of weeks the dreaded question that every photographer gets asked with great regularity: “I want to be a better photographer. What camera should I buy?” This question tends to provoke me into much deeper reflection that I don’t think my interrogators are looking for. I don’t say, “Get the Nikon” or “Get the Canon.” I ask them to reflect on what “being a better photographer entails.” However, this week that question provoked me into deeper reflection and led me to identify a common thread that unites all of my work: the struggle to release a creative vision.

At its root this is not a technology question. It is at root a search for human expression. However, we often seek technological crutches to replace the much harder work of meditation, communication, and practice required of any creative endeavor. I wonder how many pianists are asked, “I want to be a better musician. What piano should I buy?” For this is exactly the same question. One that I often hear is, “I want to be a better teacher. What technology should I use?” But these days I’m almost never asked, “I want to be a better writer. What kind of word processor/typewriter/pencil should I use?”

These questions are all the same. All are about technology and how it augments our abilities. With more mature technologies, like the piano or most writing tools, I think people instinctively recognize that the differentiator between a Steinway and a Bosendorfer can only be exploited by an expert. With less mature technologies like cameras, teaching technologies, and computers this question has, until recently, been more about limits than possibilities.

I used to have to sit down deliberately before some kind of box to write (and I’ve always written on a computer). Taking pictures involved complex chemical processes and carrying around heavy equipment. I can’t tell you how many times I missed capturing jaw-dropping images because I simply didn’t have a camera with me at the time. In addition to this, there were significant technical hurdles involved in creating this way. Typing commands on a command line to get to your word processor and a sometimes complex series of commands once you got there or the interactions between shutter speed, aperture, and film speed required a level of expertise that overwhelmed many. It is not surprising therefore that people have learned to think that technology is the differentiator between good output and bad output. Today, these kinds of concerns have largely vanished. The real differentiator has always been the capacity of our imaginations to create. In today’s technology environment, having technology get in the way of our humanity is no longer acceptable.

As a writer, photographer, teacher, former musician, and technologist dating back over 40 years, my life has been characterized by a struggle with technology. Actually, this is not entirely true. My struggle in all but the last of these things has always been with myself. However, I do struggle with technology in my efforts to get it to serve my creative impulses. I have had images ruined (or lost) due to technology failures. I have had moments of literary inspiration come and go because I didn’t have to hand a means to record them. And, of course, I long ago gave up trying to master an instrument (piano and trumpet) because I was unwilling to put in the long hours of monotonous practice in order to achieve the standards of performance I demanded of myself. And, as a teacher and technologist, I have always struggled against badly-designed technological systems in my efforts to reach my students and, furthermore, to give them the instruments of creation. However, at the end of the day, these struggles have paled in comparison with the struggle to teach effectively.

No technology, however, has ever intrinsically made me better at any of these tasks. That’s my job. The best of them become invisible and get out of the way of what I’m trying to create, whether it’s a book, a photograph or inquisitive minds. What technology has enabled me to do over the course of my career is to enhance the places where I can create and to capture the moment when it occurs (as I am doing right now at 430 am on an iPad using Google Docs). These technologies also make it increasingly easy to translate what’s going on in my head into something that I can share with others. Now, if I have an idea when I’m out walking, I can whip out my iPhone and dictate that idea onto Google Docs (my latest choice), come home, and copy that onto my WordPress blog and within a matter of hours, the idea that came to me as I was walking down a path can be shared with the world.

Technology should reduce friction between your imagination and the world. Creating is the hard part. It requires observation, meditation, and practice. Sometimes practice requires the mastering of a technology like a piano but the most important part of practice, which you can only get to once you’ve mastered your instrument, is learning to listen to the music in your head. 

The brilliant thing about technology these days is that it is possible to have tools at hand that allows us to get past the technical quicker to concentrate on the task of imagination. The problem is that we often fail to see that that is the task in front of us. Hence the question: “What kind of camera should I get to make me a better photographer?” The answer is simple. Get the one that gives you the most flexibility and is one that you will have at hand when the moment or the inspiration strikes you.

For a large percentage of people that camera is the one attached to your phone. These days my most used camera is the one on my iPhone because it is always with me on my walk when I see the beautiful sunrise, cloud pattern, or interesting trees. This image was taken with my iPhone and processed using Snapseed in the phone as I was walking. Forty years ago, this would have required an SLR, the right film, and hours spent processing and printing in a darkroom. I did this in a matter of minutes and, furthermore, it was shared via social media to those who might be inspired by it in some way. This last step was impossible outside of a gallery in the 1980s.

As I said before, this blog was largely written on my iPad right after falling out of bed. This sentence is being written on my computer a couple of minutes later. It will be on my website and on social media within a matter of hours. I could just as easily have dictated these sentences into my phone as I walk the pathway beside the bayou pictured above. 

Writing is hard. As someone who does a lot of it, I struggle at times with the creative impulse to translate thoughts into words on the page. Often the words come to me as I am walking (there is a clear biological connection between brain activity and exercise) and not when I’m sedentary in front of a large screen. I enjoy photographing the natural and built world. You never know when the light will change or you turn a corner and see the perfect composition. Having the technology necessary to capture that at hand is the key factor in whether I capture the image or not. Executing it comes as a result of years of practice and reflection, not as a result of whatever piece of technology I have in my hand. Preferably, that technology does get in the way of creation or, even worse, ruins what I’m trying to do through complexity.

Teaching, as I discuss in my latest book, is also a struggle to get past technology. Thriving during the pandemic and meeting my students where they can learn is much like trying to record the perfect turn of phrase or color of sky. However, it involves applying an array of tools to the problem because at the end of the day, everything else we’ve been talking about is communication. Teaching requires that I use all of the mechanisms at my disposal to reach my students in a mindful way.

Like photography, writing, and music, learning is a process of conversation. Sometimes the best tool to facilitate this conversation is sitting down across a table with your students and talking it out. Sometimes the best tool for conveying ideas is recording your thoughts and posting them where the students can access them when they are ready to learn. Sometimes the best strategy is to be able to sit around a virtual table and to play through a learning exercise. To effectively augment teaching requires an array of technologies but it’s as much of a mistake to rely on technology to replace the human in the classroom as it is to try to replace the human in the photography process. As with photography and writing the trick is to mindfully select the sets of tools that bridge the gap between inspiration and understanding.

So, how do I answer the question of what technology (teaching, computing, photography, etc.) should I use? The answer is the same in all cases: choose the technology that becomes invisible when you want to be human. It’s humans that teach and learn. It’s humans that recognize and capture the beauty of the world. It’s humans who connect ideas and tell stories about them. All technology imposes limits. At a fundamental level narrative is shaped by language, whether that language is one of brushstrokes or keystrokes.

So, let’s create, teach, laugh, connect, inspire, and learn and build technologies that help us to do those things (for that is itself a creative process called design). Pick a camera that you will have with you when the moment happens. Pick a writing instrument that is where you are when the ideas flow. Pick teaching technologies that facilitate learning and connecting humans with ideas first and foremost. Keep playing until you find the set of technologies that allow you to be the most human. As one of my favorite thinkers on technology, Doug Engelbart, wrote in 1962, “We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully coexist with powerful concepts, streamlined technology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.” If you use technology to augment your humanity and then get out of the way, you can’t go far wrong.

Mental Gears Solid

A Reflection on Digital Economics

I am a political scientist by training. I’ve always thought that term to be a bit of an oxymoron (my degrees are actually in “government”). Like all social science, the idea that you can easily quantify and explain what is fundamentally human behavior is quixotic. Indeed, that’s why I have always found the field so fascinating and at the same time infuriating. It is the exploration of the unknowable human mind that has been the common thread through my lifelong intellectual journey.

My senior thesis as an undergraduate was about how the German government engaged in an attempt to reconstruct the cultural paradigms of its neighbors across the Iron Curtain, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In the 1990s I went on to examine the resurgence of nationalism in spite of the lessons of a century of devastation caused by this popular delusion. My latest work on technology is also rooted in an understanding of human nature. Learn at Your Own Risk, which comes out this week, is an exploration of how teaching can be rethought under a new digital paradigm and Discovering Digital Humanity (coming in 2021) is an exploration of how our paradigms of innovation and storytelling are potentially impacted by technological shifts. I like to call it a “relationship manual” for our relationship with technology.

The one thread through all of this is my attempt to understand how groups of humans respond to challenges, whether they are created by the systems they themselves set up or by much larger forces such as industrial and technological change or the global environmental challenges that have emerged as a result of a combination of those two factors. This is echoed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s book The Ministry for the Future, which I am reading as part of Bryan Alexander’s book club.

Like Robinson, I have always played with the notion of systems as mental constructs. They are an outgrowth of the human need to organize the world into understandable patterns. I have always questioned the reality of these patterns, approaching them from a fundamentally constructivist perspective. For instance, in grad school I studied under one of the leading proponents of the Realist theory of international relations, which holds that power and balances of power are what dictate international behavior. For my semester paper for him I argued that Realism did lead to World War I but only because all of the major players believed that was how the world worked, and therefore reacted accordingly to their perceptions in the shifts of the power balances of Europe in 1914 (he liked it).

Robinson likes pointing out that our acceptance of modern economics and finance is in large part responsible for our slide into long-term climate chaos. He is right. Classical economics and its modern derivatives (as well as its revolutionary challenges in Communism) are all products of Industrial Age thinking. This kind of thinking brings with it the fundamental notion of the nation and world as factories and humans as being fundamentally in service to the shop floor. This thinking probably reached its apogee during World War II as countries such as the US and USSR became massive production floors for converting resources into tanks, planes, ships, fuel, food, and guns. The technology of that era required this kind of thinking. It was a massive effort to produce the fleets and armies necessary to defeat Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany and those powers lost the war in large part because they did not have the resources to keep up with “factories” of the Allies.

The mental paradigm generated by Industrial Age technological constructs persisted into the Cold War and beyond. It has made a resurgence lately in Trumpism, Hindu nationalism, Brexit, and other nationalist morbidities. What the leaders of these “new nationalist” movements have failed to recognize is that the technological world has shifted out from underneath them. The shop floor has spread across the globe and been miniaturized. Increasingly, the resources necessary for what used to require massive factories and technological infrastructure are becoming lightweight and portable. Tasks can be stripped away from tools. Instead of “we need to build a railroad” the question becomes “we need to get from Houston to Austin.” Digital Age technological affordances allow us to strip down our thinking to its essential roots.

We have systemically failed to realize this and instead continue to operate on the same basis as the Soviets did in meeting the German onslaught in 1941: bigger and more massive will win the war. He who has the most resources wins. The latter part of the 20th Century increasingly put this to the lie. When Vietnam showed it could defeat the greatest power of the century (albeit at great cost) it should have been a wakeup call. When the Soviet Bloc fell, not to NATO tanks but to “people power,” that should have been a wakeup call. When national power was measured by the size of its factory floor and its ability to harness (and control) the resources necessary to power that shop floor, the economics of the Industrial Age makes sense, regardless of whether you frame it in capitalist or socialist terms. However, as the end of the Cold War and beyond proved, economic notions based on scale and resources have become increasingly irrelevant in an age where size and scale no longer matter.

The Digital Age no longer requires economies of scale to have an outsized impact on the world. The problem is that we still don’t seem to understand its impact on the economics or the politics of our time. You no longer need a massive factory to build T-34s (or T-90s) when now you can build a drone with off-the-shelf interchangeable parts that can take out a tank (or even an aircraft carrier) remotely. It says something when ISIS, a semi-nationalist organization with almost no resource base, was in the process of building jet drones during its brief existence on the world stage. Our economic theory, however, clings to the notion that you still need Industrial Age economies of scale to meet the tasks of the 21st Century. From teaching to transportation to defense to all manner of production, this is no longer the case in more and more areas of our societies.

Our paradigms just haven’t shifted accordingly. Economics is one such paradigm and it’s time for economists (and all manner of social scientists) to recognize that their paradigms are as constructed as all of the rest of ours are. Education, production, climate change, and democracy are all human challenges. Human challenges are met by shifting systems of thinking, not means of production or access to resources. The first step in constructing a more sustainable, human-centered future is recognizing that these systems increasingly reside in our collective minds, not in the real world. Overcoming our collective mental gears is where we will find the means to address all of these challenges.

Technology should allow us to see the world of the possible, not chain us to the shop floor. Economics should reflect this and become a “science” of the possible and not a science fundamentally based on scarcity. Scarcity leads to rationing and inequality. Some things should never be rationed. Human potential is at the top of that list. Human potential cannot be achieved in bankrupt societies on a broken planet. Shifting that paradigm should be at the top of every social scientist’s agenda.

Rain: A Meditation on Information

It is possible to drown in a rainstorm. Understanding where the water is going is key to surviving the deluge. If the deluge gets strong enough, understanding the nature of the water itself becomes essential for understanding where it is going. Water is information. Information is water. We are living through an unprecedented deluge of information and yet find ourselves dying of thirst even as we drown in the flood. Human ingenuity is the source of this flood of information. However, it is only through human ingenuity that we can create tools to navigate, manage, and thrive in systems of flood, whether we are talking about the fluid or data variety. Up to now I have seen precious little discussion of our ability to understand and process the floods we are facing. And yet this is key to the survival of civilization.

As part of Bryan Alexander’s book club, we are reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future, a book about human response to climate change. The book starts, somewhat implausibly, with information death as an Indian city dies in a massive heatwave that gradually reduces the informational options of its inhabitants until they die in the toxic, boiling sludge of the sole remaining source of moderation, the local lake. Power goes, cooling fails, water sources ultimately dry out. The humans improvise until there is nothing left to improvise with and then they die. At the other end of the spectrum is the headquarters of The Ministry, Zürich, Switzerland, which is characterized by almost constant rain, metaphorical information rain as well as the real stuff. The problem there is discerning what is happening out of the deluge of political, economic, and scientific rain that seems to constantly pummel the humans who are trying to navigate the planet through a burgeoning series of crises that humanity has created.

2020 has seen an unprecedented storm of consequential information and, like the Ministry, we struggle to make sense of it, much less act on that sensemaking. From trying to understand the source, flow, and consequences of Covid-19 to analyzing the outcome of an election in the US to understanding our educational systems in a time of crisis, the rain has been constant but ever-changing in its intensity and nature as it flows throughout human society. All of these crises have one thing in common: Whether we are talking about pandemic, climate change, democracy, or education, our problems boil down to our capacity (or incapacity) to understand and manage the rain of information. From the earliest days of civilization in Egypt and Mesopotamia, successful human societies have harnessed technology to channel the flow of water into richness. To do this, they also harnessed the power of information. We have the same responsibility now.

This week seemed to mark an odd confluence of information for me. It became clear that the fundamental problem uniting all of these crises is a lack of understanding of the informational floods with which we are confronted. Starting with the fastest-moving of them: the pandemic, we have struggled to even understand where it was raining. I have been thinking, on a personal level, that it would be really cool to have an AR set that could actually see the virus particles in the air and on the surfaces around us. We do not have the technology to achieve that level of seeing yet but we do have powerful data tools that can show us that information on a more macro level. However, even those tools have often proven inadequate in the face of poor data inputs. Even with sophisticated mapping tools, testing and tracing inputs have struggled to keep up with the speed of the contagion. Understanding the intensity of the rain is a key first step to any response. Unfortunately, in this instance, we have seen far too many societies deny the oncoming storm, refuse to see it, and even go so far as to conclude that if we ignore it, it will go by as a mild sprinkle. Those societies have developed informational problems as the nature of the flooding has gone unreported until masses start to drown. The tools we have developed to measure the rain, while technological achievements, are filled with bad information about the nature of the flows we confront.

Climate change lies on the other end of the spectrum. We’ve had time, albeit less and less of it as the years of inaction stretch into decades. Here the rain threatens to assume a physical form as the planet struggles to adjust to the anthropocene. However, even as the data accumulates from a wide range of data collection, we still struggle to “see” what it all means. In this context, we lack the tools necessary to understand clear pathways. We can see the rain and even get a sense of its intensity. However, we have a poor map of the landscape; how the rain might flow once it hits us; and what needs protecting the most. Like the pandemic, those on high ground seek to deny the oncoming storm because they are unwilling to make the sacrifices that will protect those most in danger. This is a central theme to Robinson’s book.

In the United States, we are rife with conspiracy theories whose informational waves lap over the gamut of issues from the pandemic to climate change to the health of our democracy. In this case and at this level the data is painfully obvious to anyone willing to confront it. On an individual level, we know what we need to do to protect ourselves from the pandemic: wear masks, socially distance, avoid creating crowded indoor spaces, and aggressively vaccinate when a vaccine becomes available. Even in the face of this immediate threat we are faced with a deluge of informational noise and nonsense, and so the virus spreads.

This information pollution extends to the climate change threat, as we are constantly presented with false choices between prosperity and responsible stewardship of the planet upon which we depend for our very existences. Again, humans are presented with a vast deluge of information but few tools to contextualize it and translate it into individual or community action. Into this environment we also see those living on the high ground trying to protect their privilege by muddying the waters with informational sludge, such the oil companies’ decades-long disinformation campaign on the connection between the burning of fossil fuels and the threats to our existence.

These same strategies are being employed to throw sludge into the very machinery of our democracy as cries of “voter fraud” have echoed through our polity in the wake of the recent US presidential election. Compared to tracking millions of invisible viral containers (COVID-19 leaves a notoriously inaccurate paper trail) or the complex interactions of billions of interconnected environmental systems, tracking 160 million votes is child’s play. While inexplicably not perfect, our data systems are well up to the challenges of accurately counting votes in 2020, more so than in any election since the founding of the US Republic. The Cybersecurity and Instructure Security Agency issued an unequivocal statement, “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.” Yet, in this case millions question the reality of the data in front of them.

Finally, our world of education, I asked a question of Kelvin Bentley on Bryan’s Future Trends Forum. Dr. Bentley proposed that we do a better job of data acquisition and analysis from our institutions of higher education in the United States. I asked him how we could do that in the absence of standard measurements (like the spread of a virus), context (like the collapse of global ecologies), or a clear paper trail (like US elections). Furthermore, even assuming that we have these kinds of informational inputs (which is entirely possible), how would we be able to actually see the landscape that this informational deluge would unleash without proper tools to analyze the data (which we could build)? We all agreed that the system we were trying to understand was lacking in all aspects for managing information flows. Without these fundamentals of information, we lack the ability to manage the educational storm confronting our society. Unfortunately, fixing this system is a basic leverage point for developing the capacity to understand the other storms confronting us. Universities form the linchpin for developing responses to all of our challenges, from the pandemic response to climate change to democratic reform. It is trust in our institutions of education to provide informational tools that are an essential prerequisite for action that allows systemic responses to be crafted. And yet, even on this fundamental level, we are content to drown or die of thirst in a deformed informational ecosystem.

For all of these scenarios are the same. We are facing a deluge of information in face of local, societal, and global challenges. We are only beginning to grasp at the requirements that will save us from the flood of the Nile waters. The ancient Egyptians developed calendars as a critical tool in their civilizational toolsets. Without calendars they would not have known when the river would rise, when to plant their crops, and how to channel the deluge. We can’t even agree on what day it is. Humanity is in desperate need of Digital Age calendars and other informational tools to sort the deluge of data. Informational tools are essential to crafting responses understandable to all so that we can take collective action to combat the challenges confronting our, now-global, civilization. Universities should lead through example by transforming educational practice into one characterized by transparency and the application of powerful informational tools as a means to demonstrate how we can tackle the other storms of society.

This much is clear: Information complexity is the real flood of the 21st Century. It’s time to make tools that allow us to see it, learn from it, and thrive. For, like water, complexity holds within it vast potential. However, also like water, it can overwhelm and drown us. Digital Age calendars that can absorb this data and translate it into something instantly understandable are the keys to making sure we aren’t overwhelmed by flood and pollution.


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