Two hundred years ago it was 1820. The population was less than one billion. The most common mode of transportation was your own two feet. Or, if you were in business, it was a boat navigating a canal system. The feared kings of Rome and England, with all of their cruelty and wielded power did not have the kind of silent, immediate and fierce power that we now have.
One bomb can end life on the entire planet. At the intersection of an invention and a system, the result is a change in the climate of an entire world. One man elected can immediately change the most influential culture in the world. A person unknown today, can become known the world over tomorrow with how quickly information spreads and the viral phenomenon can take hold.
Throughout humanity, we’ve sought to improve our lives. These vast and many improvements are now at our fingertips. They are integral to and often un-thought of elements of our existence. For example, each morning during the winter we wake up in a heated home. This warmth is because someone figured out an efficient way to route gas to our homes. Someone else found that we could run our furnaces on this gas and vent the heat from our basements to our bedrooms. Then, we get out of bed and prepare for our days using products and services that have much the same story as the gas, the furnace and the duct work.
We don’t think about what it took to make these things happen. In fact, many times we are unappreciative of these things until their absence. This happens in the case of a power outage or our car breaking down on the side of an obscure farm road.
No cell signal? How can that be?
It is time we reckoned with the scope and reach of humanity’s power.
Let’s create an Individual/Improvement Power Ranking.
This scale goes from 1 (the power of the individual + improvement= not very powerful) to 10 (the power of the individual + improvement= very powerful). This is a rating of how the improvement makes the individual more powerful. The rating would measure potential impact on their environment both negative and positive. (Note: this is not scientific, it is only for the purpose of discussion).
A long time ago, we developed eye glasses. With this improvement, the individual can see images they couldn’t before, near or far away. Extremely powerful for the individual, there is virtually no impact on the environment. This would have an IIPR of 1. Again, what we are measuring is the impact on the environment.
In another example, we’ll give the IIPR of a gas furnace a 3. The individual would have somewhat limited power over the environment with this improvement. They could heat their living space. Of course, one could blow out the pilot on the furnace and allow the house to fill with gas. They could then use a match to blow up the house. The consideration in the ranking takes into account the potential to exert power over the environment and condition. This blowing up of the house would impact the folks who live there, the neighbors, the neighborhood and the first responders in the initial impact.
The power over the environment in this case is undeniable, they are able to heat their living space. This would seem very powerful indeed to those born 200 years ago.
Now let’s get more powerful.
A car is rated with a 6 IIPR. Cars can cause damage to the environment in several ways and is mobile. A car could cause car accidents if the driver so chose. The individual could drive through small towns hitting pedestrians and causing accidents. It is rated higher because it has the potential to exert more power over the environment than in previous examples. This is due to it being mobile and the individual having more direct control. All the driver need do is press the gas pedal and turn the wheel. Much more control and power is available compared to the furnace. A bus and an airplane might have a similar IIPR. Still powerful enough to carry one from one side of the country to the other.
How will future generations appraise today’s average IIPR rated tools?
To further flesch out our rudimentary scale, a 1 IIPR would be an individual with a highly individualized improvement. Our example was the eyeglasses. A 10 IPR would be nuclear launch buttons available as is the case for the US President to push at any time, ending life on the planet.
One simple action, all the power.
There was no chance of destroying the planet one-hundred years ago especially at the individual level. We have more power per individual than ever in history. More knowledge is at our fingertips than at any point in the past. This is to the point where the human. mind is overwhelmed. We are not equipped to adapt or evolve this quickly. But that discussion remains for a later time.
The average human being has far more power (or can have a much larger impact) than in previous generations. This power continues to grow at a greater rate. If you were to fast forward at the exponential rate we are now growing our individual power, it’s easy to assume that each of us will end up with the equivalent of a button before us that could potentially end the world.
Is humanity doomed to die a flash in the pan in the course of the universe?
Is our existence just a failed experiment by an arrogant god?
The adage about ‘absolute power corrupting absolutely’ has to hold some insight into our future, right?
At the rate we’re going, we may individually have the power to destroy the world. As our IIPR continues to increase for every improvement, this scenario becomes more and more likely. It is probable that someone will make the “wrong choice”, right? Someone will push the world-ending button. A course correcting event would have to intervene in order to alter our current course from this inescapable future, it seems.
What an utterly terrifying thought.
The Power Quality: Good or Bad?
We arrive at the idea of power quality. In short, we continue to leverage the impact of our individual power and the button factor increases. [The button factor = extreme individual power. IE the button to end the world nuclear-ly.] Most of what we’ve discussed to this point is the negative potential. However, there is the chance that someone could use this power for good.
One of our financial giants (those with a net worth a fraction of the wealth of the entire world) could decide to liquidate their wealth investing in solving a key human problems. Perhaps it’s starvation, war, climate or humanitarian issues. The point is, the quality of the power should have the potential to be good as well. Yet, it’s harder to perceive.
The question is, if a negative power quality is the nuclear button, what is its positive equivalent?
Destruction and peril on that large of a scale are easy to imagine. But what would cause humanity to thrive in an analogous manner? If there were an easy answer to this, we’d name it. Perhaps the reason we don’t, is that our survival instinct is scanning the horizon for threats. Therefore, creating our this negative bias. Nevertheless, it is hard to conceive of an IIPR that would have a creative (the opposite of destructive) impact comparable to the button factor.
Even when we take a polar opposite such as death (death, a state opposite of life) and cure it. There would still be incalculable destructive potential. Where would everyone live? Would we limit reproduction? How would it affect culture, religion?
It seems that curing death would both devalue life and make unnecessary deaths so much more a tragedy. Would only the rich have the option to live forever? What are the economic implications? This is a completely different thought paradigm.
Perhaps it’s suffice to say that we’re describing symptoms of a universe themed in entropy. End of story(?).
Is Power Inherently Bad?
Is it just as simple as Orwell puts it?
If the object of power is more power, is it just a western addiction?
For those who gain power, it is not particularly good for the individual. When you have power, research finds that people just don’t like you as much. You are seen as intimidating. Others want to take your power. The US President has historically been considered the most dangerous job on the planet. The science is in, having power is not good for human health. But still, there is a drive (some greater than others) for us to acquire it. For the individual, power does not equal health or longevity.
As Earth’s population increases, the power of systems becomes more relevant. Systems are great at increasing productivity and standardization. Yet, most of us that belong to the capitalist system in the US find ourselves serfs in some unavoidable way. The purpose of our lives, (if we are willing to take a hard look in the mirror) is, at least in part, to consume. This plays on the fact that human desire is a stronger motivator than actually having. We’re prompted to buy a phone every year or two, a car after a couple of years and our attitude is that more is better! Amazon is the king of shipping unneeded, impulse items to you instantly. It is also one of the biggest companies to EVER EXIST!
We were born into this system of excess and materialism. Because of this, we attract citizens from outside the country who were born into a state of lack. Lack is not experienced the same way here in the US/western world.
Donald Trump is right to point out that every company in the US goes to every extent to avoid paying taxes. It may be legal, but often when exposed it certainly isn’t ethical. Why should Trump be any different? Other CEOs and C-levels are not paying income tax. The accountant’s job is to make sure these folks pay the least amount of tax possible. Our systems are now centralizing power. This is a function of that purpose. It’s how we designed them to work. Again, power (in this case power=money) seeks only more power.
It is interestingly enough, happening parallel to the individuals power growth. But it comes at a cost.
The Cost of Opting Out
This capitalistic system drives our culture. It is who we are, to a degree. Most of us are noble enough. We don’t want to pollute the world’s oceans, be responsible for sweatshops to produce our goods or consume food that is hazardous to our health. However, these and countless other harmful side effects are those of a capitalistic system. A system we either have to participate in, leave or work to change from within. This is an enormous challenge, given that it flies in the face of the very principle of the system, growth at all (more recently “most”) costs.
In capitalism, if you (or the company) doesn’t grow, you (it) die(s). If we don’t produce ‘more’, survival is limited ofr businesses and organizations.
We were taught to strive to do well in school. Why? Because, we had to get a job someday! Many of us went on to get higher educations. The purpose? More income!
I was under the impression until my mid-thirties, that the purpose of life was to get stuff! That’s what I was socialized to believe. (I obviously could have done some more research and changed my mind, educated myself etc.)
The theme is, our system is one of the key driving forces in the world. One individual could not easily change this system. This is much different from our IIPR. The system is the improvement, but the individual is less important in this calculation. For this concept, it is the population plus the improvement (the system). The PIPR, if you will.
If we chose to opt out, the cost would be detrimental to our own survival. One would have to either join a non-capitalist society (none come to mind) or completely move off of the grid. For most of us, this cost is too great to give any serious consideration to this idea. Leaving our family, friends, jobs, hopes and dreams… not a big selling concept, there.
The most thoughtful of us choose to stay put. One person fleeing a society doesn’t threaten it. So while our individual power is increasing exponentially, it does so only in relation to the society we belong. The cost of our individual power is our membership in the society.
The System is Perfect
Our brand of capitalism is designed to give human beings purpose. We choose a job, career or some other task to label ourselves with. Then, we go. We do it. It’s who we are, who we’re to become. Without this distinction, many may simply wander or worse. There is some merit to this. However, this idea references the purest form of our brand of capitalism.
As mentioned earlier, we are able to have heat in our homes due to the labor of another (others). We never have to go through the process of tediously meeting and thanking them. This is only possible because we live in a society that promotes individuals to specialize in tasks and benefit from each others labor and production. (Obvious positives and negatives inherent, here.)
The system produces what it is designed to produce. As we improve systems, their impact is further felt. Its tip is sharpened, its effectiveness enhanced. For example, our economic philosophy (in essence) is to sell a lot. Often, we produce a lot which drives the prices down and so the matre becomes sell a lot for a little. Growth has to happen, so it always leads to more, more, more. Is it any surprise that companies like Amazon, Target and Walmart rule the retail markets? (The companies that you’re thinking of right now that don’t follow this pattern, will eventually.)
If we changed the principle of the system, we would change everything interacting therein. If we changed the philosophy from sell a little for a lot, we would end up seeing that trend in the leading and largest companies in the world. (I understand we wouldn’t do this.)
We continue to get better and better at programming our systems. We have created algorithms that predict outcomes we can’t understand.
In the US, we have some fail-safes in place to protect the power from becoming too centralized. These antitrust laws attempt to protect us from systems that overreach. What this seems to illustrate, is that somewhere in our collective unconscious we understand there is a need for balance.
Humanity’s issues all stem from a lack of balance. The industrial revolution has birthed a modern system that is immediately sustaining. But in the long term, it is environmentally punishing. And this is for many reasons. What started as an improved alternative to using a horse or a camel as a means of transport, became an industry polluting and tainting the world directly and indirectly. We’ve learned fossil fuels contribute to destroy the environment at an alarming rate. We begin to act (albeit late) in the game. This is in an attempt to regain balance. Companies are asked to create technologies more environmentally friendly. New technologies are created. Really, this is all for the sake of balancing environmental and other balance concerns.
Relatedly, we have social media. A means to connect socially through the medium of technology. New technologies have manipulated these formats to make you and I the product (our attention, opinions and money). The recent Netflix Doc called The Social Dilemma, outlines these ideas in detail. The best use of this, like other human systems is balance.
Previously, it was mentioned the government steps in with antitrust laws to protect the over-centralization of power. The idea of government intervention is often not a popular idea. Often, the government is called in to bring balance. There is a lot of controversy around this. If not the government, then who should enforce balance? Who should decide what the balance should be? And these concerns about the responsibility of defining and enforcing balance bring about other problems as well.
Distribution of wealth is also at an extreme point. The richest in our country own an increasingly large percentage of the wealth available. The gap between the riches and poorest grows. Who can step in to rebalance this? Will they do it fairly?
Coming to Terms
I’ve always enjoyed this phrase, “coming to terms”. It seems to mean “to put meaning to a concept”. This is precisely what I seek to do. There are four concepts used to illustrate the ideas herein. The IIPR, PIPR, the quality and nature of power and balance are all ideas brought forth to illustrate a shadow of a concern in the back of my mind. This concern is that the state and impact of humanity is changing rapidly. This is in large part due to our power, our systems and our drive for power. The thought that one person could destroy a world is not easily comprehended. It’s easy for many to believe that it couldn’t be true. However, it is.
The paradigm has changed right before our eyes. Humanity’s power has grown for the individual as well as the systems we’ve created. The systems may now be impossible to stop, though we have the best of intentions. Our world has picked up the pace, moving at an astonishing pace. Human minds are not equipped to deal with all that we have at our fingertips. Some of what we create, such as algorithms, produce results we don’t have the ability to fathom. It is no wonder why we see a rise in mindful activities (IE as meditation and yoga) offering us a tool to gain control over our precious little attention.
Historical references to make future decision become less and less relevant everyday. One hundred years ago, the Earth’s population was 1.7 billion. Today, we are nearly 7.9 billion, by 2030 we will be at 8.5 billion. And by 2050, 9.7 billion human beings. While from here it seems that balance is the obvious answer, what that looks like and how it’ll be implemented will be much the decider of whether we prevail or perish.
I am aware of how this sounds, these ideas are alive and well in our cultural zeitgeist. The shows Utopia, Revolution (sadly cancelled), The Man in the High Castle and movies such as 12 Monkeys and many, many others have brought this idea to life in our entertainment for nearly half a century.
Optimistic nonetheless, I believe that humanity is generally a force for good in the world. I am an optimist. Yet, we need a healthy dose of self-awareness. I, and others, remain hopeful.
Although, hope may be the tincture of a doomed people.
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