In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part seven. Explore the rest of the series here.
Eavesdropping on her son playing Xbox in his bedroom, she couldn’t make sense of what she was hearing. He was such a quiet boy, even at the dinner table. Yet now she was listening to a confident, even authoritative voice, speaking to what seemed like quite a crowd of participants in the game. Who were these lads from Cleveland, Nairobi.. Tokyo? And how do they know my boy?
I can’t ever get a grip, a real grip on what’s happening. It used to be simple: we know who our customers are, we run ourselves ragged on the farm, we sell our produce the best we can. But it doesn’t work anymore. On so many different levels. Not only new rules, different subsidies, disappearing markets. But now I’ve got animal rights protestors setting free my cows! Who’s even a vegan in this farming town? It’s just nonsense they’ve heard on the internet. Then this Summer we lost an entire crop of cabbages through endless rain and frost in June. Even the weather is against us.
When you think about what exists beyond the towns, cities and nations you know exist, what do you refer to?
World probably implies the people and societies inhabiting the planet or globe.
Some people think about the globe – a spherical object mapping continents and seas. For them its geographical, organised space, managed by those with power.
For them, globalisation implies multi-national corporations with spider like capabilities of driving outcomes from a central hub. Prioritising growth and efficiency for the stakeholders, this kind of ‘big picture’ threatens the autonomy of local enterprise and imposes homogeneity on the diverse cultures settled there. At the same time, it can generate jobs and income on a scale impossible for a small community on its own.
Some people would use the term planet, or Earth, rather than globe, because they are thinking about the living organism that frames the human settlements on whatever scale. Their view of the system we are living within is governed by Nature which has laws of its own. In their view, people with power – governments, corporations, individuals – can hack the natural system but not fundamentally alter it. When humans abuse the system – extracting its resources for short term gain rather than nurturing them for infinite gain – Nature suffers, but is unlikely to be destroyed. Instead of corporations, they might imply Gaia as the decision maker – who might be equally merciless when it comes to the survival of the human species.
Still others would use the term World rather than any of the above. While it’s hard to distinguish these terms, World probably implies the people and societies inhabiting the planet or globe. While the term recognises diversity, it also suggests that humans constitute the environment collectively – through their ideas or consciousness. World is the province of soft power rather than hard power – governed by narrative and storytelling rather than measurements.
In the notion of the American Dream, for example, Disneyland offers unity across the cultures in its long-standing theme tune “It’s A Small World After All” (despite our economic power over you). At the same time, Hollywood classic Wayne’s World offers a ‘worldview’ to every individual. Everyone has their own way of looking at the world – what’s yours?
The internet has dramatically shifted the relationship between one person and the world they inhabit. Historical perceptions of the physical limitations between nations and cultures has been both challenged and deepened. We no longer have to travel to Brazil to hear Brazilian voices. But the more we listen to the wide range of perspectives coming from all over, the more we have to let go of assumptions that to be human is to share values. Connecting to the world can be both exciting and threatening. Although for anyone with Millennials or Gen A
around them, those poles are receding: having never really inhabited homogenous worlds, they take extremists and tribes more in their stride.
The internet is seen as a mobilising tool, a way to connect feelings as much as ideas.
So when politicians invoke the entity bigger than the nation – globe, planet, world – their use of language betrays their personal experience and often their sense of agency. There’s no hard and fast rule here of course, but an integral perspective (see POWU 4
) does help us see the diversity. Invoking globalisation for example, often suggests more machine-like distributions of power in a ‘first tier’ zero-sum game. More for them – the elites, corporations – means less for us, the people. Local communities are seen as victims of globalisation; elites as masters of that domain.
Talking about the planet Earth conjures up a shared space with more equal responsibility for our outcomes. That in turn implies collective values, social justice and rights not just for humans, but for all living things. The internet is seen as a mobilising tool, a way to connect feelings as much as ideas. It mimics Nature with its networks and complex fractals. Control is not possible nor necessary as people and their environment are ideally able to come together without being made to.
World on the other hand implies, worldly – carrying the bigger picture around with you while acting in real time, on the ground. Although it’s by no means universal, world implies an easier shift between the individualistic focus, a more community focus and a much wider focus that includes countries and continents. There is no hard line between an individualist and globalist perspective. They are more like different realms or world-views to occupy where appropriate. From this stance the ‘personal can be political’ without diminishing geopolitics as having a logic of its own.
It’s here that the terms glocal or cosmo-local offer themselves as the architecture of worldliness. Ways to connect the big picture to the more time and place specific so that the different kinds of intelligence can be drawn upon in any situation. While expensive tech for example, can only get cheaper through scaling up orders, some of the biggest shifts in economy occur through sharing experience and insight. Rob Hopkins, co-founder of Transition Towns, famously tells the story of planting an idea in Liege during a brief visit and returning there a year later to find a thriving industry.
Till now this more comprehensive idea of politics has been hard to experience, largely because the dominant narrative of top-down power has kept local communities thinking that they are irrelevant. Even the most willing of grassroots organisers can be heard to say ‘yes but’. Repeating the mantra that small is beautiful but means nothing without scale.
However since the information revolution began over twenty years ago with the birth of the internet, the new connectivity has demonstrated that networks have a very different dynamic than simply prototyping and scaling through central distribution. The way even small projects launch in one part of the world and suddenly appear, almost identical in another, suggests there is a more fractal quality to the relationship between the local and global. Fractal meaning having similar principles and patterns of activity, without necessarily appearing to look exactly the same.
Every time someone on social media signs a petition they are exercising their agency beyond those accorded by their current national politics.
Take for example how a rash of new political movements and experimental parties appeared across the globe during the 2010s – without being directly involved in organising each other. The 15 M movement which led to Podemos in Spain, the Five Star movement that led to the Five Star Party in Italy, the Pirate Party in Iceland which came out of networks of tech entrepreneurs. Each in turn had elements of the Occupy movement in common – new flatter forms of self-organised communities rising up against the elites. I’ll explore more about this phenomenon later in the series.
Since the major people’s uprising in Tahrir Square, Egypt 2011 (itself only the latest in less visible uprisings around the Middle East) the world has been in constant turmoil. That image of crowds of unarmed people bringing down previously untouchable governments has inspired countless others to have a go – with varying results. Until now, none of these truly bottom up people’s movements have been able to follow through entirely with bringing in new, fairer and more effective systems. But it seems ever more likely. Just as I write, the uprising in Hong Kong has been quickly made more permanently effective by standing thousands of anti-government candidates in local councils and winning. Was that inspired by the Flatpack Democracy model in the UK? Who knows.
In the meantime, global movements of elective citizens have developed a form of soft power through mobilising as many votes as a small nation and using those numbers to have influence. Every time someone on social media signs a petition to challenge a government policy or an atrocity in their own country or abroad, they are exercising their agency beyond those accorded by their current national politics. Similarly, when they adopt a practice locally that gets picked up and developed in another town or city abroad, they are taking part in a global co-creation experiment.
These new behaviours are changing us in ways we could not have imagined twenty years ago. Without even thinking we have become seamless local, social and global operators. But what has that done to our world? Our story about ourselves, the way we experience life physically and emotionally? How we treat each other in the streets and on social media? Without a better understanding of the psychological impacts of these hugely expanded realms we are always in danger of becoming more vulnerable to outside forces.
But it’s not all about the danger. There is also the growth implied and invited in an age of rapid transition.
The images shared on social media of the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11, the hideous videos of Isis, Telling the Truth about climate change – these become existential threats to our daily lives, ‘rocking our world’. Populism is the deliberate manipulation of emotionality in this newly expanded public realm.
But it’s not all about the danger. There is also the growth implied and invited in an age of rapid transition. Over the past decades our relationship to the globe has changed. If once we only responded to the impacts of our actions all over the globe – using military and economic force – in an arms-length way, protesting to government or sending aid. Now we increasingly embody our relationships with different parts of the world. Some travel to be there in the struggle with those they stand in solidarity with – the full gamut of joining uprisings to building schools in remote places.
But more prevalent are the waves of identifying with others’ emotional realities - whether it be joy or pain – that cause social shifts to actually materialise. For example the #metoo movement that captured the systemic abuse of women in both industry and society across the globe and has led to new laws and procedures to be adopted in many countries.
In this way, talking about the future has become as much a question of ontological shifts – how we are being and feeling differently – as epistemological development: the new theories of change. In the next article I’ll look at the new initiatives arising that could lead to institutional change as well as changes of attitude.
The signs of a new architecture that can hold this more complex awareness of the relationship between I, We and World are there. Illustration for Emerge by Christopher Burrows.