Basically, our civilisation is breaking down, according to Salim Ismail.
Ismail is no average prophet of doom. He is the Founding Executive Director of Singularity University, a serial entrepreneur, and the founder of several companies, including Exo Works. Also, he is the author of the book Exponential Organizations about radical changes in the business world. He calls himself an optimist. So why does he believe that our world is on the verge of a meltdown?
It is in fact very simple, he says. In the past, the world has seen radical changes as a result of technological innovations, but never before have we seen a dozen new technologies develop with exponential velocity and interact in ways that enhance the changes in society. He points to a handful of particularly important technologies:
To these one may add several other radical changes more or less directly driven by technological advances: We experience extreme meteorological phenomena as a result of human-caused climate change. The world’s population will grow to ten billion or more over the next few decades, and two-thirds will live in big cities. Weapons of mass destruction will be more prevalent, and individual persons will have access to ever-larger powers of destruction (see ‘Weapons of Destruction for the Masses’, SCENARIO 1:2017).
GLOBAL PROBLEMS WITHOUT GLOBAL SOLUTIONS
One of the major consequences of technological advances is a demonetarisation of products and services. With the fourth industrial revolution, the price of a product approaches the cost of the raw materials it took to make it, and knowledge, information, culture, and software are shared freely in open-source networks. With blockchain technology, transactions can be carried out and verified without charges (see ‘Evaluating the Hype: Bitcoin’, SCENARIO 4:2017). Energy prices are dropping: for instance, the cost of solar energy is falling about ten percent per year. On the face of it, this sounds like an entirely positive development, but its consequences can create serious problems in the near future, simply because our institutions aren’t set up to handle the changes.
Among other things, it appears that the automation of products and services is economically beneficial mainly to a few technological entrepreneurs who are making an enormous amount of money, directly or indirectly, on cheap or free services. An Uber ride may well be cheaper than a traditional taxi, yet the huge profit is gained by neither passenger nor driver, but by the owners of Uber who, with almost no costs, are able to offer a service to all users, while still collecting a considerable percentage of the transaction between client and provider. The same pattern can be observed in the sale of apps through Google and Apple, and the sale of e-books through Amazon, and something similar is the case with streaming providers like Spotify, Netflix, and HBO, that can reach most of the world without significant distribution costs. In addition, these services create disruption among traditional providers of similar services, which may be beneficial in the long run, but creates bankruptcies and unemployment in the short run.
We have also seen a concentration of wealth in the world of finance. More functions have been automated, and this means a greater concentration of earnings for the employees that are left. One example is automated securities trading where computers can perform billions of sales and purchases every second without the financial institution having to pay wages. Another is automated account systems where the bank can charge a fee for transactions performed by computers at almost no cost. But the financial establishment faces a radical disruption that threatens to overthrow financial institutions and, as a result, plunge public institutions and private citizens into dire difficulties. With crowdfunding, and blockchain-based currencies, and accounts free of charges, a large part of the basis for the existence of financial institutions may disappear, and this may drive the institutions into still more hazardous speculations with possibly catastrophic consequences that extend well beyond the institutions themselves.
Essentially, the finances of nation states are based on control over the flow of money. This control forms the basis for the collection of taxes and the control of inflation and deflation. As more transactions are made with decentralised crypto-currencies, this form of control is eroded, and nation states lose their significance. Their influence is diminishing, too, when it comes to global, transboundary issues such as climate change, pollution, terrorism, waves of refugees, and tax evasion. All these problems require united global action, but experience shows that these very nation states and their leaders with their every-man-for-himself attitudes prove an obstacle to solving the problems. Recent examples include the refugee crisis in Europe where member states have been unable to agree on the distribution of refugees, and the US withdrawal from climate agreements under President Trump.
Another problem is nation states’ one-sided focus on economic growth to the exclusion of just about everything else (see ‘What is the Purpose of Growth?’, SCENARIO 2:2017). In a world where products and services become ever cheaper, economic growth based on the circulation of money requires a massive increase of consumption with negative consequences for environment, climate, and economic equality. If citizens, on the other hand, opt out from the growth race and rely more on peer-to-peer economy, open source, cheap home production of energy and physical products etc., the economic system will melt down and with it the institutions – public as well as private – dependant on it. It will be the end of civilisation as we know it.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Salim Ismail has a recipe for handling these problems and preventing a total meltdown of our civilisation and its institutions which have been developed through the centuries but are no longer suited for solving the challenges facing us. He believes that we must replace archetypical ‘masculine’ institutions based on competition, risk-taking, power, control, and hierarchies, for archetypical ‘feminine’ institutions based on participation, care, cooperation, and networks (emphasising that these qualities represent an archetype rather than actual gender). Examples of masculine institutions include nation states, large corporations, political parties, and patriarchal religions, while examples of feminine institutions include open source, maker culture, global consciousness, and genuine sharing economy – all of which are gaining ground these days.
This, however, is more easily said than done. Masculine institutions have been created with growth, self-promotion, and survival as their primary purposes, and if their purposes are threatened, they will fight back. This is the main cause of terrorism and the emergence of militant religious organisations such as IS, as well as extreme nationalism represented by, for instance, the American ‘alt-right’. As more masculine institutions come to feel threatened by the development, they will fight for survival with their available means, within or without the law. The trouble is that such attacks are difficult to combat with purely ‘feminine’ measures such as understanding and tolerance, and if you launch a counter-attack with ‘masculine’ means, you will contribute to reinforcing the masculine institutions that thrive on confrontations and an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Even the global institutions of our day are built on cooperation between nation states, corporations, and other ‘masculine’ institutions, and as a result, they are poorly equipped to deal with radical disruption challenging these institutions.
Will we, in spite of inertia and resistance, be able to transform present institutions to deal with impending radical changes to avoid a meltdown of our civilisation? If not, we will have to build up new, robust and adaptable institutions rooted in a borderless, global community ready to take over when the old institutions fall into ruins.