Historian Yuval Noah Harari once said that “History is not the study of the past; it is the study of change”. We understand this process as a transition between different states. A change that has already been set in motion produces other transformations in every sphere of life, boosting a never-ending cycle. Some changes occur abruptly, like revolutions, but others are so gradual that when we pause to reflect on them, the world around us has become unrecognizable. When does change begin? Can we identify changes while they are occurring or can we only detect them in hindsight?
From a philosophical viewpoint, the opposite of change has always been stillness and the stability of systems. There are isolated cases where constancy is the general rule: such is the case of Amazonian or Pacific Islander tribes. What are the conditions that allow this? To what extent can we resist transformations?
If we intend to harness change as a tool for social transformation, we should evaluate how and when to provoke it. Evaluating these aspects contributes to desirable and long-lasting impacts, but how can we choose which approach to pursue? Is there a formula or some set of rules that could guide us? How can -and should- citizens interact with political institutions to propel change?
Everything around us is bound to the inevitable passing of time, including the paradigms we use to understand the world, our systems for crisis mitigation and the tools we employ to continue innovating. How can we foster the conditions to ask the right questions and act accordingly if we are living in constant change?
The following texts delve into the main ideas of each of the subtopics of this edition.
Paradigms in Check
Each person has their own understanding of the world based on their experiences, opinions, and beliefs. This enables communication and allows us to create the stories that will ultimately mold human history. In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” However, what happens when different versions are in check? How can we understand the world and create meaning amid social crises, misinformation, and distrust in institutions?
The clash between interpretations is ever-present, with opposing forces attempting to swing the official or most accepted version to one side or the other. There’s a breaking point where we cannot ignore these tensions; it’s the moment in which the divide is no longer confined to inconsequential debates but rather takes form in the real world and produces material changes and revolutions. Feminism, animal rights, and the obsolescence of educational, political, and relational systems are steadfastly setting foot in the public agenda. How can we create agreements between the opposing forces? How willing are we to listen to and co-create with radically different opinions from our own? Will we finally be able to converge in new paradigms?
Aristotle once said that “the only truth is reality”. But if there is an absolute truth, why do we live amidst so much dissent? According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth can be defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Deliberate distortions can be camouflaged between these appeals to emotion, something that further complicates our attempts to create new paradigms.
The pervasiveness of misinformation is a consequence of the paradigm shift brought forth by the questioning towards so-called “absolute truths”. How can we keep building knowledge after we have rejected old premises? It used to be commonly accepted that the only kind of information that should remain immune to post-truth politics is scientific knowledge. And nevertheless, scientific knowledge is also under scrutiny. How do we deal with movements that spread content that could potentially endanger others? Are their questionings inherently harmful, or do they deserve some kind of consideration?
We are increasingly witnessing extreme intolerance towards contrary views. Families get torn over partisan politics, social media has become a breeding ground for hate and vitriol, and politics are banalized and increasingly divisive. What is the common denominator between these phenomena? Is consensus the best problem-solving strategy? To what extent should we tolerate hostile ideals and proposals?
Our convictions are the ones that allow us to identify ourselves with specific social groups and tribes; they give us a sense of community and identity. And if this feeling of belonging is strong enough, it can lead to polarization and radicalization. When we identify so strongly with a group, are we sacrificing certain parts of our individuality to belong? How flexible is our identity? What could modify it? To what extent does polarization affect our capability to collaborate?
Trust is a fundamental factor of the human experience. We trust that a friend will keep our secret, that the train will arrive on time, that our credit card data won’t get stolen when we purchase something online. What allows us to trust another person? And a community? And an institution? And an entire system?
In her book “Who Can You Trust?: How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart”, Rachel Botsman analyzes how technology is transforming the ways we trust and how we are entering a new paradigm where trust in traditional institutions - such as banks, governments, and churches - is decaying. Can this trust be rebuilt? If the answer is no, who will we deposit our trust on as a society from now on? Up to what point can we maintain these institutions?
In the most primitive societies, trust systems were built locally, based on the other person’s reputation. The need for modern institutions emerged when these societies started evolving into bigger and more complex ones. Today, we are witnessing the change towards what Botsman calls “distributed trust” In platforms such as Uber or Airbnb, we trust the good reputation of the driver, passenger, host, or guest in spite of them being a complete stranger. There is a sense of reciprocity that replaces the long-known taxis and hotels. In financial systems like Bitcoin, the trust distribution is even higher, as it is based on a technology that facilitates transactions without the need for any intermediaries. To what extent do these innovations change our behavior? What are the advantages and disadvantages of these new systems in comparison to traditional ones? Can they coexist, or will we eventually evolve into an institution-free world?
With all our belief systems in crisis, there is a virtually infinite amount of questions about our present and future. What will happen to education? To what extent can we prepare the youth for an uncertain future when the bases are so unstable? Will we need new political systems? New definitions for concepts we believed to be immutable? Will humanity be up to the task of solving these dilemmas before we are put into checkmate?
The Urgency of Now
Human history is a never ending sequence of cause-effect relations. Man is subject to change due to factors outside of his control, and he provokes other technological, political and cultural transformations in search for progress and meaning. When faced with change and instability, there are infinite approaches that individuals, communities, governments and international actors can adopt to either solve or alleviate such situations.
We understand crises as profound, disruptive changes with consequences that require holistic (and often immediate) solutions. In our current context, we are faced with the dilemma of addressing what is important or what is urgent. Can we tackle both types of challenges simultaneously?
Humanity has faced countless crises throughout its history. Our most dire moments range from natural catastrophes and economic crashes to wars and crimes against humanity. The Great Depression of the 1930s, the many critical points of the Cold War and the 2008 Financial Crisis are only some of the events that have placed the world in check. Past examples have proven that the outcome of crisis situations is largely dependent on the measures taken to resolve them or on the lack thereof. Human beings create local, national and supranational organizations to arbiter conflictive situations. We even have systems for damage mitigation in case all else fails. Our history is characterized by the endless search for solutions for our recurring problems.
When describing the past decade, writer and activist Dougald Hine stated that “these were times in which impossible things happened.” We have witnessed political turmoil, democratic failures and humanitarian catastrophes, aside from financial crises and technological mishaps. In hindsight, the ideals of eternal growth and moderate politics of years past seem distant and foreign. The mid 2010s saw the reversal of many trends from the previous twenty years. To name two of the most daunting examples, the amount of deaths due to terrorist acts and violent conflicts rose while the number of countries with democratic governments shrunk.
In spite of the clashes and instability, it seems as if very few problems of the past decade have been resolved. Very little progress has been made in regard to environmental matters or online privacy protections, for instance. Hot topics in international politics, such as Brexit, remain just as divisive as when they first entered public debate. Poverty and homelessness are on the rise even in developed nations. In many cases, the soaring prices of housing and healthcare make these goods and services unattainable for workers whose purchasing power is perpetually diminishing. We are constantly being warned about the instability of our institutions or the imminent threat of some sort of systemic collapse. How can we maintain high expectations for the future of our systems and societies under these circumstances?
It is easy to lose sight of long-term objectives when trying to prevent or manage a critical situation. There are countless problems to tackle if we want to build fairer societes, yet the need to address the urgent matter of the hour diverts our attention from issues that are important but perhaps not quite urgent. Reforming the education system, guaranteeing universal access to quality healthcare, and the transition towards a more sustainable economy are just a few long'term objectives that policymakers insist on continuing to neglect. To quote Eduardo Galeano, “utopia lies at the horizon, and no matter how far we go, we can never reach it. Its purpose, then, is to cause us to advance.” Should we aim for ideal solutions and policies or is it more useful to accept more pragmatic proposals? Are these two approaches fundamentally incompatible?
Ironically, it is the contempt for systemic problems that leads to crises in the long-term. To put it very simply, the de-regulation of financial markets in the late 1990s would prove to be one of the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. As a consequence of the global crash, many governments adopted austerity measures, including defunding their public health services, which eventually worsened the pandemic that is upon us over ten years later. At the time it may seem impossible to predict consequences that are so impactful and far-reaching. What happens when interlocking crises are added to our existing challenges?
In times of crisis, community organizing becomes a matter of life and death. Mutual aid provided by citizens during catastrophes such as the bombings during the Second World War or the devastation provoked by Hurricane Katrina have shown that empathy and collaboration are some of our best assets when facing critical situations. Robust support systems are essential to crisis management because the communities that sustain them create a sense of reassurance and belonging that governments and institutions often fail to provide in an increasingly unstable and fragmented world.
After all, the constituents of governments, companies and all other organizations are human beings. Critical situations are profoundly impactful on the lives of people, since every crisis that is global in scale is also local in its consequences. Under these circumstances, the agents of change are not abstract concepts, they are people with varying perspectives, biases, interests and fears. How can we measure the human impact of these scenarios? How have crises molded our own personal stories, and the ones of those around us?
History has shown us that failure to properly address present crises and conundrums sets the stage for future challenges we can hardly imagine at the present moment. Having considered this, how can we organize and cooperate to create long-lasting solutions? Perhaps the answer lies in examining past examples to comprehend the present and discard historically unsuccessful approaches. Bertolt Bretch once said that “crisis takes place when the old has not died and the new has still not been born.” Should we see crises as opportunities for progress and the creation of fairer futures and societies?
The Architecture of Innovation
Technology adds a new dimension to the human experience, defying and expanding its traditional limits towards new horizons. Consequently, the biggest changes humanity has experienced have gone hand in hand with developments in tools and techniques; from the Neolithic Revolution 9000 years ago to the Digital Revolution in the 20th century. Is there an intrinsic connection between social development and technological advancement?
Nowadays, this concept is more relevant than ever. The scientific revolution of the last centuries and our current economic prosperity in comparison to most of human history are pushing us towards an exponential growth of innovation that was previously unimaginable. The cycle of innovation appears to be unstoppable, which is why we must learn how to responsibly use the tools it provides. As historian Christian L. Lange concluded, “technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master”. Therefore, how can we be sure that we will always be the ones in charge?
Conceiving technology as a tool means acknowledging that it is users who hold the power. Thereby, we have historically accepted the perspective that technology is merely neutral, that it is not inherently good or evil. Under this premise, it is assumed that its character is dependent on who uses it, how, and for what ends. However, with every passing day we become more exposed to new problems, dilemmas and distractions that make us increasingly incapable of controlling our own devices.
Having considered these power relations, it is unsurprising that people use other people as instruments, too. Designers of new technologies use their gadgets to gather as much information as possible from their users. The high value of social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter or Google is dependent, in part, on their ability to collect and monetize user data. Millions of people across the globe are enthusiastic consumers of their products. After all, they provide free, high quality services that are essential for contemporary life. At what point could we consider that the cost we are paying in terms of freedom and privacy is just too high?
Past examples have shown that in many cases, not even the savviest developers, businessmen and designers can accurately predict the full impacts of their innovations. Gunpowder was originally created as an experimental medicine, became widely adopted as fuel for pyrotechnics and was only used for warfare after a hundred years. Fast forward a thousand years later, and in a totally different field we see that social media, which was created to foster human connection and communication, has become rife with misinformation and even extremist propaganda. Thus, it seems that both creators and users can control the impacts of these tools. How do these actors share and exchange responsibility when the tools are misused? How can we regulate technological change when we can no longer tell who is really in control?
Einstein manifested that “it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity”. According to this position, humans tend to be simple instruments for technological development itself, since its logic and methods surpass our original intentions. Is it possible for innovation to exist independently from human control? Traditionally, this question could seem absurd, but the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning ensures that neither creators nor users have full control over devices, thus making these musings more concerning and relevant than ever.
Thanks to the current race for innovation in contemporary society, changes tend to be deeper and faster. We must not only evaluate technological change in a vacuum, because the changes provoked by technology are just as interesting and important. While both concepts are interdependent, it is possible to make a distinction, with the former being the new techniques or scientific developments in and of themselves, and the latter referring to the effects of the technologies in societies and people’s way of life. We can thus consider Nicholas Negroponte’s words: “Small differences of yesterday can have suddenly shocking consequences tomorrow”. This begs the following question: to what extent does this velocity make us ignore the negative effects of new technologies?
Therefore, the need to address dilemmas involving recent advancements is causing the Ethics of technology to gain even more traction. Humanity must face problems it has never seen before, ranging from coordinated attacks against some of our most important digital infrastructures and the spread of fake news all the way to the existence of biohackers aided by the rise of bioengineering. How can we address these new ethical dilemmas without slowing down the process of innovation? How prepared are our governments to respond to these issues?
“Responsible innovation” is a relatively new concept that could be summarized in a simple phrase: “making sure that positive effects of the introduction of a new technology surpass its negative consequences”. But who defines if an effect is positive or negative? And how is it done? In case two different groups of society have conflicting objectives, how do we prioritize one side over another?
It is undeniable that technology is the engine of change in our society, as futurist Alvin Toffler stated. Notwithstanding, it remains unclear whether humans will keep a crucial role or if we will be set aside in present and future changes. We are on the verge of an inflection point in history, and the possibility of transitioning to simple spectators is becoming real. This is why we must take a look into the future and learn to use our most important tool, our capacity for innovation.
Note: The opinions and ideas presented in these texts were written as triggers to facilitate writing the discussion needed to apply to the SABF. They must not be taken as an undeniable truth. In case of disagreeing with some of the ideas, applicants are encouraged to express it in their texts.