The shared human enterprise is multidimensional. Its various dimensions don’t exist in mutual isolation. Each dimension implicates all others. Human efforts and developments within the various dimensions need to articulate with human efforts and developments in all others. Politics can’t be considered without considering economics, and economics can’t be considered without considering technological developments. None can be considered without considering the production and dissemination of ideas and values and understandings and techniques (and the emotional reactions to them), in short, of human cognitions (including emotions).
The evolution of our social institutional and technological landscape is the overarching theme of human history. Wealth is produced and distributed, ideas created and disseminated, wars sparked and fought, buildings designed and built, political forms and processes developed, all due to and through and as an expression and producer of our ever changing social institutional and technological context.
Technological developments pose both opportunities and challenges. They provide new ways, new tools with which, to produce wealth and address problems. But they also create new problems of their own.
The Economist magazine recently provided a glimpse into the immediate future, by exploring some cutting-edge technologies of the present (see http://www.economist.com/node/21552901). Perhaps the most striking aspect of the package of new technologies changing the face of manufacturing is the 3-D printer:
3-D printing is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of “digital manufacturing,” which in turn is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of what can be called an “information technological revolution.” We all are aware of it, but we don’t always incorporate that awareness into our more generalized understandings and strategies. The fact is that the rapid developments in information technologies (i.e., the set of technological innovations that includes computers, the internet, and mobile communications devices that now are hand-held communications and information processing instruments) is transforming our world, and will continue to do so, in dazzlingly dramatic ways.
The impact of this IT Revolution isn’t just that everyone has or soon will have an i-phone, hooked into a global network of thought and information access. It is also that the more generalized processes of conceptualization, communication, creation, development, production and distribution of cognitive material and all of its products is undergoing a major paradigm shift that has deep structural implications that will ripple and reverberate throughout the social institutional and technological landscape in acceleratingly transformative ways.
We’ve seen the first salvos of the political implications in “The Arab Spring” and other geopolitical events and transformations in recent years, with autocratic governmental control of information flows (and thus of populations in general) being eroded by the IT Revolution. We’ve seen it in our own political system, with political organizing and fund-raising and networking enhanced by new tools which favor those who most rapidly become most adept at their utilization (see, e.g., A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). We’ve seen it in science and scholarship, starting with the development of “Chaos Theory” in the early days of modern computers, and growing from there into an accelerating transformation of our understanding of the nature of the world of which we are a part (including the evolutionary ecology of the social institutional and technological landscape itself; see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).
Now we are seeing it in how we create, produce, and distribute the material manifestations of human existence, the machines and commodities and, in general, the “stuff” of our lives.
What does this all mean for those of us who are most consciously engaged in the human enterprise, who are committed to working with others similarly committed to do the best we can in service to humanity? It means we need to start thinking in new ways, ready to utilize new tools. We need to develop new paradigms that incorporate all of this massive information, these massive changes in the processes that comprise our shared existence, this threshold through which we are passing, and address the future not just as an economic challenge narrowly conceived (as some do), and not just as a technological challenge narrowly conceived (as others do), and not just as a political challenge narrowly conceived (as still others do), and not just as a scientific or scholarly challenge narrowly conceived (as still others more do), but as an integrated challenge incorporating all of these together.
One of the lagging components of the paradigm shift we are undergoing (perhaps always the lagging component in all historical paradigm shifts) is the intentional or organic integration of its various parts for maximum human benefit (see, for instance, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve, for a discussion of the need to better integrate and articulate the products of our scholarship across disciplines). This is where the crucial challenge lies: How do we gather together these various threads of thought and innovation, and synthesize and channel them most effectively for human benefit?
One of the common threads emerging from the IT Revolution is coherent decentralization. Our ability to publish, network, and organize (social media and the blogosphere), to be vigilant (see Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization), to raise funds (see Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”), and political and economic collaboration in general (see Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed). But it’s not just augmented multi-lateral communications in play, but simultaneously augmented information processing (e.g., the data analysis function of computer technology), and now, the direct translation of information into its physical manifestations (i.e., production and construction). 3-D printers enable anyone anywhere to manipulate the design of an object digitally, integrating mass production and custom design into a single technology, and to manufacture that object remotely, for anyone else anywhere else, on demand.
One of the central implications of our current technological trajectory is that the demand for human labor will be increasingly a demand for highly trained, technically proficient, information-intensive labor. Humans will be more and more relegated to doing the tasks for which humans have –and will long have– a unique comparative advantage over any devices we can invent, and that is in our highest levels of cognitive functioning, in our imaginations and creativity, in our unique human consciousness. Increasingly, developing that consciousness as something more than a set of mechanical skills that can be sold on the labor market will not only be what feeds our souls, but also what imbues us with what will increasingly be the only asset for which there will be a future demand on that same labor market: Brilliant, imaginative, inventive, creative minds.
There will never be a shortage of opportunities for minds thus developed, but there will increasingly be a shortage of opportunities for everyone else. In a society and world where we haven’t yet met the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of the past century, meeting the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of this imminent and in many ways already present future poses an urgent, imperative challenge to us as a society.
This is nothing less than a revolution in the speed and agility of our technologically augmented collective consciousness, and in the speed and agility of our ability to translate that consciousness into action and objects, into wealth and welfare, into opportunity and the accelerating realization of human potential. But it also poses daunting challenges, challenges in how we prepare people to contribute to and participate in this production of wealth, and how we cope with the inequities and inhumanities that will result to the extent of our failure to do so.
There is so much dazzling new cognitive material currently flourishing in our shared cognitive landscape, a garden of possibilities bearing rich new fruits to be picked. But it is through their constant cross-fertilization, through the interweaving of their various vines, that the richest and most abundant fruits will be produced. The future is hanging low on the boughs of human consciousness, of imagination and innovation. We need to stop waiting for its fruits to fall on us of their own accord, and reach up and grap them with conscious intent and design, because, by doing so, we increase their value and quantity. When it comes to human consciousness and all of its products, it is through the act and intentionality of harvesting it that we most effectively cultivate it.