"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead
It seems that we really have reached the dead end of normal avenue. It's ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that the day after the chancellor has delivered one of the most punitive budgets (to ordinary people) ever seen ostensibly as a direct result of circumstances generated by the failures of a long-celebrated financial system and the actions of a relatively small group of overpaid bankers, that I should be blogging about redefining our view of progress.
The RSA, an institution I have a lot of time for, has a new strapline: 21st Century Enlightenment. And Matthew Taylor, its energetic CEO has written an essay (which you can download here) that re-imagines 18th Century Enlightenment (the basis for many of the ideas, values and norms for the last two centuries), for the modern age. As ideas go, it doesn't get much bigger.
Taylor structures his argument around three core themes (derived from philosopher Tzvetan Todorov's analysis) that sit at the heart of Enlightenment thinking. First up is the idea of autonomy – the notion that every one of us should be able to make our own choices about our own lives free from overbearing authority – which needs to shift from what he calls 'possessive individualism' to something altogether more self aware and socially embedded, that acknowledges new thinking in evolutionary psychology, sociology and behavioural economics, and is informed by a deeper appreciation of both the possibilities and the frailties of human nature.
Next is the concept of universalism – the idea that all people are deserving of dignity and share fundamental rights. Here, in a significant nod to Jeremy Rifkin's 'The Empathic Civilisation' which I wrote about here, he believes that in our interdependent world we should pay more attention to our capacity for empathy. We are, he says, used to the idea that education is the most valuable resource for a global knowledge economy, yet the stock of global empathy is just as important to acheiving a peaceful, just and sustainable world.
The third idea centres around the human end purpose of our acts – a humanist belief that we should organise the world according to what is best for human beings – and here he argues that we need to question our definition of progress and acknowledge the fundamentally ethical nature of this question. Citing research that illustrates how deeply rooted ethical understanding is in our brains, he argues that we need an ethics that challenges the dominant logics of markets, and scientific and technological progress, and bureaucracy and more often asks the question: what do we want our future to be? The problem with the logic of bureaucracy, he says, is that it tends to privilege procedural rationality (the rationality of rules) over substantive rationality (the rationality of ends). The imperative of competition becomes all pervasive, often overriding a consideration of the human end of our acts and a deeper sense of what is the right thing to do. Yet the powerful logics of progress are themselves dependent on ethical values: markets rely on trust; bureaucracies on duty; scientific progress on collaboration. Is it to be a world, he asks, where so many feel that the shape of their lives is dictated not by the ideal of a life fully lived but by social convention or economic convenience?
"The train of progress hurtles down the tracks with us as its passengers. Whether we have good seats or bad, whether we enjoy or complain about the view, it rarely feels as though it is us setting the direction."
That last point is an important one. Epochal change, he says, involves a combination of altered circumstances, new ideas and values and transformative technologies. Like most of us it seems, I read John Naughton's excellent Observer piece on the internet that deservedly got so much twitter love over the weekend. The strange thing about living through a revolution, says John, is that it's very difficult to see what's going on. Or indeed where it will end. One thing we've learned from the history of communications technology is that "people tend to overestimate the short-term impact of new technologies – and to underestimate their long-term implications". The web is a profoundly liberating, enabling and transformative technology – the very foundations of how it was designed baked disruption in as a feature, not a bug ("The internet's disruptiveness is a consequence of its technical DNA").
I think it is right to more often ask the question about what we want our future to be. Jonathan Harris has reminded us that the digital world belongs to all of us, not just the companies that dominate it, and so it is up to us to determine its future:
"The momentum of technological growth is too strong for us to prevent it from defining our future. Like it or not, our future world will largely be digital. Instead of fleeing to the forest, we must find the humanity in the machine and learn to love it. If we decide the humanity does not yet exist there in the ways we expect, then we must create it."
And I think that (particularly in the wake of the fall out from the collapse of a flawed financial system, and examples of corporate arrogance such as that exhibited by BP's handling of the oil spill) we should more often question the human ends of progress. The growth in 'social businesses' recognises that, as Tony Hsieh has said, one of the things that separates great companies from just the good ones is that the great ones have a vision or a higher purpose beyond money or profits or being number one in a market, and money tends to follow that purpose. Enlightened organisations acknowledge that human motivations are not entirely about fulfilling short-term needs and financial reward. As Dan Pink said in that Clay Shirky Wired interview:
"We have a biological drive. We eat when we're hungry, drink when we're thirsty, have sex to satisfy our carnal urges. We also have a second drive—we respond to rewards and punishments in our environment. But what we've forgotten—and what the science shows—is that we also have a third drive. We do things because they're interesting, because they're engaging, because they're the right things to do, because they contribute to the world. The problem is that, especially in our organizations, we stop at that second drive. We think the only reason people do productive things is to snag a carrot or avoid a stick. But that's just not true. Our third drive—our intrinsic motivation—can be even more powerful."
Matthew Taylor is suggesting that we question our tendency to see progress as a virtue in itself rather than explore how the forces of progress might best be shaped to enhance human fulfillment. I think we should listen.