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).

By |2023-08-27T13:06:51+00:00July 30th, 2023|General, Recent, The New Realities|0 Comments

America’s Secret Sauce: Self-determination

The last five years have produced what forbearing historians, muttering their observations from the comfort of overstuffed club chairs, might call a generational setback, even while it may feel more like a catastrophic collapse in the moment. Between the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of violent authoritarianism, the health and the general welfare of our civilization have suffered tremendous blows. Recovery will be slow and arduous. Globalization, which had been underway for thirty years, has come to an abrupt halt. Its principal benefits—economic growth and peaceful coexistence—were interrupted by the pandemic, then dismembered by Putin’s war. Meanwhile, addressing climate change, which can only be mitigated by a combination of cooperation, sacrifice, and extraordinary investment in energy innovation and infrastructure, now appears headed for a fully realized nightmare. Once differential population and economic growth rates collide with mandatory climate migration affecting not millions, but hundreds of millions of people, an apocalyptic ending to civilization is highly plausible. This is all enough to make even the strongest among us throw up our hands and walk off the nearest cliff.

But we haven’t and we won’t.

The thing about periods of both dramatic growth and sudden decline is they end in whiplash. We surge, we collapse, we purge, and we rise again. In one sentence, this is the pulse of humanity that has repeated for thousands of years. The purge, which includes casting aside old ways for new ones and is essential to renewal, is underway. History suggests that the invincibility of the human spirit will shine through the darkness to light a new path. The vast majority of us have suffered loss. The range of loss is wide, from lives to opportunities forgone. What we are now beginning to experience, however, is the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit. The sun still rises and sets, and between these events we forge new paths to pursue our dreams, from the grandiose to the sublime to those as simple as sweet peace. As bleak as our prospects appear today, we are learning and purging to reinvent our future. We have been awakened and humbled by our losses. We are beginning to appreciate what we had taken for granted and we are now deploying the knowledge we gained during the whiplash of collapse to prevent future tragedies.

New knowledge gained during the pandemic is being applied to all manner of public health issues that will not only serve us well when the next super-virus unloads its wrath upon the world, but will also mitigate a number of endemic diseases that have ravaged humankind for decades, even centuries. In addition, authoritarianism, whose first victim is human liberty, has peaked. In a foolish fit of overreach (which always signals the end of authoritarian regimes), Putin is now showing the world, and especially his own people and other wannabe fascists, what happens when you attempt to crush human liberties. Will he gain land in the end? Yes. But the cost of the acquisition far outweighs the benefits of his gain. The bleak days of Stalin are coming back. Putin the Great is a fading fantasy. In time, the Russian people will suffer as much or more as the people of Ukraine and Putin will succumb to the darkness of his delusions. In Xi’s case, China is also now experiencing what happens when you crush human liberties in his authoritarian attempt to assert his zero-Covid policy. Ineffective and insufficient vaccinations are no match for Mother Nature. She can humble even the largest iron fist. Lockdowns have also prevented native immunity from taking hold. Burying your head in the sand is a highly ineffective strategy for dealing with crises. Today, the people of China are suffering the dark side of authoritarianism after years of believing they had cracked the code of blending open markets with closed politics.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times,

In short, both Moscow and Beijing find themselves suddenly contending with much more powerful and relentless forces and systems than they ever anticipated. And the battles are exposing—to the whole world and to their own people—the weaknesses of their own systems. So much so that the world now has to worry about instability in both countries.

Historically in America, we have watched these regimes come and go while standing proudly on our own commitment to democracy and human rights. But this time is different. We have work to do, too. We have allowed quasi-authoritarianism to poison our own government and society. The executive branch under Trump did everything in its power to destroy democratic norms and crush human liberty, and the legal branch—principally the Supreme Court—is set up to continue pursuing this theme of limited rights and concentration of power. Standing in their way will be, as in Russia and China, the will of the people.

The good news is while we haven’t suffered the same losses coming to the people of Russia and China, I hope we have been sufficiently aroused by our own loss of liberty to rein in those who masquerade as patriots while offending the fundamental spirit of Americans who believe their future should be—now and forever—in their own hands. At its most basic level, our founders went to great lengths to assure skeptical colonists—most of whom arrived here to escape tyranny in their homelands—that its government would limit the assertion of power at both the federal and state level. Alexis de Tocqueville scratched his head over what he called “self-interest rightly understood,” concluding that American’s enlightened self-determination served both the individual and government. Chiseled into the chest of the American soul is the inalienable right to be who we want to be—on our own terms. Self-determination is the basis of our founding documents and it underpins our conception of the American Dream. It is the reason we will, eventually, restore our democratic principles.

In a post-pandemic and post-Trump world, I expect the right to self-determination will be aggressively asserted; perhaps even more so than at the founding. It is kryptonite to authoritarianism and it is in full bloom in the United States today. We saw it manifested in the battles over mask and vaccine mandates, and we have also seen it in movements to protect women’s rights, gender and sexual preference rights, and to defeat racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. Self-determination is the common thread to movements on both the left and the right; it permeates the entire American political spectrum. Those seeking common ground take note: self-determination is America’s binding epoxy of unity. It is the essence of libertarianism, which has driven Americans for nearly two-hundred fifty years. Of course, its assertion is often quickly compromised by hypocrisy when rights are asserted in an attempt to control others—to rob them of their own self-determination—but, on the whole, it prevails. Moreover, it is essential to the American experiment. My on-going beef with Republicans is their twisted desire to tell others what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Meanwhile, I often cringe when Democrats attempt to assert similar controls over people’s wealth and property. Both parties need an occasional smack upside the head. What we must realize today is that our liberties are the source of our attraction and power. And, they are the principal pathway to move from purge to renewal—to rising again.

So, what does this mean for each of us, as individuals?

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt advocated four freedoms: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. I grew up in an era when the freedom froms were largely mitigated, which left my generation to concentrate on the freedom ofs. We were the first generation to extend freedom ofs beyond speech and worship. We enjoyed the freedom of the American Dream: to become whatever we wanted to be. The results were nothing short of astonishing: the greatest expansion of human welfare in the history of humankind. Our needs were met; we had the luxury of pursuing our wants. What we lost sight of was the danger of escalating wants which, in the last few years, has cost us many of our freedoms. Our success compromised our liberty.

Eastern traditions of spirituality explain this conundrum best. The ultimate key to liberation (and power) is the suppression—not the escalation—of our wants. Every time we look at the world before us and decide we want something that isn’t there, we render ourselves vulnerable to manipulation and suffering. In addition, we foster complex regimes that increase risk when simple regimes are often more than sufficient to assure our well-being. Among other things, escalating wants and the economic growth necessary to realize them produced enormous increases in the consumption of fossil fuels, which is the fundamental cause of climate change. Instead of moving seamlessly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from safety and security to actualization and, ultimately, transcendence, we got stuck on a treadmill of chasing extravagant lifestyles under the false hope of finding peace and tranquility. Instead, we left ourselves highly vulnerable to those intent on manipulating us for their own benefit; to trading our liberties for the empty promises of people like Trump, Putin, and Xi. Escalating wants has left us physically, emotionally, and mentally ill. Literally, ill.

Rising again requires we learn, purge, and return to regard America’s secret sauce: self-determination, as both a humble and essential human right. Further, we must respect each of our particular interpretations of what that means on our own terms. Finally, we must realize that escalating wants is killing both our individual prospects for tranquility and the very future of humanity. Enough must indeed be, enough. The maxim, “Less is more” must, once again, become fashionable. As Thomas Paine suggested at the time of our declaration of independence, “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to both grasp the gravity of our current circumstances and to summon the will to make what difference we can to, individually and collectively, rise again. Feel free to look over the edge of the cliff, but only to realize why you should step back and try, try, again.

By |2022-11-20T14:53:23+00:00April 29th, 2022|General|0 Comments
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