Last time on Unsee The Future, we all but concluded a loose set-up story to the idea of democracy in the twenty-first and how we ended up in whatever this currently is in 2019, and we came to the conclusion that, though it’s been the most radically successful global punt at wealth-spreading inclusion ever… um, not quite so much is democratic about the running of our modern lives after all. Not compared to our habitual hopes for it. Thanks to industrial economic values going digital. Or something. And somehow, our expectations about it today are sort of simultaneously rock bottom and unrealistically high, you might say.
In an age when amusing actors playing accidental presidents on TV can get actually elected as actual accidental presidents, like Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelen sky, well it is surely true that reality in liberal democracy has never been more unreal. And there have never been more comedians in power. If old dreams of the nation state have waned with the old more certain, comparatively simple fears in a fractured, fractilated post-cold war world, political discourse today can taste a bit like a terrible toxic pick’n’mix of Different Things We Should Be Scared Of. Yet it’s also a time driven by a search for new ideologies – we’re all bickering about the merits of different trade tariffs and the nature of internationalism and whether it’s the European Union about to jackboot through the North West of England because of too close ties or Russian gang leaders because we won’t be tied to anything any more. We’re a chucklesome bunch of intellectuals, us moderns, eh?
Somewhere between culture stunt and identity dread, the free for all of the digital democratic age is as Dada as it is hoping Daddy will come home and make everything feel safe again.
One clear bit of democracy is the innovative format of this subject because I did decide to give you a free vote on whether to come back for more, by making this a revolutionary three-part topic. Hopefully, leaving the best ‘till last. And no hanging chads.
Recently I saw Flora Rosenow quote tech writer Jamie Bartlett at the OECD Forum on Populism vs People Power, and he apparently said something like: “Democracy needs an overhaul, as representation is no longer necessary because it focuses on a few,” as opposed to: “today’s consumer behaviour where everyone is empowered to do their own thing”.
Are we all empowered? That might be a very tech-centric view of globally putting food on the table. But good old liberal democracy is, even amid such nation-realigning political times, facing some woeful turnouts – 37% of the UK electorate in the drama-laden European Parliament elections? That’s surprisingly few, given the supposed high stakes.
And Bartlett’s apparent take on democracy is also a significant life-work trend powered by the engine of our times – the direction of travel for an internet-enabled world. The promise of a global web connection is a kind of unprecedented democratic empowerment. And man, are we exercising it. But as a final bit of context, it’s worth noting another basic trend, swelling above the digital rip tides beneath, to help orientate ourselves as we plunge into the age of populism, or find ourselves floundering about in the Gestapo gespacho. If this is a Chaplinesque surrealism sequence we’re up to our necks in, There’s something else in the Mussolini minestrone.
Politics professor David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends, suggests that taking our cues for the future from the past becomes increasingly misleading the more stuck we get in the status quo – and the current democratic model seems to be getting seized like an old machine.
“Now the system is really stuck. I think it looks more stuck than broken… so people are trying to see round it, but it’s very hard to see round representative democracy – it’s this big, looming, hundred-year story.”
And, while the future is by nature a kind of “unknowable thing”, he says: “I think it’s getting more unknowable. If thinking twenty years ahead is harder even than it was twenty years ago,” – which, note to grandad, is the year 1999 – “you’re more and more dependent on the past to anchor where you are.”
Speaking with Russell Brand on Under The Skin, he said: “No politicians will say: Vote for me, I can’t do anything. But so many institutions, political and non-political, kind of snare politics. But it’s very very hard for anyone to say that – and get elected – “vote for me, I’m the one who understands how powerless I am”.”
He suggests though, in our fears, we shouldn’t imagine some simple re-run of the 1930s when Fascism broke into the mainstream. For all the surface similarity of rhetoric and rising racism. You may well be tempted to look at the matrix of politico-social economic circumstances we’re waking up to find ourselves living in now and think: “Yuh, come to think of it, we do look like we’re some way into some transitional period into a big fat historic blow-up of some kind – hahah! Thank you for the clarity, history…” – but Runciman says it just won’t be “the 1930s all over again”. Of course it won’t. Especially not for the more democratically established nations.
“We have these institutions that go all the way back to the 30s, but we’re living in a completely different world. We’re much older” he says. “In the 30s these institutions were a decade old. And then the people who lived in these societies were young too; these were mainly societies with lots of young people, including lots of young men.”
A generation, I also think it’s worth noting, that grew up in the wake of the unprecedented fearful stories and cultural displacements of the first world war.
As a census.gov report from the start of this century, the 21st, puts it, at the start of last century, the 20th: “Half of the US population was less than 22.9 years old… The population age 65 and over increased tenfold during the century, from 3.1 million in in 1900 (in America) to 35 million in 2000, compared with a twofold increase for the total population.” And for America, read very similarly all across the West.
If you check out a graphic of median age by country, like the one from the CIA World Factbook 2016, on a global scale from young to old shown light to dark… gosh but Europe, North America and great chunks of Russia are heavy looking. Median age now above 45 in so many places.
That’s a very last century-rooted, pre-digital revolution voting populous, right now.
By contrast, expectations in those of us just starting up our adulthood today are, I think, set in a very different mental story context, in which engagement with democracy could conceivably look different in ten years, never mind by next century, the 22nd, which most of us in our early twenties will live to see. ..Let that sink in for a moment.
“We’ve now got misfires in democracy where the institutions are a hundred years old” says David Runicman. “They’re old, they’re tired, they’re stuck in their ways. And the people are old – these are societies where most people are middle aged or older. Go back a hundred years and Britain, America, were societies of children and young people.”
We may have plenty of angry young people today. But statistically in the West, we have more angry old people now. And that’s a very different historic context for voting and for political change. We don’t tend to like change, as we get older, but we also know a thing or two, so often learned the hard way.
As I said forlornly in the last few days to a dear elder states person who voted for Brexit, as we discussed the European Parliament results: “Is the Britain I grew up with changing so much, it’s no longer for me?” Handed to me as it just was. And she simply replied: “It’s changed radically for me already since I grew up – it’s long not been recognisable as my childhood country any more”.
Then she added this intriguing image: “I saw a transport correspondent lamenting the retirement of the Intercity 125 with the words: “Now that’s a real train” and I thought: No it isn’t. A steam train is obviously a real train.”
Well, Personally, I can’t wait for a maglev renewable energy powered Trans Europe Express. Or maybe just the hyperloop.
But it begs a couple of final questions. Populism in all its expressions so far cuts across all the usual demographies – it’s not neatly about age, class or geography. It’s about where we imagine our more hopeful future can be found. The hope of real home. The place we fit, and can get on with being ourselves without feeling like an endangered species. Does that secure emotional safari park lie in a renewed national identity, or a new holistic international identity, or a new empowered local identity?
And why are all of us still looking for it in the old system? Populism totally included.
Does the future of democracy have a single destination? Do we have to all go to the same place, and do the different democratic levels of our lives all have to be ground though the same century old nation state machine? Or are we really just much more concerned about the travel experience? And why they never serve milkshakes on trains. (Hmm? ..Conspiracy – you decide.) If democracy as we’ve known it is derailing, is it because were running out of track? It just doesn’t go where we wanna?
If the future’s not written, what dare we picture for the disruptions to democracy?
I’m looking at a cute image of an inquisitive toddler. A hundred foot inquisitive toddler called Kikito, peering playfully over a section of security fencing on the Mexican-American border. A first bit of President Trump’s “wall”. And it’s somehow impossible not to laugh at that wall, looking at this.
Especially because, after French artist JR announced his huge installation considering immigration, he organised a kind of community picnic on both sides of the stupid wall, back in September, with brass band and lemonade and tacos and another giant image installed, only seen properly from the air, of a pair of eyes staring up resiliently to the sky, apparently not even noticing that they are bisected by this inconsequential structure.
As My Modern Met shares, JR told the New York Times: “We know that a one-year-old doesn’t have a political vision, or any political point of view. He doesn’t see walls as we see them.”
One theme in the story of human democracy on Earth, right up until our present, seems to be the brutal oppression of smaller groups of people by superpowers for the sake of some economic status quo. And some elite or other. Always. But another theme, threaded through all that, is resilience. Something inside so strong. Having a dream. The overturning of apartheid, the abolition of slavery, the rise of workers’ unions, more and more citizens getting the vote.
Of course, no great crescendo in the symphony of freedom and representation is really the finale. Madiba’s South Africa or Gandhi’s India or George Washington’s United States of America – all equality hopes across race, sexuality and economics – all democratic ideals are grinding works in progress between us, the best of us working with blindspots. Experiences slower, muckier, more vulnerable than we hope for. Yet still we seem to hope. And looking back at the speed of democracy’s spread with technological revolutions, even after peering into the mass grave of imperial politics, I’m finding it hard not to see increasing democratic power as kind of inevitable.
Really? In the deepfake future, is there any real hope for true democracy?
Oh, you bet. In a way – crucially, in many ways. But we do have a fight on our hands about time. And place. Our hands. Our time. Our sense of place. Whoever we are, and whatever we hope for. Because that’s always part of the deal – New, Green, or No.
You’ve gotta want it. But is there a single It? Or should we be expecting more of a flotilla of democratic futures?
Perhaps it’s no surprise if some of us, many of us, are sort of still dreaming of building a single great ship, a bigger one, a great battle ark of democratic ideology we can all fit into as the flood waters rise, to set steady course for the new future. You could say we’ve all been shipped to this world in crisis, just before the 2020s, on the giant back of the one mother container ship – our global economic culture. More and more of us piled up on her listing deck in favelas of shipping containers. More and more of us looking increasingly like refugees. Then, recently, someone retrofitted her engines and gave us all a frightening turn of speed through the seas, few of us tethered to her deck securely, heading for a rather different port to the one we were promised.
Through its engagement mechanism of liberal democracy, capitalist growth promised us opportunity and representation. And sort of implied anchoring in Monaco Bay with Bacardis. There aren’t many hyrdrocarbon power plants shown in the classic travel posters of the Mediterranean, or homeless people depicted on the strip. Just lissom couples enjoying the speed of progress to help them relax. And even you, a nurse, could get a slice of this lime in your ship’s rum. Forget the shift alarm clock for a week. But the 1980s decided we really should stop puttering about in package tour pedalos and turn up the financialised turbos. Take off the safeties.
“At its core,” says Mathew Lawrence, of Common Wealth, “neoliberalism is an effort to insulate capitalism from democracy, to transform the economy into an object beyond the realm of politics, making the ‘market’ and unequal forms of economic power safe from democratic intervention.”
But if it’s not nurses and single parents and the homeless who are fairly to blame for the hydrocarbon bullshit bubble but aspirational corporate policy-level leadership over at least a generation, what can we ordinary incorporate lot do, as the alarm blares slowly into our consciousness and we blearily look at the clock?
I think the answer lies in looking away from the boring soap opera of politics on our phone, to take a look outside. Sense a shift in the weather. Including the social weather. Because I think there’s something interesting in the way the clamouring now of our times has us fearing we will drown in the noise. Be suffocated. Unheard. Unrecognised. When everyone seems to be on YouTube. ..Please see me. And not just in disaster porn.
I think there’s a clue in this human climate. Let’s forget aspirational for a moment and get respirational. Breathe.
If we want recognition, the future of democracy comes down to engagement. Which itself is essentially a two-part problem – people wanting to and people knowing trustfully how to. I think our first step is to take a few deep breaths and listen to the clock. Let it resonate in us, trying to tell us it’s simply time – for us. To face the trouble. To explore new ways to engage. With the challenges, and with the opportunities. And I think we’re only just beginning to.
As Professor Johan Rockström replied cooly to an audience member who basically asked him: “I’m feeling a sense of climate fatigue with all this information, man. What can you say to cheer me up?” after one of his talks calmly outlining the scientific chorus of warning about behaviourally-triggered climate crisis: “I sympathise,” he said, “but you should try having a sense of climate anger. This is a much more useful response.”
We should have a sense of alarm – but a determined one. An informed one. An empowered one. One that’s already packed its lunchbox.
In the potentially collapsing era of a globalised age, ordinary people, you and I, can no longer afford to outsource our courage.
As Matthew Lawrence puts it: “In the face of crisis, we cannot afford smallness of ambition… We must make relics of much of the present if we are to flourish in the future.”
But before bravely boarding the battle bus in your cagoule, let’s take a map reading of ourselves before this next leg of democratic futures orienteering.
Now, at hopey-changey high level, the oft-mentioned Sustainable Development Goals fan out the spectrum of symptoms of our age’s dominant culture perhaps better than any summation of our circumstances. And this colour wheel of awareness doesn’t just give us a planet brief of problems to solve, it crucially gives us a single story of us to recognise. An old one, to deal with, and potentially a shared new one. But it’s complex, even so simplified. And it’s hard to know where to start.
So I wonder if it’s the challenge of modern democracy, a growing desire to find it, that gives us an emotional starting point to engage with the more hopeful human planet tomorrow more personally. And perhaps a helpful clarifying statement to make sense of our place in the world as ordinary people right now, might be a line like this:
We are living in a monopolised world that is now fundamentally digital in its operation, in a time of great cultural uncertainty. A time of conflicting expectations. A time of great transition.
For millions of us, equality has felt nascent at best. At best. The beginnings of a promise. And, in a way, the populist argy-bargy has highlighted how barely have we begun to address the cultural habits of inequality around the world, in a world so shaped by the European chapter. Simply talk to your mates about their perspective on where they live, and listen. Listen to what they see and feel. Some of my friends feel actively that what progress we have had is under threat. They are under threat somehow.
Examples are all around us of course. In light of the arcane and male-dominated high level decision in Alabama to actually reinstate abortion as a criminal offence, Rose Eveleth put it succinctly:
“So let’s recap:
sex ed is discouraged.
birth control is impossible to access.
abortion and miscarriage are considered felonies.
felons can’t vote.”
How do we cross the divide? And how do we create new tools to shape democracy in the realities of the twenty-first? The tide of unity gone far out, stranding us on separate shores. Or really, on many different islands of different engagement.
Maybe, deep down, most of us currently feel under threat. Or abandoned. Just badged differently. Fighting different fights.
Identity politics has certainly stoked new engagement, you might say. But arguably sucked up and spun furiously into great social twisters by the weird vortex of algorithmic living, underneath and inside it all. The echo chamber as Thunderdome. And the result, thinks Cory Doctorow, is that: “We are ending democracy and we’re putting in place a constitutional monarchy who rule by the divine right of kings. GAFA will rule forever!”
Will they? The digital monopolies? Google Apple Facebook Amazon? Well they might, if we don’t stop mucking about with vilifying each other’s citizenry and: “Seize the means of computation!” comrades. “There can’t be one voice in the room and when they speak we listen – we need pluralism” Doctorow says. “We need lots of places where people can talk and gather because Facebook will always be incapable of managing billions of lives well” he says simply.
Nature’s great survival trick is, after all, plurality. Diversity. “Nature has a liberal bias” as Stephen Colbert cheekily put it. Even if it will also eat your face at the first opportunity.
So if we are to make democracy work for us, such that we believe in trying, believe in the possibility of changing that status quo so many millions of us are dissatisfied with, we’re going to need new ways of doing it, no? New ways of seeing it.
On the one hand, we have a generation of leadership with an inability to question a fundamentally unsustainable status quo, not planning for things like Brexit or the climate crisis. On the other, we have the reality of chaos manipulators in a boto-human planet wanting very old fashioned things – money and controlling power to feed insecurities. In the fake news now, surely the task in front of us is to all grow past our ignorances and get educated. Lose our fear of complexity. If Brexit and Trump has shown anything, I think it’s shown that.
As impossible as cynicism makes this sound, are these the earliest of days in a new democratic movement? Government leaders the world over are not finding the language to address what’s really running aground, left listing in the mud – the whole liberal democracy package. And extremists are. They’re finding plenty of language that’s really landing.
Yet, what is democracy at our ground level? It’s about influence. Finding ways to influence power. And if that means anything, it means showing up.
While showing up in the voting booth seems pretty fundamentally important to democracy, so is showing up on the streets. In many political moments, it’s seemed like the only thing to do – but as a modern culture we have been very comfortable in our socialist and capitalist armchairs. Where is the so-called silent majority of Moderate Most Of Us ever going to show up again? Are more and more of us looking for major reform – not just of the democratic system itself, but of the economic? And are we looking for it in lots of different places now?
From proportional representation to democratising the Lords, the UK has been a bastion of tradition in ignoring calls for electoral reform. Old party politics depends on first past the post numbers and it keeps minority but establishment views in government, ultimately. It’s also a lot simpler to understand. And in the MEP elections this May, the two main British parties were wiped out of influence.
So what else could it look like?
The global innovation foundation Nesta wants to hear anyone’s ideas. It’s looking for “radical visions for the future of government” and wonders what trends will have the greatest influence on the shape of it.
“Will we live in a world of robot social workers, micropayments for public services and social credit scores?” it asks. “What if we could place empathy, relationships and trust at the heart of social services instead of impersonal bureaucracy? Should governments look more like tech startups, cooperatives or something else entirely? Or will we need a new set of rights and responsibilities – such as to care, or for lifelong learning – to help us manage a set of wider economic and social trends?”
The consultation breaks down the challenge interestingly, looking at how to reimagine services, redraft roles within them and rebuild trust. Which is getting to the nub of it. Future governments will surely have to address the enormous social and technological shifts in society in the roles it plays and requires to function. But before any of that, it’s going to have to demonstrate something fundamentally missing for millions of electorate members – trustworthiness. Especially, like, now.
Because liberal democracy as we’ve known it doesn’t seem to be doing half as much in the interests of the people as we’ve expected it to.
Trust. I think a central issue of this to future democracies is about evolving the question of it beyond the normal boundaries of politics. Looking for trust in public life generally and how we fund it may be a significant driver shaping our expectations of what democracy even is. And if we are to illicit that magical response of engagement with the challenges, from us all, you know what we’re really trying to foster? That trust engenders? A sense of ownership.
To engage with something, I’ve got to at least find it interesting, and if I truly care about it, I’ll engage enthusiastically, right? Now, I suppose I’m likely to care about something I actually own. Not enough to clean it sufficiently often, obviously, but enough to get it fixed when the gunk has finally seized it at least, and enough to not want it nicked from my back garden. If that thing of mine is a community, however, a high street, a family, well, my sense of ownership over that might well mean that I’ll consider it mine enough to not even notice how much I’m making myself a part of it’s working. Because of its emotional significance to me. Right?
This is how many trend ponderers think participatory futures will essentially work. We may own less stuff in a junk-piled de-escalated consumerist world, but we may find ways to more truly own things – places, communities and causes. Ideas of us. A sort of more abstract ownership, as the School for Compassionate Entrepreneurship puts it in a workshopped mind map of the idea – wanting to promote each other’s success, not just our own, looking for authenticity, togetherness and lots of mechanisms for sharing. All of it a bit counter cultural to today’s shared habits of value.
Why? Why would loads of us suddenly want to join this drum circle commune? I know it’s taken me decades to find the smell of Earth Foods up on the Grove not weird but kind of wonderful, but you may as well ask the question: Why are more people already doing this?
Carla Cammilla Hjort, founder of Ikea-funded futurism research lab Space 10 says: “There’s a huge shift happening when it comes to issues such as ownership, which has been a very central factor in how we’ve lived and worked in the past. For the past century, we’ve pursued this nuclear family model where we’ve isolated ourselves in the small boxes we call our homes, where we’ve all had to have another small box with wheels on it to get to the office, and where we’ve strived for stability when it comes to work. But it’s dawning on many that that way of living can be very isolating – it creates a bad infrastructure in the cities as well as loneliness.”
There is an emotional context shift happening all around us in the west especially, that is looking for something a lot more meaningful than empty consumerism and the liberal democracy that’s tied to it. To say nothing of the noteably unsustainable oil industry tied to it.
Ownership matters. And in concrete ways it actually comes back to good old fashioned property.
As Ashwari Kumar says to the Philosophy Club liberal democracy as we’ve known it was really founded in the practical context of landed wealth. “No taxation without representation? That’s all well and good but in practice getting the vote doesn’t mean really getting a voice. Without a moral vector, many equality laws donʼt get practically enacted.””
Liberal democracy, he asserts, is bound to the cultural drive to accumulate selfish wealth. There’s an idea in there that in the end it actively stifles real democracy because, the market being what it is, only certain types of people rise to financial influence. That’s not much of a rich democratic gene pool. It highlights the conscious tension in democracy between freedom and equality.
Competition is linked in consumerist times to that hoary old desire to own shee, and ever more shee, as it creeps into our system like a cultural virus, trojaned with material success. And what embodies old system ownership more than bricks and mortar? The safest investment still.
As Mathew Lawrence puts it: “Property relations and the distribution of property has always vitally determined how a society operates and in whose interest.” Stocks of wealth and concentrations of economic control, including banks of empty second homes in central London that no one else can afford, is all part of the: “forcefield that locks much of the rest of economic and social life into place, structuring the nature and operation of political-economic systems.”
But the new rub is, as he says, this. “Given the scale of shifts required to rapidly and justly decarbonise society, reverse the collapse of natural systems, and build a post-neoliberal economics, changes in ownership models may seem inevitable.”
Which means, the: “broadening out of democratic forms of ownership must be central to any political project that seeks to remake the economic and political common sense. Democratic ownership means a radical expansion of ownership rights to ensure we all share in the wealth we create in common, the pluralisation of ownership models in place of today’s excessive monoculturalism, and a rewiring of enterprise and institutions so we all have a stake and a say in decision-making that shapes our workplaces, communities, and society.”
Alright, hold on to your smirk or your chest pains there, try not to panic in the face of some new tarp thrown over socialism and wheeled in hopefully. It’s sounding like principles that address all our crises together, to me. And Common Wealth has a structured plan to encourage it.
“Common Wealth has been formed to design models of ownership for a democratic and sustainable economy: to design institutions for alternative futures” Lawrence says. “Our focus is on six systemically vital areas where alternative arrangements of property, democratic ownership, and purposeful governance can provide a decisive transition away from our failing economic model. And these are: “Stewarding nature” – first, note – “reimagining the social commons, building a digital commons,” – just third – “democratising enterprise, rewiring finance and transforming land.”
“The ambition for a democratic economy is simple but systemic” he says: “The steady, irreversible replacement of today’s unequal and extractive economy with institutions that share the wealth we create in common, where deep freedom, solidarity, and capability are a universal inheritance, and which respects environmental limits and social rights.”
As utopian as this sounds, it is addressing the challenges facing our democratic engagement. It’s the economic system that’s broken us, even as it’s seemed to magically empower so many of us. It’s simply thrown too m any of us onto the scrapheap. Or the street. And I think there are a couple of things that may help us begin to pressure politics to crack open some more radical re-evaluations of how we do things.
It’s my growing hunch firstly that the convergence of different crises across societies sizing up now is just so utterly profound in scale it is ultimately likely to pressure some almost wartime innovations in our thinking and behaviours, and that we’re acknowledging those pressures already. Wartime thinking is always about dealing with vulnerability in a sudden new, unknown reality. And in the middle of the growing noise about life collapse on earth driven by a hydrocarbon economy, we’re simultaneously craving more meaning in daily things, and less mindless stress. This is all happening at once.
But if we do find ourselves taking better ownership of the world around us, it will be primarily because we found ways to own in emotionally. And here’s my second reality change pressure – habit-growing practice. We are going to all have to get more involved in the design of the future. And we might find we love it.
Nesta thinks a start is cracking open the whole idea of futurism.
“As the world struggles with increased complexity and uncertainty, we believe that the process of systematically imagining alternative, sustainable futures should be conducted in a more democratic and inclusive manner.”
One of the best ways to engage with the world around us is simply design. Modeling and testing ideas to solve problems. But in our history of design it throws up a crucial point to making more effective futures – who is in the room? Who is invited to the hack day? Who are we making the future for and who is helping us do that? It strikes to the heart of the way the modern world has been made. Designed from a very skewed social perspective.
“Who’s future are we really creating? And who is missing from the imagining of it?” asked Alexis Hope at Republica 19. She referenced the classic vision of a scientist, embedded across the building of the modern world: The lone genius. “The lone genius is more likely to create a dystopia than a utopia., in my opinion. It is collaboration that builds joyful futures” she said.
She then shared the example of a side project that came out of the usual clever mucking about that happens in MIT, where she works. A hack day to redevelop the breast pump, after some very human conversations around motherhood that occurred one night and drew lots of interest. And before long, this practiced team of sort things outers had put on How To Make The Breast Pump Not Suck.
The results of the day were all very innovative, she says, but ultimately would have been ridiculously expensive to make. And it lead her to realise something: “We cannot innovate just for the 1%.”
So she and the team looked again at the inputs to the hack day. Who was – and who wasn’t – part of the process, invited to the design conversation?
“The second MTBPNS event had very different results to the first one because of who was in the room” she said.
They found the whole subject of motherhood to be a deeply politicised culture, to policy level. By bothering to question their own cultural assumptions as tech graduates, even her as a young woman, they found themselves in a room with a racially, culturally much more diverse team. And it became more than just a problem-solving quest.
By broadening out the context from technical to policy and social, they realised they had to really work to encourage newcomers to the whole idea of a hack day to feel very included and welcome, especially if their experience had been very marginalised on an issue before. Considerate human psychologies built into the format. Instead of CEO-style presentations at the end, for example, they had a science fare format for much more relational interaction in sharing results and ideas. They tried to listen way more. They baked boob cakes. They worked on the cultural truth across lines of difference – addressing unconscious power imbalances and really thinking about who this was for, and of course, how best to get their experiences and insights out of them to the group. The result was more of a celebration of community than a design paper. And possibly a whole new movement of change advocacy.
Alexis realised they needed to foster a sense of joy and play in the room.
“I don’t think joy is an escape,” she said, “it is a means of militancy and response.”
Rubbish in, rubbish out, right?
As someone said at another talk I found myself at, looking at developing a more positive media environment: “The problem with journalism is the fact checking – it’s technical, it doesn’t check who is telling the story.”
What this implies is that the very data we trade with every day may well itself be the product of some squiffy inputs. Because, as Caroline Sinders says: “Data may be key, but all data is human output, so it should be handled with care.”
She refers to Mimi Onuoha’s insightfully and beautifully conceived Library of Missing Data Sets – a careful collecting of: “blank spots that exist in spaces that are otherwise data-saturated.” Evidence of people’s living that wasn’t deemed worth keeping by systemic routines. Data not worth the hard drive space.
Exposing this, drawing it out into the light of abstract attention, seems as much an act of art as of justice to me. “That which should be somewhere is not in its expected place; an established system is disrupted by distinct absence.”
It could be any human activity that just doesn’t fit a normalised data collection system, isn’t studied systematically or is simply hard to quantify. But you bet it’s political. It’s a democracy thing.
It could be records of police brutality, or sexual assault, or racial profiling. As Onuoha herself says: “Unsurprisingly, this lack of data typically correlates with issues affecting those who are most vulnerable in that context.”
And she adds something sobering to reflect upon.
“That which we ignore reveals more than what we give our attention to. It’s in these things that we find cultural and colloquial hints of what is deemed important. Spots that we’ve left blank reveal our hidden social biases and indifferences.”
Just like the missing Barios in Venezuelan maps before President Chavez had them cartographed in: “Just because some type of data is missing doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and the idea of missing data sets is inextricably tied to a more expansive climate of inevitable and routine data collection.”
But there is an even broader human issue here even than democratic justice: “Not all things are easily quantifiable, and at times the very desire to render the world more abstract, trackable, and machine-readable is an idea that itself deserves questioning.”
What do we value? And how? In this current world machine.
Because of course, modern democracy itself, like its founding modern nation states and the transnational mega corporations symbiotically grown around it, is a kind of robot. As David Runciman puts it, all these foundational elements of what is now the liberal democratic modern status quo were designed that way: “They’re artificial decision-making machines. You feed stuff in – people, opinions, votes, information – and you get an outcome. This policy, that policy.”
We’re living in a technocracy. A system built by engineer thinking, not art thinking. Because the one thing engineering knows how to do is relentlessly problem solve building things. Artists may have long been our confessors, but professors are really our priests – our intercessors with the future.
Even the holy Sustainable Development Goals are, you could say, a technocratic solution to the shortcomings of the technocratic world. And of course, as this whole voyage around the ideological modern world of Unsee The Future has shown me is that even our best plan for understanding our cultural circumstances and overcoming them is missing Art from its strategic centre.
Where in the world machine is the place of personal testimony, valued for sheer human sake? The culture of emotional expression to navigate a more realistic understanding of the human-planet landscape – how we feel about the world around us. A technocracy fundamentally doesn’t equip us to process those feelings. So, I think, the system is leaking and seizing.
As futurist Tracey Follows highlighted, to those emotionally invested in Brexit – a fundamentally emotional reaction to the technocratic world – the calling of one of it’s key champions, Borris Johnson, into court for alleged misinformationing during the campaign seems to her a suitably technocratic response in a political system “stuffed full of lawyers”.
And how much is all this going to improve in a digital democratic age? Get less technically driven? Hmm. But, perhaps one sign of culture change is that the internet was conceived by engineers at least trying originally to imbue new systems designs with some human values or purposes – people influenced by the counter culture of the 60s, in the last great questioning of the status quo. And perhaps even, as the technology become more organic in its behaviour, it might become more powerful as an artistic, emotional tool. It obviously already is, in some ways. Could the maturing of AI platforms actually, weirdly, bring out the fluid human in us like the brittle old machine never could?
What is the flaw in Google’s data set if a search result produces, say, racist or marginalised-ist results?
Design, Sinders says, can demonstrate your values. And this goes down to something as banal seeming as clear demonstrations of data capture – AND options actually given to users for how it is used. Explicit trust, in other words. Designed in. But she says, we also need to design in implicit trust – “Trust is a byproduct of transparency” she says, and that is made clear in design with legibility, auditability and agency, or interactability. “Data is human always, so it should be participatory always and be designed to look for all potential failures.”
“Racism and inequity are products of design. They can be redesigned” as the Equity Design Collaborative puts it.
Of course, machine learning is about making new connections, out-pacing the slide rule. If we put the right stuff in, might the new machines save us from the old ones?
I think we’re only just beginning, in this transitional seeming epoc, to leak and flow around a fundamental culture baked into the firmware of the old world machine and it’s simply how top to bottom is our global culture of disconnection. Everything in boxes. Stacked in a pyramid. Everything. If we want to encourage new democratic participations in our communities, it’s partly as simple as encouraging the opening of all the different rooms of our voices. Really think to go to a different tribe, hear the world in a different language.
How open are the doors between human response worlds, even? Between NGOs, actual government bodies, digital innovation, entrepreneurialism, the arts, education, the energy sector, local communities?
“As distrust in institutions grows and societies become more polarised, we wish to explore alternative and emerging methods that are being used to bring communities together to debate and create collective visions for the futures they desire.” Nesta says, in a “horizon scan supplier tender invitation”. Put in the words of the people. “From participatory scenario generation to temporary autonomous zones, speculative design to massive online open games…” what does a participatory future look like?
He wants to: “call for a national campaign to strengthen our democracy” and suggests that such a campaign: :should have only one top line demand. That demand is for Government to host at least three national citizens’ juries every year on topics chosen, respectively, by Parliament (through a free vote), by the public through a process of open on-line consultation, and by Government itself. Further, Government should commit to make a formal response to Parliament on the outcomes of each jury, both immediately after it concludes and later when the Government has decided whether and how to take forward the jury’s recommendations. In this way we will take our first, small yet decisive, step to incorporating deliberate democracy into our unwritten constitution.
He points out that there are many instances of this already working around the world and it can be a sort of start-up test-bed way to try reform without scaring people and schedules alike with the sheer weight of what true systemic reform might involve.
“If we think democracy should be about how power is exercised and not simply how it is gained, our system does need root and branch reform” he says but that: “opponents of reform can credibly argue” and have “that any Government pursuing the whole agenda would have little time for the kind of things most people care about.” A very handy argument for the status quo lovers. Sliiiightly illustrated by Brexit. What the hell else has happened for the electorate from government in the last three years here in the UK?
Deliberative democratic projects do have their detractors I think, seen as another suspicious thing from liberals, but they are a potentially more inclusive nation level community idea and would take comparatively little to set up.
“The trickiest part of community engagement and deliberative dialogue is accountability, and the burden of it” says Mark Trophy, founder of the Australian Studies Network. But, he says, it can work. “If you own the idea, you will drive it. You will make sure it works. The idea that someone can take responsibility for their own learning is an extra benefit of doing this type of work.”
Theo Bass responds to RSA calls to consider the idea of deliberative democracy, such as citizen assemblies, by noting other limitations.
“Deliberative methods require some slow brain work – often over a period of several days or weekends – and tackle areas where an understanding of complexity and trade-offs is necessary to make a decision. While this is an important condition for their success, it also means that they tend to be expensive and limited to the people in the room, which raises questions around community ownership and legitimacy.”
But extending the in-room dynamics of consultations like this seems eminently possible online. The question is how, most effectively.
Bass sites examples going back as far as 2009 with the Australian Citizens Parliament which brought together 300 people to make recommendations on how to strengthen the country’s democracy. “Participants were randomly selected to ensure representativeness and then invited to join a curated, closed group which tried best to replicate the conditions for deliberation online.” Those who were selected to attend addressed two key questions: “What is it about our democracy that makes us proud and how can we make our democracy more like this?”
The consultation came up with various specifics for Australia but also some key healthy characteristics of a functioning democracy and they were understandably things like freedom, inclusiveness, transparency, justice, simplicity, accountability and guaranteed education.
Positive, hopey-changey stuff. But even as that workshop itself threw up issues surrounding engagement, Bass suggests that a combination of online sourcing of participants and more viral outsourcing of collective research, human clouding if you will, to bring better diversity in the thinking might work together best with clear accountability of data on an assembly workshop website – clear transparency of prior submissions of expertise as well as the conversations happening in any room somewhere. Somewhere between the face to face room and the breadth of online participation might be a successful space for proper information gathering while creating a good sense of ownership. But it’s a tricky balance.
Which brings me to another key component to help activate the new futures democracy machine. Our emotional ownership of democracy will certainly be shaped by how much we help to design new ways of doing things, how much we all find ourselves becoming future hackers, but I think a crucial element in catalysing us will be the idea of hacking where we live. Place
A significant part of democracy when you think about it is place, isn’t it? Is there a link between our increasing disassociation with local politics and that at the national level?
John Harris says we are living in the age of the unplace. And it’s got a lot to do with how de-localised our media has become. Not just newsprint but radio. “Any journey around the country could once upon a time be marked out by what crackled in and out of range as you drove: Red Dragon, Leicester Sound, Marcher Sound, Trent FM, Lakeland Radio. But over time, many of these stations have been subsumed under the nationwide brands of Capital, Heart and Smooth, all of which are now owned by a giant conglomerate called Global.”
Looking in from the outside, I’ve long said that radio should be the most creative medium out there, merging pictures in your head with sound waves being pushed physically through you, yet the commercial radio industry seems not to know how to do anything but playlist safely and talk emptily and play adverts loudly. And with Bauer’s apparent hoovering up of an already corporate sector, almost to a European monopoly challenging level, what personality of locality will be left?
Dearest mate Mikey has worked in the sector for years and wonders the same thing, knowing that actually locals depend much on his team’s news output from right in the locality in Salisbury. And now his station too has been bought for streamlining.
As Harris says: “As outlets have closed, the idea of the media as a distant, arrogant thing, seemingly little interested in anything beyond the M25, has been confirmed. Given, moreover, that austerity has blitzed such shared local institutions as libraries, arts venues and youth centres, and that councils themselves are clinging on by their fingernails, you start to wonder how the places they once served are meant to maintain any coherent notion of themselves, let alone have a meaningful collective voice. In such disrupted times as ours, the world surely starts to look even more senseless and arbitrary than it actually is. As the police disappear from your streets, and your services are cut, there are fewer and fewer people who can shine a light on what is happening. If you have a local story that goes to the heart of corporate or governmental failure, where do you go with it?”
It all chips away at our sense of belonging. And so our sense of taking part. And so our sense of democracy.
If we need to find tools to help us engage with where we live more meaningfully than all this empty mistrust and down the line prerecords and unfact-checked defensiveness, I think they will have to be methods to find new ways of seeing where we live and it’s identity, its heritage and who were are in that space. And so see its potential. Recognition.
If we can find ways to cross the spaces of where we live, might that not encourage ways to cross the gulf between polarised cultures? And if anything can do that, it is surely the practice art. Art can enter the no man’s land left by the tide going out and do something to change the whole atmosphere of the field of war. It can sing.
Personal creative testimony can Venn loop us together with empathy, that super-human gift to walk through walls. Or understand the marks made on them.
Cecile Sachs Olsen is a research fellow at the British Academy’s centre for GeoHumanities. Much of her work explores how artistic practice can be used as a framework to analyse and re-imagine urban space and politics.
From experimental performances to collaborative model-making, urban expeditions to co-produced audio walks, treasure hunts to city archiving – participatory art can help people articulate their experiences of the city on their own terms. And this has the power to question and challenge any given order, which directs how people think about cities, and live in them.”
She tilts at what she perceives as a stony predeterminism in the planning of the public realm, and essentially wants to find ways to provoke engagement and exploration of local spaces in ways that not only help people own their locality even more consciously but see it in new ways. The job of art. And it is, as is the theme of Unsee The Future from front to back, new ways of seeing old problems that will unlock what we really need to do in our global problem solving.
“In the present political climate, democracy is seemingly becoming less sensitive to the demands of citizens calling for more just distribution of resources, a cleaner environment or the defence of common goods. Participatory art has the potential to give city dwellers a sense of agency, empowerment and entitlement, by promising that everyone is capable of imagining how things could be different. And that’s the first step toward forging a better future.”
There is a real idea growing into wider consciousness I think about the importance of place making. And I wonder if it is part of how we will begin to practice new ways to own a sense of democracy. And artistic adventures can help you remap where you live with fresh eyes. It’s why arts festivals are so much more important than a good bit of bonkers entertainment – they can playfully challenge the given order of the way you read your city, create new desire lines. Which, if it is true for where you live geographically must be true for your head. Artistic encouragement can help you get your own mind flowing differently – where your whole perception of the world resides.
This isn’t about seeing gallery spaces pop up in empty shop units. It’s about walking through something yourself. Exploring, expressing, feeling the experience change you. Something a world away from another bit of empty brand decoration, shouting messages into your eyes.
Soul-leaking gentrification of places famously seems always preceded by artistic communities emerging in cheaper property districts; creativity reimagines spaces, but done best by moving into them. Which is usually driven by creative work’s precariousnesses. Cheaper rents. The pattern tends to be that as this generates some new, nascent character, cool, even soul, the dead eye of property development swivels to the district and follows in, driving out all the artists with rocketing rents and a sort of anodyne over-tidying of the public realm. The goldilocks zone where you and I want to live is a balance somewhere between the two states, no?
A theme of the twenty-first for me is the idea of new balances. Beyond work and play or purpose and payment, it’ll be about all kinds of things that we used to think of separately. Global and local, for example. Or freedom and equality.
In a bid to find a community that we actually like living in, I can picture more and more of us being as geo-agnostic (write that down) in our work as we are simultaneously rooted in place in our living. Or maybe the other way around. Or some kind of mix of the two. For those who can afford it, seeing the world only as some Instagram product for the ‘travel consumer’ can turn out to feel emptier than we imagined. While for those of us feeling trapped in our localities, perhaps watching them hollow out of richness and social cohesion while no one takes tourist snaps because of economic politics, it doesn’t even occur to us that the world outside holds potential for us. It’s another world.
But encouraging a geo-local perspective, culturally and technically, might tap into something human-planet pertinent for all of us right now.
We have to admit, we want to commit. Not feel trapped and not feel completely untethered, but well, find our place. There’s something meaningful about purposefully digging in somewhere – because that place makes us feel good. Feeling part of the same high street for a while – because it’s not dead on its arse and half boarded up. When your locality feels like a choice – the right one for you. There is the potential to more consciously balance the historic human benefits of putting down roots with the modern advantages of a wider understanding of context.
Schools can naturally do a lot to lock us in to local life as parents, of course and also help us support causes locally; family is rooting. How does a place feel more like a family? There’s a question to keep lingering above us for a moment.
If parenting isn’t just about having your own kids, though, when we do find a place to really call home for a bit, is it time more of us considered taking a fresh look at one of the most neglected bits of democracy in our lives? Something way more important in its potential to shape engaged communities than our experience of it has usually felt. Is it time more of us woke up to local council service? I’m looking at you. ..Stop looking at me.
The Alliance For Local Living near me, which stood a selection of candidates in the council elections here, took its cues from the experience of Peter Macfadyen told in his book Flatpack Democracy. Which effectively took over Frome District Council by standing en masse as an organised collection of independents. Not a new party. They used their diversity as a single selling point to lever discontent with the status quo. It’s not unlike the Missions set up in Venezuela to give locals a sense of their own direct contact with government.
It is obviously one of the most fundamental ways you can show up democratically. By standing. But there is a fundamental accountability issue here that both standing for local election and digital citizens assemblies are still sort of missing.
Much better accountability of leadership. It’s time to hacktivate. To validate.
Democracy.earth is a movement begun by Santiago Siri and Pia Mancini in Argentina. In their words: “We believe that distributed ledger technology is the key to transforming the underlying institutions that are producing the outcomes we see, including low participation, polarized endogamy, and eroded trust in governing institutions.”
Blockchain. Bitcoin democracy, in other words. What they see as a revolution in disintermediating technology meeting a revolution in participatory governance.
Block chain effectively breaks the monopoly of our data being exclusively stored on someone else’s computer to storing it on your device while being verifiable anywhere – a system of multiple ping-backs of: “Yep, not fake news.” What if anyone could count the ballot box? It’s the profound question kind of at the heart of this idea. What if you could easily and verifiably know exactly what building developments were in play on bits of council land? Which players were involved? Lots of little boxes of our ignorance might open into a connected understanding of our localities and communities – the level at which we’re more naturally invested. And might this begin to simply habitually rub off on the national level of our interaction?
This is about new trust and new independence. This is how tech can be a key tool to upscale democracy to a whole new level. But tech is not exceptional – it is always the product of a wider culture. And will always be driven by one. Applied this way around, the tech is less the object of our systemic obsessiveness and more the enabler of new human ownership.
Maybe. maybe… we could even consider actually removing helpless intermediary politicians all together.
Technology may once again be poised to help us take democracy to the next level. But however we engage, isn’t it time we as ordinary people inspired much better leadership?
We are kind of living in the era where the potential for true democracy is catching up with our culture. I mean, if “we can never have true democracy until the will of the people can be ascertained at all times” well guess what – such a thing is technically thinkable now.
Democracyʼs potential – the potential of everything truly run by everyone and not a specialist elite, prey to habitual cultures and disconnection even with the best of intent, never mind what the intent usually is – has perhaps always been rising like a tide. Perhaps we have been only dipping our toes into democracy up until now. And perhaps we may be living in the time where technology catches up with democratic hope, the real human hope of recognition and freedom of choice.
Yeah. What it currently looks like is the Poseidon Adventure. Everything is upside down, all of us floundering in the water with panicked screams and desperate voices and effluent and detritus in the mucky water as bodies writhe all wondering whether to head down to what used to be up or head up to the upended keel and prey to be cut out and see the sky again before we drown.
Itʼs currently no Lido. Democracy.
But I think it is the messy stage being set for us to step up. Grow up in our shared leadership. Because old power structures are failing. We need new systems of trust that are taken out of a few human hands and spread across everyoneʼs. From panto to immersive theatre workshops! Don your rollneck.
There is an inevitability to this I fancy, somewhere down the line. The same one that drove human consciousness out of incredible but mindless biological processes into consciousness and society – survival by growth. But this time, a kind of internal, emotional growth. If we want to find democracy in a technocratic monopolised era, we’re each going to have to grow into some new responsibilities – to be curious, to fact check, to listen, to include, to lead by example – because the genie is out of the bottle.
If populist votes are about a sense of betrayal at the nationalist level, the idea of country and all the high promises and sacrifices made in its name that globalisation seems to have sold down the swanny, what do we do when half of us find that bit the most problematic and uninspiring level?
Aristotle said citizens have to be friends. Theyʼre not competitors, theyʼre not at odds with each other fundamentally. If freedom of will is a private matter, like the idea of a life free from government, political freedom on top requires community.
For me, the most interesting levels of human planet life, and the most hopeful, are the beyond Low Earth Orbit level and the Feel The Soil Around Your Toes level. The nation state level is the old bit that bothers me, much as I owe it most of what I am. If I owe Britain anything, it’s that it taught me to want to leave the nest and look further. Even though I never quite left. I think we’re all currently fighting for different levels of life on Earth, and the old power is still with the liberal democratic state level, but in many meaningful ways, it’s leaking away. And we’re going to have to learn to let go of it.
“We are so attached to this thing called Representative Democracy because in the living memory of so many of us, it delivered real benefits” says David Runciman. To an amazing degree for some of us, like nothing before. “But you had to be in the right place at the right time to benefit from it and I’m not so sure all that many people were in the right place” he concludes.
The old liberal democratic nation state seems simply be failing as an engagement device. And a recognition device. But Starfleet Academy hopefuls like me in low Earth orbit can’t wish it away. Nor do I personally want to – I think heritage is a significant component in how we calibrate truthful visions of the future. Country isn’t just still in the blood, emotionally, it’s a structure level with lots of crucial work to do in a transition time. It’s just that, as Russell Brand says, what is the point of the nation state if it does less and less national asset work? If everything is sold off to the dead-eyed, amoral robot of the free market, what of ‘us’ is left? What binds us together? And if that’s true at the national level of place making, it’s even more easily understood at the local level.
Talking to Brand on Under The Skin, Brad Evans says that what’s increasingly missing in local communities is simply social institutions. Libraries, youth groups, schools, hospitals, police numbers, crushing debt-free university education – “What’s happened to the social contract?” he says. “No one in politics seems to want to talk about the social contract.
Is it any wonder, when at the inception of the financialised neoliberal world of the last forty years, there was Margaret Thatcher saying: “There is no such thing as society.” Yet, how can we emotionally function with out it?
The resulting yuppie dream that took off so many of the morally shared fiscal safeties of democratic economics and sold off so many of the emotionally shared spaces of our communities championed of course, the idea of the individual as being at the centre of the universe. Community and higher purpose and God franchised out to consumer brands.
Nationalism may have given millions of us identity and purpose, and worked kind of nicely around liberal democracy for the wealthiest nations. But jacked up capitalism from the Miami Vice years onwards just exaggerated the reality of the world machine we’re all living and working in – the payback in the end, says Henry Giroux, is cruelty. And the result? Ultra nationalism – perhaps it was always to be the end game of our times. Fascism’s return, because it always lurks, waiting in the background for the right emotional context.
Because here is a pretty fundamental truth of our sense of place on Earth in 2019. The emotional context we’re really doing everything in right now is unhappiness.
“Unhappiness is so overwhelming in so many places” Giroux says.
Are we all potentially feeling unrooted, emotional refugees in our wider societies, because of how much the world machine has boxed us up. Almost in coffins. Separated us – not just from each other in a kaleidoscope of ways in the digital age, but separated us from the planet. As emotional, conscious products of it’s life systems, we are living in a machine world. And it’s biggest consumer product may be unhappiness. That’s the fruit of a zero sum game – the game fascism is playing on steroids all over the world.
“No country is… inoculated against extremism. We are all living in liquid times.” as novelist Elif Safak apparently said, speaking at the Hay Festival. To which Juliette Davenport, boss of Good Energy, added simply: “And climate emergency will impact this even more as parts of the world become uninhabitable and people have to move.”
What a cocktail. What a bitter brew. I think we have a choice when faced with response. To either swallow the potion and regurgitate the one emotion – anger. Or to find a passionate plurality of possibility to rob it of its energy.
While ultra nationalism gives us figures like President Trump, the bitter clown taunting his audience with threats of being the next butt of the ridicule, it feeds on raw emotion. While the traditional Left seems to have abandoned all passion for technocratic argument. It may have profoundly robbed us of human agency, suggests Henry Giroux, also talking on Under The Skin.
“Political purity means that you have define yourself in a way that excludes everybody else because the self righteousness makes you feel good” he says. “This is a global world. It’s a global world. Nation states are outmoded and the only way they can ry to survive is to make an appeal to ultra nationalism, racism and what I would call gated cultural communities. That alone testifies to the degree to which they’ve lost their power. If we can’t imagine a world that is global, with federations, open borders, people working together in some way to save the planet, people working together to distribute resources that matter, taking the wealth away from the six richest people in the world… really? If we can’t address the vast disparities in wealth and power, it’s over.”
But if power is global while politics is national or local, we’re going to have to bear that in mind while trying to engage even locally, adds Brad Evans. “We need to think in more expansive global terms, because the problems of the 21st century are global by definition, and whether we like it or not, power flows across borders.”
Weather, climate, war, terrorism… little really notices national borders. Much has always been liquid on planet Earth. But a if a key threat sensed by many pursuing populist ideas is the homogenisation of the world – the losing of local identity in some tidal wave of the liberal melting pot boiling over – the democratic future can’t be a culturally featureless grey goo. Any new approach has to understand: “The subtleties and the beauty and the brilliance of local differences” he says.
“It’s about recognising that people should be self governing locally. but have a global ethics. That realises that we live on a shared planet together. And it’s a precarious planet. And how can we create an ethical sensibility which is connecting people, which doesn’t seek to destroy difference, which is what fascism does.”
What we need is, yes, desperately, some truly passionate, incredible new stories of us. New languages for politics but new testimonies to the possibilities. Because our emotional context for the climate crisis is one of desperate disconnection from any sense of a hopeful future for millions of us. For millions of us, there is no pondering human planet principles and grand arcs of philosophical history, there is only the vulnerable, hungry, precarious moment. The joyless, endless now.
“Where is the language of educated hope?” Giroux asks.
As he apparently told his children: “You gotta have one foot in and one foot out.” In other words, if we are to engage with this world we have to do more than joylessly critique, we have to make.
We have to testify.
“You can’t act differently unless you can think differently. Think the unthinkable!” he says.
Democracy isn’t really the problem, is it. It’s the invasion and subjugation of our imaginations. And it’s killing our souls.
We are living in a technocracy. A robot culture, an automated world machine that digital fluidity is just the latest grain of expression of. And that engineering thinking at the pretty fundamental exclusion of empathic art thinking is profoundly unsuitable for us as an environment over too much time. Time I think we’re watching ourselves run out of. As a now terribly monopolised world, the imbalance is grotesque. And produces them – caricatures of its own soulless working, haunting our boxed in imaginations. And art is essentially excluded from our educational values all over the world. It’s a nice to have for the rich.
“Everyone is living in survival mode. Everyone” as the lovely first lady of Momo simply put it to me.
Which is clearly not “living” mode.
Yet, promises of possibilities are sprouting all over cracks in that same system, I think. The flowers in the junkyard – technologically, socially, expectationally. And the crises of our time may be waking us up to our humanity in a new way – the failings of the economic culture, the very nature of what and how we value everything around us, including each other, the sheer depth of our unhappinesses. Our disconnection from a more – I’ll say it – spiritual outlook. One where we are not expected to be the centre of our own universes, shouldering their very orbits alone. But something… I’ll say it – beautiful. Precious in the universe, nested into a whole matrix of life on this astounding living planet.
In the face of this? How can hate stand a hope? In the future.
I suspect we personally live through a time of fearful transition like this most resiliently in a very old fashioned way. By living the brand. As Martin Luther would have said. Living it like a prophet, not a priest.
Embody the social planet you want. Live your vision of the future, or the bit of the future you can see, identify with, get excited about, to everyone around you who maybe canʼt see the same thing so well yet. Y’know, testify – but do it yourself without intermedation. And in so doing, maybe their vision of the future will change the shape of yours a little bit. Enough for you to want to defend both endeavours to explore it.
In the shadow of an economic culture that essentially used fear as fuel, sometimes nakedly sometimes passively, the challenge we face is to fashion all our levels of democracy out of, well… love? That most realistic of human doing words.
As Generation Transition, we may simply find that democracy looks a lot more fragmented for a while, as we testbed all sorts of new local engagements, systems and listening projects. And I think that’s how we do it – explore new senses of place and community designing and creative testimony in small projects and natural gatherings, but now with a digitally enabled eye on a connected planet. Inviting all the relevant voices into the design studio and the hack project. Trying to draw on and echo back some growing global – no, human planet – values. Infused beautifully with a kaleidoscope of local interpretations of it. Between somewhere along the scale of it between person and global, I think the meaningful heritages of nation can in time find new expressions and honourings to enable us anew.
I think todayʼs nightmarish visions of the world are calling us to some new sense of true parenthood, not just self actualised adulthood, in our hopes for better democratic freedoms. Something that can only be helped, I suspect, by all of us getting a better sense of how the pieces of the current human planet story fit together – hi there! I think we need to see a more effective, trustworthy democracy as part of a more holistic view of how the world works. And it works both practically and emotionally.
Your democracy, your personal efforts, have to be sustainable. Keepgoing- able. And the only way we can transition, cross-fade, is surely by admitting we are all indeed in this soup together, all knowing as much as the priests now, and all part of the crap that is the soup. I am not in a traffic jam, I am part of a traffic jam.
Such humility is, I think, often born out of failure – a thing learned by the old – coupled with open mindedness – a thing understood by the young.
Which sounds like a basis for renewal to me. Perhaps in that light, we can begin to see how to drive some essential new technology unlocking it all – because it’ll only come alive when in symbiosis with the suitably prepared human skills – the right attitude, understanding, awareness.
Cyberpunk creative citizenry? It might sound ghastly to you, grandad but trust me, all the kids will be doing it.
Planetary life system thinking will have to be in our getting back to first principles system thinking. Perhaps because evolution had always delivered us to this point to face this moment. And weʼre in it. Not priests, not simply prophet artists. Maybe pilgrims. Living in the light of a light still over the hill.
If it’s us mugginses, Bagginses and muggles who are new leaders, then we are the ones who must write the new stories of us. And our democratic heart-cries for recognition must be turned into dialogues we can act out and examine. And an urgency of democracy and the need to find radically new political paradigms could be a significant step towards dealing with the collapse of many levels of life on earth, caused by how we have been living in the old world machine. We can mitigate it, turn its scars into a semi colon tattoo of understanding if you and I are prepared to start exploring the new politics of true ownership.
We can no longer outsource it, but perhaps we can crowdsource our courage. And begin to find joy.
Because, earning each other’s trust by practicing the value of each other in everything we do? It may be the most democratic life we could possibly champion. We might turn the arena into the agora.
Democracy always was about not accepting the status quo.
“It is not hope that leads to action so much as action that leads to hope” Mathew Taylor says.
These may be times to act. Times to engage. Times to intervene. But democracy starts with a vision – not of ideologies, principles or even identities. But people. The demos. The polis of us. Even if we have to live a little separately sometimes, we can always choose to listen. Dialogue. Find something new from it for how we see the future. Whatever the flotilla of futures possible for the cyberpunk creative citizen, any expression of better democracy will have to be truthful. It will have to be open and visible. It will have to be personal. And it will have to be shared. And it may have to be previously unthinkable.
It… will have to be lived like the very practice of art.
Because, as the curtain is poised to come down, here is the theatrical truth about your role in democracy. It is not really about you. It’s about the children you will never meet.
Who will represent the young person from the 23rd century that you can barely yet imagine – who will defend their rights? Their hopes? Their life?
If not you, who?
It’s time to stand in the agora, the shared market place, picture them and… What? Dare to start to sing.
“So if we vote for you, do you promise
To be upright, decent and honest
And take away all of the fear?
You sit and wait for us to elect you,
But all we’ll do is reject you.
Your politics bore us to tears.”