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What value do we place on personal liberty?

Posted By Administration, Monday, January 14, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program investigates the concept of personal liberty in her first blog installment in 2019. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

How do we feel about our freedom to do as we wish? How is our perception of our sense of freedom governed by the times and the type of society that we live in, and the type of person that we are? For most people in Western Society, our personal liberty is highly valued, and is fundamental to our sense of well-being. The freedom to be who we are or who we aspire to be, to reach our potential, to acquire wealth or to withdraw from society – these are all seen as personal liberties that we value as a fundamental right. However, of equal value in our society is the ‘rule of law’, which can sometimes constrain our sense of personal liberty, ‘Rule of law’ can be represented by traditional values, by morals and by restraints imposed to ensure the safety of others.

Clearly there will always be tension between these two ideals between liberty which carries with it the absence of restraint on human action, and with the restraint on human action imposed for the good of society.

When we think about our personal liberty, we see the positive image of our freedom, happiness and unbounded pleasure to do whatever we wish – so many choices! Lurking underneath is the negative image of our lack of control, over-consumption, living beyond our means, dissatisfaction, anger, fear and anxiety for future, greed, avarice and jealousy, or wrong-doing. This is the paradox of our free society: having the freedom to do and say as we please, yet a lack of control or accountability over the consequences of our actions.

How do we balance our individual liberty with personal and societal restraint to promote and protect the good of the individual and our society? And how do we react when the society that we live in imposes constraints on our individual liberty?

Current definition of minimum acceptable liberty includes the definition of Human Rights, for example as codified through the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is enshrined within international and national policies and law. Such law protects the individual’s right to life and liberty, including freedom of holding an opinion and being able to express it. It protects the right to education, work, cultural freedom, well-being, privacy and freedom from enslavement or torture, arbitrary detention, discrimination or religious hatred.

Paradoxically, our freedom of expression, coupled with strong beliefs, often results in some of these enshrined human rights being violated. How can we protect our societal human rights, and yet at the same time offer freedom of expression through times of change, complexity and individual uncertainty, which in itself brings an atmosphere of fear? Uncertain times seem to always lead to fear within society. This leads inevitably to protectionism, and to discrimination and harm to ‘the other’. In these times, love of liberty may become less important than protectionism, and freedom held less sacred. Our recognition of the bonds and responsibilities to our fellow human beings may be inverted into violation of the basis of human rights.

Our understanding of personal liberty depends so much on who’s worldview is being described, and in which society we are applying it. To a ‘conventional’ and structured society, personal liberty may be supported by the rule of Human Rights, but too much personal liberty may appear as anarchy, as stepping outside conventions and rules, and may result in sharp censure of the individual. To a success-oriented highly capitalist society, personal liberty means the freedom to acquire success without boundaries or obstacles, and their ideal society will support and promote their aspirations. However, as we have seen so often, some ‘success stories’ built without due care for societal impacts, often have victims of that ‘success’. To a consensus-based community, personal liberty may cause disruption of the social fabric, placing the individual’s desires above the good of the whole.

In my discourse, I plan to examine the checks and balances of personal liberty in the present, the past and the future. I will explore how the individual’s sense of personal power and freedom must be protected. We will discover how we might apply balanced, foresightful justice through obligation and regulation for the good of the society that we live in.

© Ruth Lewis 2019

Tags:  freedom  right  value 

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Do We Need to Own Things?

Posted By Administration, Friday, January 11, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Tim Morgan publishes his first blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by revisiting the concept of ownership. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Immediately after the painting “Girl with Balloon” sold at auction for $1.4 million, the painting began slowly destroying itself. A malfunction caused it to stop half-way.

The anonymous artist known only as Banksy had secretly hidden an automated shredder inside the frame. The half-destroyed work is now considered a new piece of art, valued much higher than the original painting. The event is an unlikely but apt metaphor for how automation is redefining ownership.

The Eighteenth Century philosopher Adam Smith described capital as owned property used to produce an economic return. Capitalism’s central feature is that owned things are used to produce exchangeable value, be they a farmer’s vegetables or self-sabotaging paintings. Ownership from a capitalist perspective is control of something used to create enhanced value. In turn, exchanges of ownership are synonymous with exchanges of value. Each side gets something they value more than what they are willing to give in exchange. Centuries of worldwide progress and prosperity rest on ownership as capitalism’s bedrock social organizing principle.

Control determines who can create value from property. Capitalism assumes that control and ownership are inextricably intertwined. Yet Banksy’s auction stunt illustrates how automation is changing the current relationship between ownership and control. Traditionally if you own capital then you also directly or indirectly control it. Banksy subverted that control by using automation to go beyond “I don’t want my art sold” to embedded enforcement of “You can’t sell my art, even if you own it”. Automation enables embedding active governance rules into owned items themselves. Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig describes this as “Code is Law”. Banksy’s embedded painting shredder is analogous to copy protection of digital movies and music files. You own the ability to experience, but not the thing itself.

These embedded automation rules constitute an increasing level of external control over owned things. If ownership equals control, then those who are implementing the automation are increasingly the owners, no matter who holds the receipt. Existing legal frameworks have always considered use as a legal component of ownership, but those institutional frameworks are lagging the breakneck pace of automation. A user can own an AI-enabled smart-speaker appliance like Amazon Echo or Google Home, but those same items become expensive plastic bricks without their backend automated services.

But does this loss of control due to automation extend to productive capital? History shows a progression of ever more abstract relationships between owners and control of productive capital. We went from the concrete control of simple property such as farms and animals, to abstract control via corporate shares and investment funds. Even in the past few decades innovations like millisecond flash-trades and complex financial derivatives make it unclear who owns what at any given time. At each stage the use of capital to create value appears to become more tied to its control than to its ownership.

It is ironic that Banksy’s automated assertion of control over “Girl with Balloon” increased the piece’s value, rather than destroying it as intended. The work has been appropriately renamed “Love Is in the Bin”. The new owner adapted to Banksy’s attempt at automated control. By inadvertently relinquishing a bit of control to unknown automation, the new owner gained more value than they originally purchased.

Love may be in the bin, but for now capital still hangs on the wall.

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  capitalism  value 

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Finance: servant or master?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, January 8, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Alex Floate, a member of our Emerging Fellows program examines the globalized face of finance in his first blog post in 2019. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 


Finance touches anything that involves cash or credit. In public or private transactions. Whether it is to purchase individual or collective assets. For many people however, the word finance has become synonymous with the ability to get a new TV or car with a low-down payment. Although consumer lending for immediate desires is a part of finance it also includes investing, borrowing, insurance and the management of national monetary systems.

Our modern financial system began over 2,000 years ago with merchants granting credit to customers to enable them to purchase their products. Early banks in Renaissance Italy extended and aided these transactions and created innovations such as insurance. During the industrial age, finance evolved again to adapt to the capital-intensive nature of modern industry. Governments also found it possible to advance the common good by using these markets to raise money to invest in modern infrastructure and advance the public good.

Today, finance is globalized, heavily reliant on technology and intertwined with nearly every aspect of modern life. Nothing exemplifies a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment better than modern finance. Every country with a treasury or banking system is integrated into a broader system that it can affect and be affected by events and decisions made by others a continent away. Major institutions, with stakeholders scattered across the globe look for advantages and profit in new markets and by leveraging the latest technology. Governments may seek to control their own economies for the good of their citizens but are often at the mercy of self-interest built into the system as profit seekers bid up, or crash asset prices and currency exchanges.

Recent events (global recession, Brexit, self-inflicted trade wars) will eventually be footnotes in history, but several themes from the aftermath provide insight for the future. One is that seemingly isolated events can move through global systems, even if those events are not seemingly connected. Another is that financial markets are resilient thanks to the various interests, both private and public, that will seek to revitalize the economy. However, increasingly this has been accomplished by turning private losses into public debt. The hardest lesson we learned is that even after a disaster caused largely by the financial industry itself, nothing really changes. The industry itself has eschewed any and all attempts at real reforms that would reign in practices that create greater risk in the markets.

The biggest change in the last 50 years has been the growth of finance as an industry unto itself. Separated from the purposes of providing credit for purchasers, capital for industry and risk management for all. The financial industry created a means for trading financial instruments themselves, such as derivatives of stocks, currency swaps and commodities that bear little relation to the actual hard assets. This has introduced additional complexity and volatility. Yet it has provided greater rewards to those who can access, manipulate and profit from these specialized financial markets. It is also seen as contributing to the widening wealth gap in many nations. Within this context, we must ask if finance has ceased being the servant of economic enterprise, and instead has become its’ master, and what part it will play in our mutual future.

© E Alex Floate 2019

Tags:  economics  finance  market 

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Has The Economy Failed Society?

Posted By Administration, Friday, January 4, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Esmee Wilcox has published her first installment in our Emerging Fellows program. She recaptures socioeconomic theories in the light of realities being experienced in our modern age. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Societies have sleepwalked into an acceptance of the predominance of capital. We have gone far beyond Karl Marx’s theories of capital driving the ordering of society. We no longer question the consequence of this imbalance for our existence. We need to rebalance the needs of capital and society. Not simply as an end in itself, but primarily because we need new social norms to tackle future global issues. How has this imbalance come about?

Is Marx right that the ordering of society is necessarily driven by the needs of capital? If so, what does this mean for the assumptions we bring to our conception of society? What does this mean for the widely-held view that capitalism has triumphed other economic models?

The 1990s view of the ‘triumph of capitalism’ came out of the toppling of the old communist order in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Empire. Alongside this came a slow opening up of China to trade and privately run enterprise from the late 1970s. However, there is a flaw in the logic to present capitalism as the only alternative to communism. Without any credible alternative models on the table, it is easy to see why the ideology of capitalism took hold. 25 years on, with rising populism coupled with pervasive neo-liberal power, there are three interconnected trends that illuminate the contradictions and flaws in the predominance of the economy in our patterns of local and global behaviours.

First, the enduring power of the interests of capital at the heart of government. Politically-centrist governments have gained and retained power with policies that appeal to lower-income communities. They appeal to the interests of capital because they have done so without transferring political influence.

At the same time, the interests of capital have subtly influenced the organising of public and social value to be more ‘commercial’. It has confused being responsive to citizens needs with being economically driven. The ‘McKinsey effect’ on public policy-making should not be underestimated. In more recent years there has been some recognition of the need to rebalance social with economic value within UK local government: the 2012 Social Value Act created a space for public policy-makers to utilise its purchasing power to balance economic efficiencies with social benefits. However, it hasn’t challenged the underlying economic model whereby one’s life expectancy and life chances can be predicted by one’s mother’s educational status and the extent of your vocabulary at age two.

Second, our attachment to material possessions – aptly described as ‘affluenza’ – at the heart of our economic growth model, placates the reality of our diminishing ability to influence capital power. Credit is freely available, we can buy our housing association property, but we can’t persuade governments to pay for sufficient modern housing stock to have a home and a family life. This consumerist economic model drives income generation over friendships and developing community capital. Coupled with business interests creating a more precarious working environment, we are increasingly squeezing out time to care.

Third, the status anxiety that comes from our awareness of our social position in any social interaction. We’re so worried about people who have more income. More luxurious experiences than us. Retaining our rung on the ladder. Our status dominates our social interactions and reduces the joy in them. As social encounters become harder to have, we shy away from them and become lonelier and more isolated.

This is why it’s interesting to consider alternatives to the predominance of economic drivers on our society. It doesn’t just affect people at the bottom of income distribution, but the powerful interests of capital. Society can’t be divided into economically self-supporting strata when social phenomena exist as a response to the whole. We can no longer ignore these feedback mechanisms.

Marx’s theories were conceived of in far less connected societies. They have remained intact as we have become more globally connected. However, they are not a guide to our future that is more complex, interconnected and unpredictable. We know that self-organised, adaptive and resilient communities are more able to respond to changes in the external environment. This requires high levels of co-operation and collaboration, the antithesis of atomised economic self-supporting behaviours. These are a clue to the social norms that have to be in abundance if we are to tackle global late 21st Century issues.

The triumph of capitalism is a binary argument suited to the interests of 20th century phenomena. It has taken hold because we have become seduced by its simplicity and its immediate rewards. It is much more difficult, and yet more compelling, to seek out the 21st Century socio-economic norms that will help us face up to scarce physical resources. It will be disruptive but offers hope for future generations.

© Esmee Wilcox 2019

Tags:  capitalism  economics  power 

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How Have Companies Changed in The Past?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 2, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Charlotte Aguilar-Millan has written her first post in our Emerging Fellows program. Through a brief review, she inspects the flexibility of working within European socioeconomic contexts. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Ever since companies emerged in the Seventeenth Century they have evolved and changed as their operating conditions have changed. As successive changes have occurred, the workspace has changed with it. From the small office of Ebenezer Scrooge to the vast factory of Dilbert. Within the 20th century there has been a significant shift in the style of a working office from a closed smaller office style to what can be seen today in open plan offices.

As employees are spending more time at work, and as the working career is lengthening, the workforce is now taking more ownership of what is expected from a workplace. Employees today have higher expectations for their working life. They no longer expect a long retirement to look forward to. Instead they aspire to live their golden years along with their working years. With this new expectation, there is an increase in the need for flexibility within the workplace.

One such way companies have been adapting to these needs is with more flexibility on working hours and location. With rising intangible based operations, there is now a desire and opportunity on the part of staff to work where it is convenient for them. This has been incorporated into staff benefit packages. It is now a standard feature for a vast number of careers including consultancy, technical support engineers and even accountants – the service based creative economy.

Staff are able to be based at home to complete work and only go into the office when the need arises. Employers, as well as employees, experience benefits such as reduced stress from the absence of a daily commute. Staff feel more focused on their work by leaving the noisy open planned office and an empowerment to shape the classic 9-5 working day to their needs.

The new type of working environment does however have a large stigma attached to it. Working from home has not come without side-affects. Research has suggested that those who regularly work from home also experience a fall in opportunities for promotion in comparison to performance. This has placed the onus on some employees to feel that they must be available for longer hours when working at home. This is an area which employers are able to exploit as more employees receive a work phone or work laptop in order to work from home. There is also an expectation that these are kept on at weekends and evenings.

The company of today has had to adapt to lifestyle changes in their employees lives. This has seen, for example, the development of ‘peternity leave’ where staff are able to take time off to buy a new pet. Other changes have arisen as a result of legislation, including changes in parental leave. In the UK, legislation mandated that where both parents desire to split maternity leave within the first year of a child’s life, an employer must allow this. Other countries within the European Union have legislated initiatives, including Sweden paying a ‘gender equality’ bonus to parents who adopt this shared parental leave and Germany adding two months of parental leave to those parents who split the leave.

While structural unemployment rates continue to fall – for example in the UK from a high in 1984 of 12% to 4% in 2018 – this allows employees an opportunity to seek the benefits that resonate most to them rather than accepting those which an employer offers. As a result, companies have had to accept change in order to attract staff.

Employees are now aware of the opportunity for further flexibility in their work place. Will a growing desire for flexible working manifest itself into a global gig economy where employees no longer have just one employer but the flexibility to pick and choose work when suits them? If a gig economy manifests itself, will this see the end to companies as we know them? What, exactly, does a disembodied company look like?

© Charlotte Aguilar-Millan 2019

Tags:  change  work  workplace 

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Ticket to the Future

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Polina Silakova, a member of our Emerging Fellows program accomplishes her blogging mission successfully in 2018 by publishing an interesting post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

People introduced tickets as a mechanism to control access to limited goods and services. We are surrounded by tickets. A ticket on a plane reserves us a seat in a machine which will take us to new horizons. A visa allows us to stay in a place that is usually attractive enough to create an artificial contest for the right to be there. A membership provides you with services not available to others. You invest – you get access to an opportunity. If we are in a lucky position, we can choose the ticket and the destination. If we overlay this concept with the idea of a variety of possible futures awaiting us ahead, a ticket to which future do we want to get?

Over the past 12 months, we discussed this by looking at potential pathways for the post-capitalist economy. We were especially keen to know whether the universal moral values or the capitalistic cult for possessions will guide our future. The search for the answer took us to different corners of the planet where people’s responses to the side-effects of capitalism are sparking hope that we might be heading towards a better future.

We saw young entrepreneurs jumping off the big and clumsy steam train of global corporations (successful if measured by their share price), because these people could not agree with the direction that they were heading towards. In the smog from ever increasing unsustainable production, they could not see the purpose to align with. We applauded to the municipalists movement in Barcelona, who understood that improved equality and long-term sustainability will make citizens happier than infinite growth benefiting a few. Not only they challenged the current understanding of democracy, but could demonstrate already in the first couple of years that their approach is working. We even joined a hearing in a US courtroom, where boys and girls from iMatter, already at a young age have become disillusioned with their government’s ability to protect their needs and those of future generations. They refused to accept tickets to the future valid only till the end of the government’s election term.

These steps towards the increased consciousness plant seeds of hope that the next iteration of economic system will be more sustainable and just. And yet, the embodiment of this hope to a greater extent depends on the choices that powerful global businesses will make. Many quoted this year’s annual letter from the CEO of BlackRock – one of the most influential global investment firms. It stated that following new expectations from customers and community, they are now evaluating companies based on their response to “broader societal challenges” and whether they “serve a social purpose.” The New York Times called the letter “a watershed moment on Wall Street” raising “questions about the very nature of capitalism”.

The question remains though: what is driving the companies to make this shift? Does it happen out of fear to lose customer trust or investors’ support, with profit remaining the underlying motive? If so, how significant can this social impact be? Does it become just another marketing tool for the same old endgame: more sales, more growth, more money?

Even then – we could hope – this shift could take us a little closer towards a more positive version of the future. Remember the coffee-cup example from our previous posts? Initially driven by a bunch of innovators, reusable coffee cups are now conquering the world, helping it to become a tiny bit more sustainable. Similarly, the new generation of businessmen growing up in the environment where creating positive social impact is becoming a norm might nurture values quite different to those ruling the capitalistic economy. In the face of increasingly challenging global issues, these values will help them to genuinely engage in revisiting unsustainable business models.

To what type of future humanity is heading depends on the tickets that each of us will choose. These tickets are a combination of choices that we make every day. These are our “investments”, each associated with a specific type of future. Can I give an example? Here you go.

We started this series just after last Christmas and as we finish it, the new Christmas season is approaching. If you are wondering what choices you could still make this year to contribute to a “good future destination” ticket, think of your Christmas presents. Consider not buying new stuff. Give your loved ones experiences. Give surprise visits to people you haven’t seen for a long time. Give them your time and take them for a walk in a forest. Give them a ticket to joyful moments of life – they will never end up in landfill.

 
© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  capitalism  economics  United States 

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Are we designing the planet for us?

Posted By Administration, Monday, December 17, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Maggie Greyson, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the future of living on Earth in her fifth post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Dr. Yvonne Cagle imagines life on Mars and the voyage there. She works with four young people who are living in an isolated Mars-like site in the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation habitat. She plays an important role in the NASA study to keep astronauts well-nourished during these one-way missions.

Over 200,000 people volunteered to colonize Mars. What are their assumptions about life on the Red Planet? All but one hundred individuals have already been rejected based on key traits. Who designed the criteria and what did it emphasize; merit-based, biological selection, intellectual or emotional intelligence? What influence will the chosen Mars 100 have on existing narratives about “the perfect human” or “perfect team”?

The global space industry is building a new world from the red ground up. Their assumptions are limited by their own experience so they engage in world-designing exercises. The heroes in these worlds represent those most likely to succeed based on criteria designed by a group of experts. Who has this decision making power, and what assumptions do these world builders have about human ability?

Earth is a planet that we know very little about, but humans are always updating or developing new theories. Multiple truths can exist at once. Anthropologists, geologists, biologists, artists, engineers, AI programmers, healthcare workers, artists, and economists, to name a few, are building prototypes and mental models of our complex world and its governing systems. Critics in other disciplines try to debunk these theories as myths and propose new fictions that are truths from their perspective, and so the narrative keeps evolving.

Many of our expectations of life on Mars will be incorrect because we lack the capacity to imagine all the possibilities. The vision of life on Mars will intensify and the design team responsible for the astronauts will make some tough choices. We will learn from the process of designing the ideal society for Mars. Could we use a framework to critique our life on Earth by the same standards? What do these expectations of a better life on a new planet tell us about what we really want from life on earth?

Two-hundred thousand individuals would commit to a one-way trip to a resource-starved planet. What are the avenues for people who have been denied extra-terrestrial travel to express themselves and change what they see as lacking on Earth? Instead of feeling “left behind” will they prepare a new narrative? Perhaps a future of nutritional abundance? They have a spark in common with each other and the ear of the media because of their unique interest. Perhaps they may create the countercultural narratives making Earth the “perfect world”. That kind of rhetoric is infectious and social movements are built in this way.


© Maggie Greyson 2018

Tags:  Earth  living  world 

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Do you wonder how to ignite futures for a regenerative society?

Posted By Administration, Monday, December 3, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Monica Porteanu, a member of our Emerging Fellows program publishes her twelfth blog post on the possibility of establishing a regenerative society. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

A growing and moving human population, as experienced in recent history, has expanding needs, wants, and desires. Such motivations have led to the creation of an

amplifying artificial universe of things that is at odds with existing resources. The tension obstructs resource regeneration. How might we ignite futures that alleviate that tension?

It seems that the artificial societal constructs established in past centuries, able to harmonise society at other historical crossroads, have not been able to keep up with the society of 2018. Could we ignite regenerative futures by redesigning these artificial societal constructs?

A metaphor to imagine the complexity of natural and artificial constructs in society could be a tree. Imagine the roots of a tree as representing the natural constructs of society, comprised of cultural dynamics and their intertwinement with nature. The trunk of the tree would represent the artificial constructs of society: organization, governance, and civic engagement. The interactions amongst societal organization, governance, and engagement would proliferate as branches, each with a different length. The forms of expressions we desire in society might spring out in the leaves of a tree. They could include our aims for freedom of speech, aspirations for literacy, anchoring our lives in values such as trust, or daily life enjoyments such as healthy eating.

The methods of understanding for how we might achieve those forms of expression would be ingrained within the stem of the tree. The imaginary stem would require the wisdom of sketching the unthinkable coupled with the making of artificial things, including intelligence. A vibrant tree both lives and regenerates. A vibrant society assures daily life in the context of a regenerative paradigm.

The vision might look naïve to many. A regenerative society might seem yet another utopia. Businesses must respond to the realities of making it to the next quarter, diminishing their ability bandwidth to consider longer time horizons. Sciences are anchored in evidence-based and deterministic causal requirements, challenging imagined future worlds that lack traditional proofs.

The vision might resonate with the humanities field. Artists and designers provoke our imagination. Social scientists raise awareness. They are more likely to anchor their voices in the complexity of human nature and its surrounding environment. However, they still struggle to find a common view on basic concepts such as what “social” means.

The vision makes sense to many inter-disciplinarians. The struggle is in finding a language that resonates across disciplines. Each defines a similar concept in different ways. Historically, multiple disciplines come to the table, present their view, listen to other opinions, and then leave without much progress in a common understanding and commitment to igniting regenerative action. Finding a common language doesn’t seem to work. Perhaps this is an indication that a common language does not matter?

Facilitating diverse dialogues that ignite action through societal engagement seems to register some progress though. Although timid, the discussions could gain vigour when supported by societal constructs fitted for 2018 and beyond. Could today’s changemakers get inspired by earlier generations of visionaries who, at times when societal complexities were exacerbated, created innovative policies or treaties that broke down convoluted environments and drove society forward?

 


© Monica Porteanu 2018


Tags:  artificial construct  society  vision 

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Is the United States still indispensable?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, November 27, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Craig Perry, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the global influence of the United States of America in his twelfth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

“We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.” — Madeleine Albright

International relations have changed substantially in the century since the First World War—and especially after its sequel ended some seven decades ago. Competition between half a dozen or so great powers boiled down to two, then just one as the Cold War culminated in American hegemony. Far from the end of history, however, this uni-polar moment naturally proved unsustainable, and China, Russia, and even some U.S. allies soon began reasserting themselves on the international stage. Should this proliferation of great powers be a cause for concern?

Probably. A consensus has emerged in recent years among international security experts that the potential for great-power conflict is increasing. The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy declared the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by revisionist powers as the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security, superseding terrorism as the principal threat. In 2016, the National Intelligence Council identified the changing nature of conflict as a global trend with key implications, forecasting that the risk of conflict will increase through 2035 in part due to diverging interests among the major powers. The World Economic Forum reached a similar conclusion in 2016, warning that a major conventional conflict between great powers was possible by 2030.

The reasons for these concerns are obvious. During the Cold War, the United States established a persistent security presence in regions once dominated by China, then expanded the NATO alliance right up to Russia’s borders following the collapse of the Soviet Union, setting each of these regional hegemons up for conflict as they began reasserting power within their traditional spheres of influence. Unlike former U.S. adversaries such as Germany and Japan, who learned to play well with others after embracing democracy several generations ago, China and Russia remain ruled by authoritarian regimes intent on challenging U.S. global leadership. And they are each developing high-end military capabilities designed to neutralize American strengths and project force beyond their borders, shifting the balance of power in much of Europe and Asia. A U.S. congressional commission recently warned that the United States might struggle to win—or perhaps lose—a war against China or Russia.

Still, there is cause for hope. Since the end of the last world war, the United Nations and various regional security institutions have provided useful venues for great powers to address their differences, with international law and shifting social norms gradually marginalizing war as an acceptable dispute-resolution mechanism. Globalization of trade and investment has undoubtedly lowered the risk of war between the United States and China, while Russia has seemingly adopted a strategy of indirect action—competition short of armed conflict—in its interactions with America and its allies. And so long as each great power maintains a credible nuclear deterrent, the promise of mutually assured destruction should continue to temper escalatory impulses.

Even though the risk of great-power conflict is rising, there is nothing inevitable about this outcome. Neither China nor Russia is spoiling for a fight with the U.S. military, which is likely to maintain superiority over each adversary through at least the middle of the century. Although anti-American sentiment has drawn Beijing and Moscow closer together in recent years, it is doubtful they will overcome longstanding mutual suspicions to join forces against the United States anytime soon. However, America could easily be drawn into conflicts between these great powers and U.S. allies such as Taiwan or the Baltic states—presuming, of course, that the U.S. government remains committed to defending its most vulnerable partners.
 
The future of great-power conflict, then, is largely a function of U.S. foreign policy. As a superpower in relative decline, the United States has neither the economic wherewithal nor political will to prevent China and Russia from assuming more prominent roles on the international stage. Washington must now give serious consideration as to which aspects of the liberal world order and its network of alliances—which it built and sustained for the better part of a century—remain vital to U.S. national security an era of renewed great-power competition.

For example, NATO continues to provide obvious security benefits to the United States—including neutralizing the European Union as a potential great-power rival—but it makes little sense to extend alliance membership to former Soviet states like Georgia or Ukraine while Moscow retains the capability and intent to dominate its “near abroad.” Similarly, it’s only a matter of time before Beijing can conquer Taipei while degrading a U.S. military response, which means finding a peaceful solution to the “One China” problem is imperative if America hopes to escape the “Thucydides trap” that has accompanied rising powers for millennia.

Yet even if the United States takes pursues a realist foreign policy approach to China and Russia, it must nevertheless remain true to the liberal principles that underpin its prosperity and global influence. America cannot afford to abandon its steadfast support for democracy, free trade, and the rule of law in favor of isolationism or an “America first” approach that befuddles allies and emboldens enemies. Few other great powers have ever wielded the sort of moral authority and soft-power appeal that the United States enjoyed until recently—and no other nation can claim to be quite so indispensable to world peace.


© Craig Perry 2018


Tags:  China  Russia  the United States 

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Fake It Till You Make It

Posted By Administration, Thursday, November 22, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Adam Cowart, a member of our Emerging Fellows program explains the term hyperstition in his twelfth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Previous posts have explored various ways in which the real economy may or may not be real in the future, utilizing the concept of hyperstition, the combination of “hyper” and “superstition”, which refers to the process of ideas becoming reality in our culture. More specifically, how new realities manifest in the economy.

While perhaps the academic study of hyperstition and its effects and influence on late-capitalism is relatively new, the conceptual underpinnings are not. One of the most well-known lines in the Bible is “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (English Standard for those wondering). In our current age, the capacity for words to dwell among us, in the various forms of social media in general, twitter in particular, and our latent inventiveness in turning ideas into reality, has led to a powerful and reinforcing loop between the word and flesh.

The myriad ways in which this has influenced our economic systems have been explored, though far from exhaustively. We’ve looked at the nefarious means by which late-capitalism will continue to mine the nooks and crannies of everyday life for growth opportunities, including trauma-related world building in the form of imaginary paracosm economies, and the incredible ecological strain of consumers shifting from “having” to “being” consumption patterns. In the virtual realm we’ve considered whether AI entrepreneurs pumping out transient products and services will cause our much admired entrepreneur to go extinct along with those who face the future challenges of virtual foraging. Finally, we’ve delved into the implications of the grand performance of scarcity in a post-scarcity world, the hamster-wheel of sub optimization brought on by situated innovation and, of course, back to where we started our journey with pigeon Ponzi schemes going up in smoke.

Of course, our fiction to reality process is far from linear. And it is far from monolithic. With the most recent rise of nationalism, with left and right in a constant oppositional state of becoming far-left and far-right, we’ve also seen the proliferation of folk economics. This rejection of globalism for localism, whether practical or not, has likewise bred a plethora of local, culturally and economically ingrained hyperstitional realities. Reality and economics is now situational. The economy is both great and terrible.

We have been referred to grandly as “The Weather Makers”. Perhaps of greater concern is our inconsistent ability to be “The Reality Makers”. Still far from clear is how this will manifest in the future, where reality is customizable and up for debate.

As for the Pigeon King story I began this series with, I recently attended a play in rural Ontario, a matinee production, called “The Pigeon King”, based on the true story in which a man built a Ponzi scheme empire selling pigeons. Or, perhaps, he was just a bad businessman. Regardless, economic abstractions had given way to tangible pigeons, which had now given way to a theatrical performance. Fact had come full circle back to fiction. After the play finished, the performers took their bow. But we weren’t done yet. The performers encouraged us to open our programs. In the program was a folded paper pigeon. They told us to pull out the pigeons and then, on the count of three, we launched our pigeons into the rafters of the theatre. A theatre full of old people, laughing, suddenly children again. A sad flock of paper pigeons trying to take flight, sputtering out, before being snatched back up and tossed a few feet further. Up on stage the actors and the musicians watched. The audience and performers had switched roles. I noticed the fiddler. He didn’t play now. Didn’t fiddle. Just watched us. Content.


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  future  Ponzi scheme 

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