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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 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.

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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.