On this 100th aniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic, it seems fitting to write a tribute to that historic event, but one which takes what lessons it may offer and applies them to our own ship of state today.

A story on the PBS Newshour yesterday (Friday, 4/13/12; about an interesting New Yorker article (“Unsinkable: Why We Can’t Let Go of the Titanic,” by Daniel Mendelsohn; got me to thinking about the parallels between that ill-fated vessel, and our perhaps equally tragic nation. The parallels Mendelsohn drew were to Greek tragedy, to the themes of hubris, of Man v. Nature, of something glorious and admired and full of a sense of its own exceptionalism going down in flames, or icy waters, as the case may be. It is about too much smugness and too little pragmatism.

As Mendelsohn aptly put it: It’s too perfect, too much like a story, the “unsinkable” ship sinking on its maiden voyage. Like Oedipus, the flawless hero, swept up and sucked down by forces that grab hold of all those who eschew humility, the great Titanic was doomed by its own sense of perfection, or the sense of those who had invested their identities into it. It was about the limits of technology, about class and injustice, about the bracing, icy reality confronting the dreamed up ideal. It was, of course, the ideal of unsinkability rather than the reality of unpredictability which sank.

The United States is, in many ways, “the Titanic Nation,” this great ship of state launched by the culmination of European development, by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, full of a sense of its own exceptionalism, bigger than life, “unsinkable.” We are still on our maiden voyage, for the first couple of centuries in the history of a nation is still its infancy. And we are careening toward the icebergs of our hubris, of our uncompromising belief in our own exceptionalism, in our scoffing at the demands of pragmatic reality in deference to the oversimplified ideal we believe will always trump it.

Despite what many say, despite what many cling to, despite the satisfaction it may give to entertain the notion, in the final analysis, America is not an ideal; it is a nation, a product of history, a living, breathing, thriving and striving and faltering and self-correcting society, a work in progress, an on-going challenge to be met with a modicum of humility and a heavy dose of pragmatism. And it is the increasing rather than decreasing loss of this awareness that sends us hurtling toward unseen icebergs, destined, perhaps, to collide with them and rip ourselves to shreds in the process.

But we have not collided yet. We have not sunk yet, and do not have to. We can regain our humanity, our recognition of being nothing more or less than a nation struggling with the challenges of thriving in a complex and subtle world, a nation guided by wonderful values and founding principals, but a nation that is not invulnerable because of them, or beyond improvement in deference to them. Sometimes, we need to correct our course, to re-chart our trajectory, to avoid the obstacles that those who designed and launched us could not possibly have anticipated. Their design, and the course they charted for us, remain our foundation, but they do not remain the limits of who and what we are.

There are those in America today, too many, too loud, too smug, too full of hubris and folly, too natonally self-destructive, who insist that we must not evolve, that we must not develop our political economy to confront the challenges of today, that we must not adapt and grow and steer our course through the ever-dangerous waters of history. There are those who offend the spirit and character of the brilliant but historical and fallible men who drafted our Constitution by reducing it to a shallow sacred document, stripping it of its meaning, stripping it of its intent, and seeing in it only a mirror of their own blind ideology, whether its specific clauses actually mirror that ideology or not. (See. e.g., Right-Wing New-Speak.)

There are those who insist that a century-old non-empirical Austrian economic philosopher got everything right, and the entire empirical and analytical discipline of economics as it has developed ever since has gotten everything wrong, and who claim that theirs is the only reasonable position imaginable, all others being error. There are those who are as lost in their own blind ideologies, as insulated from reason and evidence, as any Medieval Inquisitor ever was, and who insist that that is what America is, that that is what America was meant to be. And they are steering us straight toward those icebergs of human folly, of ignorance, of hubris, of believing that an act of admirable engineering, whether technological or social institutional, whether a historically unprecedented giant ocean liner or a historically unprecedented national Constitution, once accomplished, need no longer be piloted in response to the realities as they are encountered, and can not possibly fail if only left to barrel ahead blindly.

As the economist and dynamical systems analyst Brian Arthur noted in his wonderful book, The Nature of Technology, these feats of engineering, of historical innovation, are not faits accompli, but are rather always works in progress, always tested and honed and refined by the reality of life and the challenges that it poses. The brilliance of our nation is not that we got it right once and for all, and only must adhere to that perfect, unsinkable design, but rather that we accomplished something admirable on which we can build, which we can continue to steer, which will take us farther than we ever imagined if only we continue the work rather then rest on ancient laurels.

We are, indeed, a Titanic Nation. But ours is one Greek Tragedy whose ending hasn’t yet been written. We are the ones who will write it. We are the ones who will determine whether it is written by our hubris and folly, or by our wisdom and humility. We are the ones who will either steer it into the icebergs that lay before us, or will continue to navigate our way among them, refining our institutions and developing our humanity to confront a reality that was not part of or foreseen by our original design, but rather is a part of what continues to make us . . . or break us.

As I like to say, let’s write our story well.

The title of this essay may seem naive or idealistic, particularly when written by someone who not only answers in the affirmative, but insists that it’s only a question of how contagious we choose to make them. Wisdom and compassion (or the various instances of them) have been viral throughout human history, as have been their opposites. Our challenge, as conscious beings participating in our history, has always been to facilitate the spread of those memes and “emes” (i.e., cognitions and emotions) in service to wisdom and compassion, and to curtail the spread of those that serve their opposites.

The real question is: Are we capable of altering the balance in a fundamentally transformative way? The confluence of memes and emes in fundamentally transformative ways isn’t some pie-in-the-sky notion, but rather a norm of human history. To take just modern European (and European off-shoot) history, we see a sequence of cumulative thresholds: The Renaissance, The Reformation, The Scientific Revolution, The Enlightenment, The Enlightenment-informed political revolutions, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, followed by a flow of accelerating consequences of the Industrial Revolution (telegraph, electrification, telephone, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, plastics, cars, planes, nuclear energy and weapons, jet airliners), culminating in what may well eclipse the Industrial Revolution in hindsight (the Information Technology Revolution) and catalyze an even greater acceleration of change.

The most dramatic of these thresholds may appear to be technological, but many were social institutional as well: The Glorious Revolution in England, which put William III and Mary II on the thrown and tipped the scales toward a reversal of the principal-agent relationship between people and government (e.g., the invention of popular sovereignty); the U.S. Constitution, which inherited that political transformation, a body of Enlightenment thought, and an easily conquered new continental nation in which to more fully implement it; and the rise of “the administrative state” during and after The Great Depression.

Obviously, not all of these transformative developments were unambiguously positive: Industrial warfare wreaked horrendous destruction in WWI, which was eclipsed by WWII, which culminated in the only infliction of nuclear weapons on a human population. But equally obviously, they are not on the whole unambiguously negative: Popular sovereignty, the rule of law, an increasingly functional blend of a market economy with administrative oversight to harness that economy more in service to humanity, while all woefully imperfect and incomplete, are admirable achievements nonetheless.

There is also the crucial question of how do we as individuals best articulate our efforts with these grand historical processes and “revolutions,” given that most of them seem to be aggregations of more immediate and less ambitious efforts, rather than grand movements contemplated and executed in any intentionally organized way. “The Industrial Revolution,” for instance, was an accumulation of inventions, and even The American Revolution began as a war of secession in response to specific grievances, the crowning achievement, the U.S. Constitution, not even being a glimmer in the national eye until well after the war was over.

But all of these developments, dubbed “revolutions” in retrospect, were to some extent the result of underlying ideals and disciplines that gained favor and momentum through intentional human efforts and advocacy. The Renaissance involved a growing commitment to “humanism.” The Reformation was, to some extent, a reaction to the oppressive and exploitational Medieval Church, driven by religiously couched yearnings for increased liberty and justice. The Scientific Revolution was a growing commitment to a methodology which increased the robustness and reliability of the human exploration of nature (nor was it a bloodless development, with folks like Galileo enduring The Inquisition for having insisted that a scientific finding, that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than vice versa, was more accurate than the religious dogma it had challenged).

These historical developments and transformations do not occur independently of us, but rather because of us, because of the Thomas Paines who, only recently arrived in America, having failed miserably in all of his previous endeavors, wrote first “Common Sense,” basically starting the colonial conversation in earnest about whether those colonists should secede from the Empire of which they had until recently been proud subjects, and then the poem that gave hope and courage to the demoralized soldiers gathered at Valley Forge. They happen because people create and are inspired by new ideas, new possibilities, new nascent hope and belief that we are capable of something more than what we have yet accomplished.

We need to rally first to that realization, the realization that we can be conscious beings consciously participating in our own shared history, aspiring for more than the passage or defeat of this or that bill currently in Congress or the election of this or that candidate who seems to favor the ideology we prefer. Of course, these urgencies of the moment are anything but trivial, but they do not define the limits of what we can strive to achieve.

We need to divert a little of our passion, a little of our dedication, a little of our aspiration, to the deeper political struggle to promote the memes and emes which best serve our humanity, which lead ever more people to be ever more amenable to the disciplined products of imaginative reason and universal goodwill. I’ve offered my suggestion, in The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, about how we might go about doing so. In the second part of this essay (Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), I make my appeal to all of you reading this how you can help me spread these particular memes and emes to as many others as possible.

(Formerly titled “Improved Communications Technologies & Techniques + Personal, Organizational & Methodological Discipline = Historic Social Change”).

For those who are serious about working for social progress based on reason and goodwill, despite the momentary resurgence of regressive “Political Fundamentalism”, the confluence of factors is currently conducive to a major paradigm shift. The power of decentralized mass media (“social media”), combined with improvements in our knowledge of  relevant disciplines (e.g., cognitive science, microeconomics and game theory, learning theory, complex dynamical systems analysis, network analysis, epistemology and epidemiology, evolutionary ecology, etc.), as a tool for intentional and potentially revolutionary social change, is a theme which requires the weaving together of several separate threads of thought I’ve been developing on this blog.

I’ve posted previously about the processes of cultural evolution and revolution, involving “memes,” groups of memes called “paradigms,” and the revolutionary effects of the accumulation of anomalous memes within a paradigm, leading to “paradigm shifts” (The Politics of Consciousness). And I’ve continued that theme down several avenues, including a discussion of the acceleration of the cultural evolution effectuated by two products of that evolution itself: scientific methodology, and evolving communications and data processing technologies (Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix).

In another, related, series of posts, I’ve written about the power of decentralization for liberating and mobilizing “the genius of the many” (a term for evolving decentralized but coherent sets of memes and paradigms) to an extent never before possible (Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed, Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”, Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization), itself a product of the processes discussed in the “human social evolutionary ecology” series. (See also And in two series of posts largely unrelated to these, I discussed the importance of creating a methodology akin to that of science or law for disciplining the development of political beliefs (Ideology v. MethodologyA Proposal, The Elusive Truth), and the importance of each of us truly committed to social change becoming equally committed to individual change, adopting a personal discipline that will make us the most capable and compelling of messengers (“Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few). There are some posts, as well, which combine these latter two themes to some extent (The Foundational Progressive Agenda, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Ultimate Political Challenge).

But, though these disciplines and methodologies, to some extent yet to be developed, are the key to robust sustainable social progress, we do not have to invent either the products or procedures of reason applied to politics from scratch. We have the academic disciplines I listed above (as well as all others) to draw on. I hope that some of my posts have helped to disseminate a glimpse of their relevant fruits, which is as much as any of us can unilaterally accomplish (e.g., The Economic Debate We’re Not Having , The Real Deficit , The Restructuring of the American and Global Economy , The More Subtle & Salient Economic Danger We Currently FaceA comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Real Education Reform, The Most Vulnerable Americans, The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services).

“The genius of the many” extends the concept of division and coordination of labor to the development of human consciousness; the ecology of memes that transcends the individuals whose brains are its physical medium (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia). A simple example of the genius of the many is that if a thousand random people guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the mean of their guesses will be closer to the correct number than any individual guess, including the one made by the most mathematically capable of doing so.

Ironically, the far-right, relying on caricatures of reality, reduces all progressive thought to a hierarchical top-down “statism,” whereas the philosophy I am espousing is just the opposite: A coordinated bottom-up aggregation. The far-right, conversely, advocates for a tyranny of the lowest common denominator, never mobilizing more genius than the least informed among them is already in possession of, and imposing that state of relative ignorance on all of us in the form of information-stripped public policy.

One academic discipline not only informs the progressive policies we should be seeking to design and implement, but also the challenge of bringing more people on board in the effort to design and implement them. George Lakoff, in The Political Mind, explores the underlying metaphors upon which our minds are structured, the differences between conservative and progressive metaphors, and the techniques of messaging that should be employed to activate the narratives of empathy that exist compartmentalized in almost every mind –including conservatives’ minds– in advocacy of progressive policies. Combined with other advances in cognitive sciences (e.g., Evolutionary Psychology, such as espoused by Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct and How The Mind Works; Semiotics; Frame Analysis), this body of thought provides an encouraging foundation for accelerating the reproductive success of progressive memes and, by doing so, the coming paradigm shift that will favor them.

If enough of us dedicate ourselves to these personal, organizational, and procedural disciplines, utilizing to as great and effective an extent as possible these new decentralized media of mass communications, then the power of that movement will be unstoppable. I have frequently quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”) and John Maynard Keynes (“[People] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives”) as a reminder that the momentum of history is on our side. Bigotry and various forms of violence (including institutionalized mutual indifference, and politically organized ignorance) keep rearing their heads and wreaking havoc in the short run, but they are not what defines the historical progression of humanity, which has, overall, been characterized by gradual, inconstant, unequally distributed gains in both prosperity and social justice (and though sustainability has still been woefully insufficiently addressed, there are indications that the momentum of reason will favor it as well, though whether in time to avert disaster remains to be seen).

Those of us who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill are the ones with the wind of time at our back. Those who oppose reason and goodwill are the overabundant debris resisting that wind, stinging and bruising us as we rush through and past them. 

Here I am, conveying this matrix of interrelated memes, this paradigm, on a blog, and on Facebook, utilizing the very media that form one component of what I am discussing, in order to discuss it, to disseminate the information and attempt to persuade others to do so as well, and to refine our efforts in accord with these opportunities and lessons. We can see the acceleration of innovation resulting from some of the variables described above in many spheres of life: “Chaos Theory” (aka “complex dynamical systems analysis”) and numerous non-computer-related technological advances that have resulted from it (in fields such as medicine, engineering, meteorology, etc.), fractal geometry, the internet, the computer revolution, wikis, vastly reduced economic transaction costs, vastly accelerated processes in almost every sphere of life.

Social systems, which have been in so many ways so resistent to reduction through scientific methodologies (though not as resistant as conventional wisdom maintains), are opened up in a variety of ways, as themselves comprising the quintessential complex dynamical system, amenable to the new analytic techniques that come with that paradigm. Social systems are a complex network of linkages and impulses across them, triggering cascading state changes among nodes and clusters of interlinked nodes, reverberating, self-amplifying, mutually reinforcing or suppressing, not unlike the brains that provide the physical medium of their primary constituent unit (memes, or cognitions).

I am not suggesting that we now have the magic bullet, the panacea that will resolve all problems and meet all challenges. Nor am I suggesting that our efforts will suddenly yield spectacular results. Even in our accelerating world, dramatic change takes time, and is dramatic only in retrospect. Few people have recognized any non-military revolution at the time it has occurred, but they occur nonetheless, and are marvels to behold once they become apparent.

Past modern historical occidental social revolutions have been partial and cumulative: the Renaissance recovered some of the grace and aesthetic rationality of classical Greece; the Scientific Revolution gave us a robust methodology for improving our knowledge and understanding of nature; the Industrial Revolution gave us new machines of production and distribution; the very recent and equally consequential Computer Revolution created a quantum leap forward in the speed and capacity of data processing and communication.

At some point, whether now or in the future, these accumulating revolutions will embrace aspects of social organization that have remained thus far elusive, advancing with accelerating leaps forward in the liberation and implementation of the genius of the many in service to humanity. We will look back on that threshold as we look back on those that came before, recognizing that it transformed the world to human benefit in ways that were almost unimaginable prior to it. That inevitable threshold will usher in a new standard of human welfare that becomes completely taken for granted by those who enjoy it, which will be an expanding portion of humanity, both geographically and temporally. Whether that moment has come or not, it behooves those of us who want to speed its (sustainable) arrival to work, in individually and collectively disciplined ways, using the cognitive and technological tools at our disposal, to facilitate that transformation.

The world has been changing dramatically, in cumulative and accelerating ways, and will continue to do so. But those changes have provided humanity with a mixed blessing, creating riches beyond belief to all but those born into them, but also tools of violence, oppression, and depletion and destruction of the Earth on which we depend. There are those who would like to barrel blindly forward, ravaging the Earth and prospering on the backs of the suffering of others. And there are those who want to harness the forces we are unleashing, to create the sustainable and just future that all reasonable people of goodwill should strive for. Our ability to organize to that latter end has never been greater. Now, we have only to see if our determination is sufficient to rise to that opportunity.