By Dr David Laing Dawson
How stupid can they be to vote to leave the EU? How stupid can they be to vote for Donald Trump?
These questions leap to mind but are mostly the product of bafflement, anger, and worry.
But perhaps we should take those two questions seriously and try to answer them. Because if we don’t understand these phenomena, we may find ourselves in big trouble.
Prior to the turn of the last century, as 2000 loomed, I wondered if there would be a backlash. That millennial year signified change and disruption, a world, yea a universe, that could no longer be understood using concepts and tools of the 20th century. It didn’t seem to happen at the turn of the millennium, but then we humans have a very narrow perspective. I think it is happening now, not all at once, but here and there, a growing backlash, a growing avoidance of the realities we face and the future that will unfold.
Historically it happened once before, thanks to the printing press. Suddenly knowledge was disseminated. Literacy grew. It was no longer locked away in the vaults of monks. The world was not flat after all. And the earth traveled around the sun, and even the sun was not the center of the universe. Humanism competed with religious dogma. Gallileo, Copernicus, Columbus, Da Vinci – they all had to be reckoned with. Maybe, just maybe, the Pope did not have a pipeline to God. Maybe parts of those old texts were simply wrong. Maybe disease and pestilence and weather were not acts of an angry God.
We did go through a renaissance and a reformation and then a scientific revolution, but we also floundered into a protracted reactionary period, a hundred plus years of religious wars, famine, pestilence, superstition and stupidity. The dramatic changes in the 1400’s did bring us literacy and art and science and a new awareness of the world as but a sphere in orbit around a star. But it also brought us the 15 and 16th century equivalents of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and Radical Islam.
It was the invention of the printing press about 1440 that triggered that first disruption, the spread of knowledge and literacy, and with this a limitation on the powers of Popes, Princes, and demagogues. But there was a backlash and it brought on a century of pain.
Today we live within an even greater disruption, several in fact:
- Our medicines, our science, our agricultural advances, and our industrial revolution have rendered us capable of destroying our planet. Quickly with nuclear weapons or slowly with population, deforestation and pollution.
- The digital revolution. Faster than the printing press, information of all possible kinds is disseminated, made available throughout the world, almost instantly. And this now includes images and videos. This time around even the semi-literate are included. It is much harder today to be complacent about one’s knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. It is much harder today to be so sure of the rightness of our lives and our place in the universe.
- Globalization. A product of both the digital revolution, the massive increase in population, and all our other technologies. We can no longer even pretend to be isolated and protected from whatever plague is visiting a far off land or a neighbor.
- The Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. The robots. We are in the process right now of creating things that are smarter than we are, can do most of our jobs, and might not obey Asimov’s first rule of robotics. Exciting and frightening times ahead.
- Our awareness of the expanse, the complications, the weirdness of our universe is blossoming, is growing beyond our average human comprehension. Clearly our world was not created by a God in six days 4000 years ago. Would someone please explain string theory to me, and black holes, and anti-matter, and things being in two places at once; and what existed before the big bang, and does that question even make sense?
Hence the backlash. The fantasy that we can return to our whites-only pub, discuss football with the same accent, build by hand what we need, grow our potatoes and eat our pies, drink our ale in peace, and know that we are British, the truly civilized people. The fantasy that we can rebuild a caliphate and control all around us, the women, the way we dress and eat, the way we think, regain the comfort of absolutes and certainties. The fantasy that we can retrieve small town America and go about our lives certain of our jobs, our future, our power, our exceptional place in the Universe.
It is all happening now. And to avoid a repeat of the 16th century (with global consequences this time), our leaders must understand the disruptive transition ahead of us, and the forces that would like to pull us back to an imagined time of peace, prosperity, simplicity and isolation.
We really have only two choices: Embrace and manage these disruptive changes, accept globalization, muddle through and save the planet, or let Donald and his ilk drag us into a very dark (and hot) age.