Enlightenment II: Our Next-world Operating System

In the long history of the world—with and without humans—issues both simple and complex have been solved in due course by Nature. Prior to the current era of the scientific human, one looked only to Nature to find a solution since it had surely solved the exigent dilemma (however unfamiliar in the moment) many times before.[1] In our modern enthusiasm for identifying dependent and independent variables to make causal findings and promote Nature-defying alternatives, we humans attempted—often successfully—to subvert the laws of Nature. In the last couple of hundred years during which the scientification of everything has been underway, human welfare has flourished. Life spans have increased dramatically and the generation of wealth and welfare increased at increasing rates.

During this same period of time, the operating system that enabled humans to flourish together which had once been tribal, then monarchical and religious, was the nation-state. Since the Peace at Westphalia in 1648, when the nation-state system was born to solve trenchant conflicts by and between monarchs and religious leaders that killed around eight million people in what is now Europe, the concept of sovereignty applied to a geographically bordered area became predominant. And, notwithstanding the anarchical nature of the new nation-state system that provides no highest or central authority to oversee the system allowing conflicts to persist, this international system has prevailed for nearly four centuries. Every human on earth belongs to a nation-state that has geographic borders and sovereign governments that, at least ostensibly, exist to serve the interests of their members.

The time has come, however, to recognize that the international system is past its sell-by date. The very notion of sovereignty that served to foster the security and development of nations now appears to support more conflict and impediments to cooperation when we need it most. Current realities require new organizing principles and new systems to serve the interests of humans and, for that matter, all beings and Nature. The international system is not only unsustainable, it is nearing obsolescence. As more resources and efforts are inserted into the system today, total human welfare is now tipping towards decline. In the terms of an economist, incremental costs are exceeding incremental benefits suggesting a point of diminishing returns. Due to climate change, authoritarian regimes that insist on a zero-sum mindset, and capitalist regimes that while extremely efficient at creating wealth, but also equally proficient in its concentration, the growth that once lifted all boats is now putting the entire human flotilla at risk of sinking.

The good news is that technology now offers alternatives to reimagine a new operating system. The bad news is we cannot look to, or rely upon, today’s leaders of society—including political, business, and spiritual—to affect a transformation. Nevertheless, it is time to reinvent the world as we have now known it since 1648. I know it sounds impossible, but so seemed the Peace at Westphalia in 1648, which included some nine hundred warring factions. As the design wizard Buckminster Fuller argued, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

In the contemporary era, many thought the world had its best chance to enjoy global peace and prosperity after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991. Pax Americana and the promise of liberty and justice for all was expected to sweep the world beyond the Americas after the failure of communism and authoritarianism more generally. The American scholar Francis Fukuyama (now infamously) called it “the end of history.” In the decade that followed, the world did, indeed, become a relatively peaceful place notwithstanding the Yugoslav/Balkan Wars and the Rwandan Civil War. Then, technology also stepped in to offer a boost to prosperity with the shift from analog to digital technologies. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman predicted in his book The World is Flat (2005), the digital economy and globalization would lead to an even playing field between industrial powers and emerging economies. Surely, a new global egalitarianism would result.

However, the hierarchies endemic to the nation-state system proved more stubborn than the rapid technological advantages offered by the transition from MS-DOS to Windows to iOS. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the leaders of society, who stand at the top of the power/wealth hierarchy, are quite reluctant to diminish their relative position for the benefit of others. A borderless flat world never got much further than graduate level seminars in schools of international relations, or the salon in the Bethesda, Maryland mansion of Thomas Friedman. This was further complicated by the hubris of neoconservatives in the Bush/Cheney administration who enthusiastically and recklessly sought to remake the world in the image of America. Although the world does prefer Levi’s and Coca-Cola, it was not ready to give up its own cultures, traditions, and sovereignty. The result: the United States squandered its superpower status slowly imploding and devolving to the low point when President Trump puckered up to kiss the backside of the Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018. In that moment, the hegemony of the United States ended, and with it the opportunity for global peace and prosperity in the international system contemplated under the thesis of Pax Americana.

So, where do we go from here?

In light of the peril facing the world today, five new principles must be recognized and incorporated as fundamental tenets in any new operating system. Those principles include:

  1. Existential threats to humanity are no longer confined to national or regional effects; they are transnational. The pandemic was a huge wake-up call to this reality. Global contagions do not respect borders, let alone sovereignty. The nation-state system proved not only incapable of dealing with the pandemic, in many ways it exacerbated it. Further, to believe that it will be another hundred years before we see a pandemic again is simply foolish. The interconnected reality of our world today assures a recurrence of something similar to Covid-19, or worse. Then, of course, there is climate change. A more gradually unfolding disaster, but it too is transnational. We have also seen how ineffectual our ostensibly common-good international institutions—controlled by nation-states and more recently the fossil fuel industry—have been to affect a solution to climate change.
  2. We do not need more wealth in the world, what we need are better distribution systems to get the fruits of wealth in the hands of all humanity. Although my younger capitalist self would have recoiled in horror at that statement, I have come to understand that the principal driver to the existential threat of climate change is our addiction to growth to create new wealth. In other words, it is actually now the interest of wealthy capitalists and oligarchs everywhere (as it is for the rest of humanity) to immediately transition to focusing on the distribution of food, energy, goods and services in as broad as possible manner to drastically reduce our addiction to growth and the fossil fuels it requires.[2] It turns out that sharing the wealth and the power that goes with it—today and for the foreseeable future—is our best hope to save all of us regardless of stature. I have written before about the transition from scarcity to abundance that occurred in the 1990s and our failure to realize its effects to change our ways.[3] This reality begets this new principle. Empowerment must replace coercion as a primary modality of governance. Plus-sum thinking must replace the traditional zero-sum (for every winner there is a loser) model.
  3. As humans, we are not independent from Nature; we are simply a small but important part of Nature. One of the effects of the scientification of everything that began in earnest in the late 19th century during the ramp-up to industrialization is that it drove the separation of our sense of self from being inextricably linked to Nature to being a wholly independent agent.[4] We were, therefore, able to disconnect the consequences of our actions from the consideration of anything other than other humans. (And, in even that we failed.) Nature became, simply and tragically, a resource pool to exploit for the benefit of humans alone. Subsequently, we aligned all human incentives accordingly, from which we have arrived in our current state of climate peril. In time, one way or another, Nature always prevails. In her consideration of humanity, it seems clear she is preparing the earth to cleanse it of us. With a sense of humility, we must realize that she gets to play the long game and that the presence of Homo Sapiens is little more than a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a split-second in universe time.
  4. We must re-think our concept of democracy from one-person, one-vote, to every person must act. As I mentioned above, existing leaders of society have no interest in seeing their power or wealth decline, even if only in relative terms. They will fight hard to maintain the status quo even while continuing to extol their undying and patently false commitment to our well-being. The nation-state system has been corrupted over its four centuries to protect their desires over our interests. Exhibit #1 is our own federal government that is completely out-of-step with the needs and desires of Americans everywhere. Does anyone really believe that politicians like Trump, Putin, and Xi, or business elites like Zuckerberg, Musk and Bezos, have any interest in anyone but themselves? Even Biden, who probably does genuinely care about Americans, faces tremendous obstacles in the Supreme Court, Congress, and the MAGA domestic terrorist organization more broadly, who have collectively hijacked our republic. In the future, to claim to be an American will require much more than voting once each year, or two, or four. We must each become active participants in solving both big and small problems to assure not just our prosperity, but our survival.
  5. We need to make technology our best friend while subduing its application for destructive effects. The promises Freidman envisioned for a “flat world” still exist and can be greatly enhanced by artificial intelligence (AI). However, as with all sources of power, they can be used for both good and ill. We have observed this phenomenon twice before with the development and deployment of nuclear power and also with social media. Hopefully, we have learned from both their great benefits and the equally devastating effects they can produce. Unfortunately, our biggest technology companies have every incentive to race to dominance and will do—in spite of their assurances to the contrary—whatever they have to do to establish the predominance of their particular AI offerings first. Safety be damned. Neither will industry associations nor our hapless federal government protect us from peril even while efforts will garner much media attention for political purposes (as they already have). As with much of the data security industry innovations that have occurred in the last two decades, I expect it will be dark-hacker actors in good-guy capes who will protect us best. Warnings aside, the connectivity of the Internet and the integration of AI holds extraordinary promise for enabling new power structures to replace the nation-state system.

These new principles must look to Nature for a solution. Structures to affect collective action for the production of public goods must be nimble, organic, durable, and fast. Moreover, they must not be susceptible to being corrupted by legacy hierarchies; they must stay as flat as possible. They must view the world as borderless and be amenable to being layered beneath and between each other aimed at specific objectives. The structure I found that best illustrates this comes from Nature in the form of neural networks. In effect, the development of objective-specific networks targeted at particular public goods where the participants who form the network include human actors and associations (public or private) to participate in and negotiate for desired outcomes. Collectively, they form a brain or operating system for our next world. In the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, a new model to force the obsolescence and ultimately displace the nation-state system.

Beyond Nature, there are a few real-world examples today that come close to the new power structures I am suggesting. Organizations/networks that are designed to circumvent traditional authority and affect connections for the development and distribution of resources to achieve a desired outcome. If we look to organized crime, cartels, terrorist and para-military organizations we will see what are, in effect, neural networks that are indeed nimble, organic, durable, and fast. All we must do is flip the objective from criminal, coercive, and destructive to empowering people for the common good. After all, as in the brain, neural networks can support both sanity and insanity. With proper connections and purposes, anything is possible.

Maybe John Lennon had it right in 1971 when the Beatles released “Imagine” even though those in power ignored him. In part, he sang:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one …

Today, maybe it’s finally time to heed Lennon’s plea. But to save ourselves we will need more than imagination. We need to seriously consider new principles and new power structures and pursue them with smart determination. We were able to transform our world in the 17th century to the nation-state system and to the value of reason in the Age of Enlightenment. We need the modern-day Voltaires, Rousseaus, Lockes, Kants, and Humes—the philosophers and poets—to guide us toward an Age of Enlightenment II.  It is time to make the world new again. We must assure that the edge of light we see on the horizon is that of a glimmer of hope, rather than the reflective rim of the edge of a cliff. We have a choice, but time’s a wasting.


[1] Occasionally, we do look to Nature to solve current problems. An inspiring example is how an office building in Houston adopted principles from the Bayou ecosystem in its design. See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-07-22/houston-endowment-headquarters-models-sustainable-design

[2] Just look at the air quality in China from 2019 to 2020 during the pandemic lookdown of industry there. https://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/blog/effect-lockdown-restrictions-air-quality-china.

[3] See “The Tragedy of Abundance,” February 16, 2022, https://ameritecture.com/the-tragedy-of-abundance//

[4] See Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013).