Mark Dixon is a partner in the Principled Society Project and a pioneer in Smart Local Government and Cognitive Digital Democracy.
“We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
So says E. O. Wilson in his latest book, “The Social Conquest of Earth”. I happen to agree with him, especially about our “medieval institutions”, which I consider him to primarily mean our systems of government and to a lesser extent, organized religions.
Wilson goes on to say that “[w]e are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
Again, I have to agree.
I’ve done a lot of research and reading over the last several years, starting with the “Peak Oil” phenomenon and continuing on through the “Great Recession” and IBM’s “Smarter Planet” initiative and its derivatives, namely, “Smarter Government” and “Smarter Cities”. To put all this work in perspective, I have to take a short step back in history. This historical review, will, of primary experience, be one with an American viewpoint. But I think the lessons are relevant to the rest of the world as well. Bear with me.
I have come to the conclusion, in essence, that we have been “spoiled” over the past half-century or so by an economic and techological expansion never before seen in the history of the world. Not heeding Rachel Carson’s (in “Silent Spring” which started the environmental movement) and Dwight Eisenhower’s (in his farewell presidential address in which he mentions “the military-industrial complex” and appealed to “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry”) prescient warnings in the early 1960s regarding the ramifications of our industrialization, we have seen a somewhat steady progression of living standards, at least in western civilization, which tended to blind us to the unintended consequences of such industrial development both in terms of human and environmental externalized costs. To be sure, there have been some blips along the way (the Cold War (and its regional proxies), the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, the S&L crisis of the 1980s), but once we toned down our tribal, war-like behavior, we had good economic times through the 1990s.
Having been somewhat spoiled, we became complacent. Human beings tend not to rock the boat, especially when a rising tide is lifting all boats. But looking at the world through various cognitive biases is a recipe for disaster.
I find it very ironic that during the Second Industrial Revolution (the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th), we went through similar economic upheavals which forced the American government to regulate the “robber barons” via the Sherman, Clayton and Robinson-Patman Acts. Such needed legislation is nowhere to be found today, for the simple reason that the US government has lost its ability to protect its citizens in the age of globalization, big-money elections (Citizens United) and polarized politics (I suspect we American citizens have not been too alert and have foresworn being knowledgeable). At the same time we have seen the rise of global multi-national corporations and the Information Revolution, we have seen the power of governments decline. No doubt there are many reasons for the decline, but one in particular stands out to me – government is still a “medieval institution”.
Governments, in particular the American ones, are still structured as if the Industrial and Information Revolutions had never happened. The massive bureaucracy and hierarchical organization of government is relatively the same as it was a century ago.
Unfortunately, the effects of the Information Revolution on government has just made it worse. For when we computerized and automated government, we did not re-engineer it to be more efficient and effective, we just locked in the hierarchical structures and paper-based processes that had been built up over the decades. While we did speed up the internal processes, we also locked down the data that supported those processes into the various organizational siloes from whence they came (and where they still reside).