In the Information Age, Imagine There’s No Heaven, No Countries, No Possessions

[a school essay]

John Lennon’s 1971 single Imagine has long been recognized as an international classic for its themes of world peace and imagining a world without divisions. Covered and performed by artists from Lady Gaga to Coldplay at events around the world, Imagine brings us a greater sense of unity in humanity. But it was always an idealistic sense of world peace — different religious, border, and ideological conflicts have always existed. The transition from the industrial age to the information age has and will continue to fundamentally change the world. A previously labor based economy shifted to a knowledge based economy, which over time deepened the urban-rural split and drove the rise of populism. We’ve recently begun to see our world become increasingly divided in a way we’ve haven’t seen before: most notably first with Brexit, and then the polarized 2016 Presidential election. Almost half a century after Imagine was written, it’s worth taking another look at the world John Lennon envisioned. While today’s society is more divided than ever, we are starting to move towards the world that Lennon imagined — although probably not in the way Lennon or anyone expected.

The song itself sounds almost hymn like — it’s in C-major, a basic key with an enduring optimistic feeling. There isn’t much noise or complexity in the instrumentals, so emphasis is largely on the lyrics:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today… Aha-ah…

With no heaven or hell and only the sky, Lennon asks us to imagine a world free of religion, free of religious conflicts, and instead a world filled with people solely focused on living in the present. The next verse:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… You…

Lennon describes a world without divisions, physical or otherwise. His lyrics are straightforward — Lennon purposely urges the audience (“it isn’t hard to do”) to actually imagine the conflict-free world he is describing. Upon doing so, he hopes the audience will realize how much of the conflict and division in the world is completely human-made. He continues:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world… You…

By the third verse, Lennon has already “imagined” no heaven, no countries, no religion — here, he goes even further to imagine a world with no possessions. When we have no possessions or ownership, material greed disappears and “a brotherhood of man” starts to share the world together. This might seem far off from our capitalist reality, but it actually is the trend we are moving towards: the sharing economy. Enabled by technology and the internet, the recent rise of the sharing economy with companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Couchsurfing are enabling people to share the world and connect with strangers. As the world becomes increasingly digital with photos, communication, and entertainment online, people are starting to have fewer possessions.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

At the time Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono wrote the song, the idea of no countries, no religion, and no possessions seemed rather far off. While we certainly aren’t yet in Lennon’s dream world today, we are getting closer to it becoming a reality because of technology and the information revolution. Today, the “us” that Lennon refers to can be seen as those who are “anti-parochial” — generally left leaning urbanites, those who want global governance, dislike nation states, and favor open immigration policies. Then, there are those who are “parochial” — generally right leaning, socially conservative, living in outer suburbs and rural regions, blue collar workers, those who have a sense of being rooted in their community and country (Make America Great Again, the Brexit leave vote).

The urban-rural split has been driven by younger/urban groups adapting to the new knowledge economy, and older/rural groups getting left behind in the old labor economy. This political and social phenomenon, populism, is not new — 1930s Germany and Italy saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Populism arises out of the common man’s growing disdain for wealth and opportunity gaps, perceived threats from those with different values in the country and outsiders (scapegoat towards Muslims), and establishment elites in government (drain the swamp). While some warily compare our current situation to populism in 1930s Germany and Italy, there’s something different about our world today that will lead us to an unprecedented future: technology and the information age. The future will look like the world Lennon imagined, one that transcends religion, borders, race, and everything that divides us. But the process of how we get there won’t be peaceful or seamless.

The path to the future lies partially in Albert O. Hirschman’s concept of exit versus voice as described in his 1970 treatise, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Essentially, citizens of a country have two possible responses to a decline in satisfaction with government: exit, which is leaving the system physically or mentally, and voice, which is trying to change the system from within through voting and protesting. We’re a nation of immigrants and emigrants: we’re shaped by voice and exit. First, Puritans fled religious persecution. American revolutionaries left England’s orbit. Then we started moving west to leave the east coast bureaucracy. People around the world fled nazism and communism. The reality of exit (Brexit) drives home the need for reform. A voice gets much more attention when people are leaving in droves. All the voices and exits in our divided society serve as a signal that the world is fundamentally changing and likely the precursor to the world Lennon imagines. Enabled by the capabilities of the internet and technology, the imminent ultimate exit will be when populists are simply left behind, powerless because government will have much less authority over the economy.

In a 1997 work The Sovereign Individual, James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg make this radical argument for the structural disintegration of the nation state due to the growing autonomy of individuals, attributed to access to technology. Throughout human history, there have been three basic stages of economic life: hunter gatherer societies, agricultural societies, and industrial societies. Each of these stages brought on different phases of change and evolution. Now, the fourth basic stage of information societies will liberate the individual through technology. New information technologies democratize talent and innovation and decentralize the workplace. The internet’s near infinite resources enables anyone to come up with an idea and profit off of it. Ideas become wealth, and the world becomes more meritocratic than ever before. The smartest, most ambitious individuals with the best ideas succeed (think Mark Zuckerberg starting Facebook from his dorm room).

Financial transactions become decentralized too, as they increasingly occur outside government regulatory confines with Bitcoin/Ethereum and the blockchain. As cybercurrency fuels the growth of cybercommerce, governments will have less power to tax and regulate. The influence of politicians and lobbyists will be on the decline, and eventually citizenship will become obsolete. Davidson and Rees-Mogg make the analogy between the situation end of the fifteenth century, when life became “saturated by organized religion”, and the situation today, when the world has become “saturated with politics” . Just as the Protestant Reformation reformed the Catholic Church, the information revolution will reform nation states. Davidson and Rees-Mogg write:

The Information Revolution will liberate individuals as never before. For the first time, those who can educate themselves will be almost entirely free to invent their own work and realize the full benefits of their own productivity. Genius will be unleashed, freed from both the oppression of government and the drags of racial and ethnic prejudice. In the Information Society, no one who is truly able will be detained by the ill-formed opinions of others. It will not matter what most of the people on earth might think of your race, your looks, your age, your sexual proclivities, or the way you wear your hair. In the cybereconomy, they will never see you. (Davidson 4)

Davidson and Rees-Mogg describe such individual who lives outside of any borders and operates mostly in the cyberspace as the “Sovereign Individual.” The information revolution leads us on a path of individualism, moving towards Lennon’s theme of people around the world living without borders. We aren’t quite there yet, every revolution takes time to have its full impact — while the agricultural revolution took a millennia and the industrial revolution took a few centuries, the information revolution will take only a lifetime to transform society. Our world today is still, if not more, divided than before. But this is just a result of technology and the “growing pains” of the information revolution’s impact. The next stage of the information revolution will be characterized by individualism transcending borders, powered by artificial intelligence and technology that allows us to decentralize currency and information.

The idea of a new kind of self, a Sovereign Individual isn’t only limited to thinkers in the field of technology. Scholar of Chicana cultural theory Gloria Anzaldúa envisions a similar society in her 1987 novel Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, where individuals take on a “fifth race embracing the four major races of the world”, a “new mestiza consciousness.” She describes la mestiza as the result of different cultural and spiritual values combining with each other, “in a state of perpetual transition”. The la mestiza is someone who:

Constantly has to shift out of habitual formations; from convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by a movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes.

While Anzaldua doesn’t explicitly state (or know) how people will adopt the la mestiza, it seems likely that it will be the result of liberation of individuals through the information revolution. The Sovereign Individual is someone who transcends borders and is effectively in a state of perpetual transition. As Davidson and Rees-Mogg write,

An entirely new realm of economic activity that is not hostage to physical violence will emerge in cyberspace. The most obvious benefits will flow to the “cognitive elite,” who will increasingly operate outside political boundaries. They are already equally home in Frankfurt, London, New York, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. (Davidson 4)

The new individual succeeds in the new economy in part because of what Anzaldua calls “divergent thinking”, an approach that embodies how working in the cybereconomy will be. The cognitive elite will come from all kinds of races and backgrounds. Maybe the Sovereign Individual will be the non-exclusionary “fifth” race that Anzaldúa envisioned.

Many conversations today question where the world is headed. The current divisions in society are signs that people are starting to become affected by changes from the information revolution. The information revolution will not bring us world peace, but will fundamentally disrupt how the world economy works. It might not yet seem like it, but that’s how revolutions happen — you don’t see it coming all the time. Moving forward, two groups will become even more divided: the anti-parochial/sovereign/la mestiza individuals will embrace technological change and adapt to the new decentralized knowledge economy, and the parochial luddites will be left behind [see note]. Changes in the agricultural and industrial revolutions caused inevitable social upheaval, and certain groups came out on top. The same will happen at the end of the information revolution — just imagine Lennon’s world with no heaven, no countries, no possessions.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
- John Lennon

Brief note: As for “parochial luddites” getting left behind, this may not be the case — while many old jobs will be replaced by “AI”, it is hard to predict what new jobs will be created. I don’t think many people predicted that the creation of the smartphone would have created many more taxi driver jobs.

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