Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Great Acceleration (Part One)

As the second half of the 20th century moved over into the 3rd millennium humanity saw a rapid acceleration in almost all spheres of life. This included an acceleration in environmental degradation: biodiversity loss; over-fishing; deforestation; stratospheric pollution from chemicals; interference with global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; holes in the Earth’s magnetosphere; ocean acidification; global freshwater decline; agricultural land use decline; topsoil depletion; etc. With the simultaneous acceleration in human populations and erratic geological conditions this could lead us to change from using the term ‘The Age of Anxiety’ to ‘The Age of Disequilibrium’. However, an acceleration of chaotic disequilibrium also has no alternative but to force a species mind-change on a global and perhaps interior level. These changes have suggested a greater shift towards individual autonomy; a deepened sense of self and psychological reflection; an increased perception of inner and outer realities; and a heightened recognition of the sensory nature of human experience. In other words, there has been an astounding growth in the psychological evolution of the human self. 

The manner in which we communicate reflects our own internal processes. It may be that the rise in global information technologies (Internet and mobile phones), which has brought into being a modern age of distributed communications, reflects a new distributed yet participatory consciousness among people. No longer are we the passive audience as during the earlier electrical revolutions of radio and television: the new model is Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and text messaging. The dialogue is now more active; people are onstage and orchestrating their own connections; managing their own forms of voice and self-expression. The turn of the century, as the 1990s tipped into the 3rd millennium, the social-civil body of the planet began to stretch its tentacles. Social networks have matured tremendously over the past decade; the list of global Non-Profit Organizations (NGOs) grows longer with each passing year. This list includes hundreds of active distributed social networks, as well as participatory news sites (such as the Huffington Post). These innovative networks are the forums for visionary thinkers; ideas spread virally through the electronic nervous system of the planet as once fringe ideas go global. A new civil body is being constructed by the distributed contributions of individuals in every conceivable physical location. Talks are broadcasted regularly – such as in the TEDtalks series of innovative lectures – and social collectives form, activate, influence, and stimulate alternative thinking and ideas. A more mature form of collective social intelligence is beginning to manifest in various parts of the globe:
the interconnection of computers around the world and a communications system that is simultaneously collective and interactive, is not an infrastructure: it is a certain way of using existing infrastructures and exploiting resources and is based on an incessant distributed inventiveness that is indissolubly technical and social…the key element of cyberspace isn’t the consumption of information or interactive services but participation in a social process of collective intelligence…
This new distributed model of civil society represents a burgeoning collective intelligence. It is an emerging intelligence embedded within the notion of systems thinking; a result of our increasing interrelatedness, being exposed to a global world of contradictory realities and multicultural perspectives. Within this rising intelligence exists elements of process thinking (Whitehead), ecological systemic philosophy (Bateson), and an √©lan vital (Bergson) – all the seeds sown during the latest phase of our reflective, psychological consciousness. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin correctly stated, ‘The Age of Nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to shake off our ancient prejudices and to build the Earth’.

The distributed, bottom-up model may be the working model for the future and, like the Internet, can be built to withstand shocks, attacks, and breakages: we re-route, we disperse and re-join at a later point in the network. This is the peer-to-peer collaborative model – a way of greater individualization within a more shared, complex, diverse yet unified field of interactions. Distributed unity may be a new model to make the old one obsolete.
Externally we seem a vast, distant, and separated collection of people, yet the reality may be much closer to home: a dense, intimate, closely entwined species of various races, individual yet sharing a non-local sense of being. The now famous game of ‘six degrees of separation’ may actually be a good working metaphor to express the close connections existing between the human race. And with the rapid rise of physical global travel and tourism to complement our virtual global communications the world has extended its nervous system to expose millions of people to each other, other cultures, and circumstances. Younger generations of people worldwide are growing up with a new expression of consciousness; the 20th century’s exploration of the psyche, mixed with technologies of communication and connection, herald a more reflexive mode of thought. People today are comfortable in expressing themselves with strangers; they explore and express their inner thoughts, feelings, emotions, and ideas with hundreds of unknown persons online, from various cultural backgrounds. More and more daily interactions are emphatic as we react and share news, stories, and emotional impacts from sources around the world. Empathy is one of the core values by which we create and sustain social life. Exposure to impacts outside of our own local and narrow environments helps us to learn tolerance, and to live with experiences that are richer and more complex, full of ambiguities, multiple realities, and shared perceptions. It is a way of constructing more social capital in our world. We see this happening in modern variations today, such as in open source software (e.g. Linux), or in collaborative tools such as Wikipedia, when a global commons for sharing can work above the individual thrust for profit and commercial gain. Or, as writer Doris Lessing liked to refer to it, the rising of the Substance of We Feeling (SOWF). 

During this accelerating phase of our socio-cultural and human inner evolution we are asked to expand and develop our cognitive, emotional, and perceptual faculties. Harvard professor of psychology Howard Gardner has outlined in his book Five Minds for the Future what he considers to be the five separate but related combinations of cognitive abilities that are needed to ‘thrive in the world during eras to come’ and which we should develop for the future. Gardner five minds, or rather mindsets, are paraphrased here as:
1. To master important subjects rather than simply knowing about them. To stay up to date with the subject and to know how to work steadily over time to improve skill and understanding.
2. To be able to integrate large quantities of multidisciplinary facts and apply them into one’s work.
3. To pose new questions, developing new solutions to existing questions, stretching disciplines and genres in new directions, or building new disciplines.
4. To be open to understanding and appreciating the perspectives and experiences of those who are different from the individual.
5. To do one’s work in an ethical way that reflects responsibilities to others and society; to reflect on the nature of one’s work and the needs and desires of the society in which one lives.

Gardner also refers to a type of ‘existential intelligence’, what he calls a ‘heightened capacity of appreciation and attention to the cosmological enigmas that define the human condition – an exceptional awareness of the metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological mysteries that have been a perennial concern for people of all cultures.’ The psychological impacts we experience will be primary in developing the perceptions necessary for the future. We are today exposed to each other in ways without precedent. The children being born as part of the new millennium (sometimes referred to as the ‘Millenials’) are growing up embedded within virtual social networks that transcend space and time, as well as cultures, national boundaries, and local ideologies. The younger generations are accustomed to send and receive within a field of distributed information in a way that may also help to nourish local networks – and not, importantly, to replace them. This may account for the increasing numbers of young people in developed nations becoming involved in community and social projects and NGOs; taking a year out to help in another culture abroad, to learn and experience, and to offer assistance. Volunteering among the young, despite what appears to be the contrary, is on the increase. Young people are even sacrificing their lives for peace and justice, as evidenced by the actions and subsequent death of Rachel Corrie in occupied Palestine. It is not only a call for equality – it is a loud call for tolerance and justice. These are signs of an emerging relational consciousness, a service-to-others (STO) as opposed to service-to-self (STS).