Talking 'Bout Your Generation

(by Brad Allenby) - One of the underappreciated sources of policy malfunction is the increasing disconnect between established worldviews, generally resistant to change, and the accelerating technological, economic and social change that characterizes our world.

For example, Fred Ikle, Ronald Reagan’s Undersecretary of Defense for policy, predicts in his new book “Annihilation from Within” that the ultimate threat to the nation-state, the political foundation of modernity and current global governance, is not the religious and cultural conflicts exploding across the globe, but the accelerating evolution of science and technology, and its concomitant decoupling from governing social and cultural mechanisms, which are unable to adapt rapidly enough.

This decoupling is evinced not just by institutions but by discourses. More specifically, the ongoing failure of the environmental and sustainability (E&S) communities to deal with the accelerating evolution of scientific, technological and security discourses is becoming so complete that it is difficult to conceive of successful reintegration. What would an environmentalism that integrated knowledge of cutting edge science and technology, and the challenges of security in a world increasingly challenged by the democratization of WMD, even look like?

The underlying reflexive anti-establishment, anti-modernity posture of the E&S discourses, evidenced by, e.g., opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), calls for banning nanotechnology, and efforts to socially engineer consumption patterns, especially those of the United States, are not encouraging. Certainly such simplistic views are not held by all relevant organizations, and, more importantly, they do not mean that the underlying issues are not complex, difficult and in many cases problematic.

But they do increase the psychological and institutional difficulty of dialog around evolving S&T trends, an important problem when even institutions without such barriers – such as regulation, law, and governance systems – are increasingly unable to keep up with current developments.

A simple example is the generic failure to grapple with the probability that, in a few decades, the average life expectancy in developed countries will extend beyond a century, with high quality of life during most of that time. If this scenario (all predictions of future states are contingent) pans out, then changes in just a few obvious dimensions – say, consumption patterns and tourism – will have enormous impacts on global systems.

More subtle but fundamental is the sea-change in cognitive structure between younger cohorts and their elders. While there has always been a generation gap – rebellion is a familiar epiphenomenon of youth – the intersection of technological evolution (especially information technology), restructuring of information and cognitive networks, and changes in social relationships toward more virtual models, is leading to generational differences in worldview that are profound and for the most part invisible to the E&S discourses.

Generation Y tends, for example, towards mental models that integrate urbanization, information technology and multiple information and communication networks and virtual experiences (from the mundane constant texting and conversing on cell phones to the complex emergent cultural patterns of Second Life and World of Warcraft).

Interestingly, what accompanies this ontological shift is not the 1950’s nightmare of an absolutist technocratic bureaucracy, but rather the opposite, a postmodernist solipsism and individuality: the technology enables one to access the video or music of one’s choice, increasingly unconstrained by huge corporate music or entertainment conglomerates.

Indeed, in virtual realities such as Second Life, the individual (as avatar and as socializing being) is explicitly constructed, a quite interesting instantiation of existential philosophy (within bounds of corporatism, notes the Marxist). This tends to be displayed in an individualistic pursuit not of happiness, but of personal reality, with several concomitant implications: traditional communal action is less common, and overarching worldviews are less appealing.

Especially given the paucity of research, it is too early to tell what sort of self or social system will emerge from these interesting intersections, or even how widespread and meaningful these shifts are. It is not too early, however, to regret the failure of much of the E&S discourses to adapt.

There seems an almost willful blindness among many E&S activists, and a tendency towards reinforcement of ideological purity, rather than meaningful engagement with the changes sweeping over the cultural, psychological, and physical landscapes. It is almost as if these discourses had gone from cutting edge, to mainstream, to retro, without the participants even noticing.

This is unfortunate: given today’s accelerating rate of change, by the time we’re aware of what’s going on, we’re studying history, not today’s world, and the patterns of the future will be locked in without the constructive advice that might otherwise have informed policy.

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