In an earlier essay, I considered the proposition that we are currently in the process of making a “Great Transition” from one kind of civilization to another entirely different kind of civilization. This is the kind of thing that happens, but happens rarely. Perhaps once every 1,000 or 10,000 years.
In the context of a disruption of this magnitude, we must understand that most of our “civilization toolkit” will be entirely transformed. Very deep things. Stuff like how we live together in community and even how we form families. Certainly things like how we educate our children and how we produce and share resources.
I find that it can often be difficult to process this level of reinvention. Even when we consciously try to hold ourselves to a high standard, our habits of mind inevitably impose themselves on what we envision, and we unconsciously smuggle much of our current world into our imagined future. We look to the future and imagine flying cars.
The approach that I’ve learned to take when tasked with such a challenge is something I call “reinvention”. This is a practiced effort to “boil off” the media and mechanisms of some social function and distill out the most foundational elements that these institutions are attempting to satisfy. Once we have clearly grasped this deep code, we can then dip into our provisional “toolkit from the future” and play with inventing new institutional architectures that satisfy the fundamental needs .
This essay is an effort to walk through this process in the context of the clearly failing social institution known as “journalism.” The intent here is more to convey the process of reinvention than to actually reinvent journalism — although if you find yourself inspired to dig deeper, reinventing journalism is certainly a worthy purpose to pursue.
About seven years ago now, I was invited to contemplate the “future of journalism” by the Knight Foundation. This was an intriguing problem. Having been born just before Watergate, I had never known American Journalism as anything other than the caricature that it was to become.
When we look at a social function like “journalism” we must be clear: it has absolutely nothing to do with the medium. Journalism is not a function of journals. Or radio, television, newsapers, blogs, etc. These are all instantiations of the “generator function,” but they aren’t the essence. Nor even are many of the good practices taught at journalism school of the essence.
It is only when we apply enough heat to boil off all of the transients, that we get down to the core: journalism is the function whereby society sources, orients and processes information.
It is part of a larger complex that includes science and education. Sourcing information about the world and disseminating it within the social environment to maximize its richness, accuracy and generativity for our “collective intelligence.” Within this larger complex, if we pull at the threads of “journalism” specifically, we might say that it focuses on the “realtime edge.” Good journalism makes sure that new information is routed to the right people with fidelity and clarity.
Looked at in this light, we can see how poorly our legacy institutions of journalism satisfy this need.
As we go through the process of reinventing, we are going to consistently come face-to-face with the perhaps unpleasant reality that all of our contemporary institutions are failing at doing what they are supposed to do. Ultimately, this is a good thing. It means that every day it gets both easier and more important that we detach from obsolete institutions and replace them with reinvented ones. In some cases, this will be a relatively easy task. For example, given the contemporary state of our legacy journalism institutions, replacing them with nothing would be a decided improvement.
But, of course, we don’t intend to replace these core functions with nothing. Once we have isolated the essence of the function, we can take a pass at trying to implement structures that will richly satisfy our core needs (e.g., sourcing and orienting information) using our “design constraints from the future”. In a previous post, I presented a heuristic for what these constraints might look like:
- Data aware: in principle all possible transactions are stored and searchable
- Transparent: in principle all transactions can be viewed by all participants
- Distributed: in principle no levels of hierarchy
- Anti-Fragile: designed to maximize and benefit from “black swan” events rather than minimize and suffer from them.
- Segmented: intrinsically difficult to capture
- Transient: Beyond the basic resilient holon and stored data, every function or organization is built with the time or conditions that warrant its death built into the design/plan.
Within these design constraints, we can conjecture that the journalism function of the future will be widely distributed. Every individual in society will play a continuous role in providing the function. Indeed, given the primary importance and power of “True Information” to a well functioning Abundance Society, we might well expect that providing honest and thoughtful evaluation of experience will become one of the principal activities in the future. Perhaps a main portion of the economy of Abundance will involve having experiences, evaluating them and curating them in a collective effort to ensure that every member of society is consistently presented with the best possible set of experiences for them to encounter at every moment.
A conspicuous feature of the journalism of the future will be a deep lack of authority. There will be no notion of looking for The One Right Answer from an Unimpeachable Authority. Consequently, we might also expect to be spared authority’s repressive sibling: rendering everything into a porridge of “opinion”.
Rather, a good collective intent would be a refreshing sense of humility. An ethos for the collective journalism of the future: don’t have opinions and don’t expect that you or anyone will ever have the Truth. Instead, speak your personal truth with honesty and integrity — and constantly endeavour to become more capable of discernment and clarity. In a society where this ethos becomes a daily practice for everyone, we can produce a truly awe-inspiring “collective intelligence.”
It’s important, of course, not to get Utopian. Error, capriciousness, lassitude, and self-righteousness are, and will continue to be, all-too-human. Yet, for all of their flaws, contemporary architectures like Reddit, Yelp and to a lesser extent Wikipedia are embryonic forms of what our future “collective intelligence” architectures will look like.
The buzzing confusion of social media demonstrates that our ancient communal instincts for sharing and social signaling are as robust as ever. The challenge lies not in human nature, but in how we design our environment to express the aspects of human nature that are most collaborative and generative.
It is certainly not a trivial task to design systems that reward honesty and integrity while downregulating “defection” behaviour. But from what we know in cognitive-neuroscience and behavioural economics, it is well within the realm of the possible. Moreover, we don’t have to be close to perfect to be vastly better than anything we’ve seen before.
Obviously, this is not an effort to fully or even partially detail out the richness of a solution adequate to replace our current journalism functions. In fact, it is important to remember that in the context of actual complexity, experiment and learning are necessary. There is no way to “get this right” all at once.
The intent of this essay is to use journalism as an example of how, at a high level, we can go about the general process of “reinvention”. Reducing a core social function to its baseline, ruthlessly carving away the artifacts of how we have satisfied it in the past, and then recreating it using “tools from the future.”
We should always be mindful, of course, that little of what we conjecture, architect and design will survive first contact with reality. We should be certain that the pioneers of Abundance will discover, create and construct in ways that we can only vaguely sense. Nonetheless, if you want to get to the New World, you must first build some boats.
So where should we focus our energy? What are the core social functions that need to be reinvented? And what is the minimal viable architecture that pushes us past the tipping point?
Provisionally, I will offer Max Neef’s work on human needs as a resource. The Chilean economist has done much of the necessary work articulating “fundamental human needs” at a level that is both deeper than and abstracted from the institutional structures that societies use to satisfy those needs. Though we likely need not articulate a social architecture that satisfies all of these needs before we are at a tipping point, we can be sure that all of these needs will ultimately need to be satisfied — and satisfied well — by the Abundance Society.
As I contemplate this list, two things occur to me. The first is how poorly our current institutions satisfy our real human needs. It’s not their fault, of course. They were invented a long time ago and have had a pretty darn good run. But over the decades they’ve suffered from what Joseph Tainter calls “decreasing returns to complexity”. Which is to say that their only response to any new challenge is “more of the same.” And “the same” isn’t working any more.
What’s happening now is that rather than providing healthy, effective “satisfiers”, what our current model tends to provide is “pseudo-satisfiers” like social media that present themselves as satisfying needs, when they really don’t. Or, worse, “violators” like fast food that present themselves as satisfying needs when they actually make things worse.
It really is the toolkit itself that needs replacing.
The second thing that occurs to me is how simple it can be. Imagine two coffee shops. The first is Starbucks, the second is a thriving local shop. The first “kind of” solves a human need — you can get your coffee. You can do so relatively quickly and cheaply enough that you feel fine about the transaction. But then consider the second shop. There you can also get your coffee. It might be a little more expensive, it might be a little higher quality. But the big difference is in the sense of community. The second place is alive. You see friends greeting each-other. You feel conversation and conviviality. The barista knows your name and the way you like your bulletproof coffee.
There are four or five different human needs being satisfied all at once in a place like this. This is called a “synergistic satisfier”. It seems clear that the Abundance Society will be constructed largely from synergistic satisfiers. There is a lot of leverage in synergistic satisfiers. It turns out that a little human-ness goes a long way.
The other piece of our task will be to imagine our migration strategy. Human beings and our social institutions are naturally conservative. For good reason. In general, change is dangerous. And for those who have power in the legacy architecture, change can be perceived as a threat. Consequently, we can be sure that the movement from the Society of Scarcity to the Society of Abundance will not be seamless.
Forces of control — both from within and from without — will react with fear and all the behaviours that come from fear. It will take some care to construct a new social architecture that can detach from the old without devolving into darkness.
Again, we don’t know the precise path, but we can venture some hypotheses:
The new system must run concurrently with the old in order to avoid inducing general collapse. To achieve this end:
1) It displaces due to choice and not force. Bit by bit and not all at once.
2) It can leverage mature services of the old system to gain capabilities rapidly and supplement deficits.
3) It must be able to defend itself against predation by the old system.
4) It replaces old system functions when able.
5) Connection to the new system is a function of desire/membership and a willingness to live by a set of rules, both at the individual level and at the level of the resilient community. Membership is not based on geography or accident of birth, it is earned through behavior.
Constructing this system will be no mean feat. At the same time, we should be reminded of the fact that our existing institutions are failing. In a very important sense, those ships have sailed. The crisis is upon us. Waiting and hoping that “things will work out” will be to no avail. Our construction of a New Society is as much a consequence of necessity as opportunity. The longer we wait the more the balance will move from opportunity to necessity.
Right now most of the world still lives in relative comfort. The longer we delay our courage, the more intense our situation. Of course, at the same time, the future is constantly becoming present — and every day, each of our various tools from the future become more mature. So perhaps our mantra: slow is smooth; smooth is fast. Deliberate. Thoughtful. Smooth.