Blind spots as opportunities

It has been suggested throughout this book that worldview limitations are complicit in supporting a widely shared and selective blindness that prevents many of the key players from perceiving what is strikingly obvious to others. Three brief examples are provided here. One concerns the implications of Earth changes now under way. Another is how heedless commitments to empiricism, technical determinism and neoliberalism have eroded key modalities of human and social existence. Finally there is a significant, but seldom appreciated, underlying concern regarding the nature and implications of constitutive human interests.

Global context, global limits, global action

Macro views of the contradictory and unsustainable condition of human civilisation have gained little or no traction with US corporations, the giants of Silicon Valley and their wealthy associates. This ‘condition’ obviously has multiple facets and there are many ways of coming to grips with it. For some observers a primary concern is the way humanity has laid waste natural resources at the expense of outgrowing the physical capacities of the global environment (Higgs, 2014). In this view issues around global warming, the scarcity of fresh water and the sixth extinction loom large. The accumulation of planetary impacts has given rise to the term ‘Anthropocene’ or era of human-related changes (Carrington, 2016; Slaughter, 2012; Steffen, 2015a). The term has slowly become accepted over recent years as those dedicated to ‘Earth science’ have provided numerous insights into the nature of large-scale processes of change.

Well-grounded knowledge about changing parameters of the global living space available to humans and other species has become both plentiful and increasingly reliable. It has, for example, provided valuable inputs to policy and decision-making at all levels. Work by Steffen and others on planetary boundaries is of particular salience (Stockholm Research Centre, 2017; Steffen, et al 2015; Steffen, et al 2004). It shows how humanity has exceeded safe limits in three areas (flows of phosphorus and of nitrogen; loss of genetic diversity) and is set to exceed them in two others (land system change and climate change). Yet vital global concerns of this kind are not only widely overlooked by many high-tech entrepreneurs they are also actively denied by some of their most wealthy backers (Mayer, 2016). The very last thing the latter are prepared to recognise is the reality of global limits (Higgs, 2014).

Coming to grips with limits, the extent of human impacts and the choices and options available to humanity also provide many positive opportunities. Among these is the increased breadth and capability that flows from adopting more progressive values and broader, more inclusive worldviews (see below). Taking global issues seriously opens up a plethora of actions and strategies that, properly understood, significantly enhance our individual and collective ability to navigate through the rough weather that undoubtedly lies ahead (Monbiot, 2017; Raworth, 2017). The New Economy Network Australia (NENA) is one of many organisations that demonstrate in practical terms how new economic structures and processes can be created both with, and without, official sanction (NENA, 2017). Other examples are discussed below.

Re-valuing the human and social interiors

 

Four quandrants split by interior human development; interior cultural development, exterior actions and global sytem infrastructure
Figure 1. Four quadrants of Integral enquiry (Slaughter, 2010).

The empirical-analytic methods employed to create powerful technologies and to understand track macro phenomena both emerge from the ‘exterior collective’ quadrant of Integral enquiry. Yet taken in isolation they cannot grasp the nature of related human and cultural realities since they spring from very different sources and invoke different kinds of knowledge. Integral perspectives seek greater balance by adding an ‘interior’ dimension to both individual and collective phenomena (Figure 1). The general lack of such distinctions helps explain (and indeed to resolve) some of the confusion and conflict that occurs when, for example, new waves of high-tech innovation (exterior collective) impact on human life worlds (interior individual) and pre-existing ways of life (interior collective). As noted, people, social systems and cultures are all deeply affected. Jobs are destroyed, professions disappear and machines primed to take over operations that were previously understood to exist solely within the domain of human action. Yet the study of history, the foundations of personhood, society and culture are only marginally accessible to empirical enquiry and are therefore routinely dismissed. Which is not to say that they cannot be studied and understood by those with the requisite skills, insight and methods (Esbjorn-Hargens, 2012).

Constitutive human interests

German philosopher Jurgen Habermas produced a series of works that made significant demands on readers yet also produced insights of continuing value. Of direct relevance here is his account of ‘constitutive human interests.’ Unlike much of his work the essence of such interests are easily grasped and usefully illuminate a number of vital social processes that tend to be overlooked in high-tech environments. Table three provides an outline of Habermas theory. In this account, the technical interest relates to ‘work’ and the empirical/analytic sciences that are centrally concerned with production and control (i.e. the application of technical rules to instrumental problems). The practical interest is about human interaction. Here the concern is not with control, nor with technical processes, but with communication and understanding, both of which are grounded in language and culture. The point is to clarify the conditions for clear and unobstructed communication between participating subjects. These are seen as interpretive tasks requiring appropriate skills. The third and perhaps ‘highest’ interest is the emancipatory interest. This relates to questions of power and the universal drive for emancipation and freedom of action (Habermas, 1971).

Table 3:  Habermas’ constitutive human interests (1971)

  Life Dimension Form of Knowledge Criteria Type of Problem
Emancipatory Interest Power Critical Emancipation and liberation Normative: critique of domination, repression and distorted communication
Practical Interest Interaction Interpretive Achievement of communication and understanding Interpretive understanding and practical choices
Technical Interest Work Empirical/analytical Economy, efficiency and effectiveness Technical and instrumental

At no point does Habermas denigrate the technical interest per se since civilisation depends upon the maintenance of effective and efficient technical processes. Rather, what he is set against is the over-extension of the technical into areas that he considers illegitimate – as, for example, when decisions about new technologies are made on the basis of ‘can it be done?’ rather than ‘should it be done?’ One is a pragmatic issue concerned with technique; the other is value-laden and grounded in ethical considerations. This distinction has been widely overlooked in the present context. Then concerning the practical interest, there are many non-technical factors (such as power, ideology, marketing and direct exploitation) that impede and prevent true communication taking place between individuals and groups. The issue then becomes that of defining the conditions under which communication can be optimised. This again is not a technical question but one that relates to the richer and more complex world of human intersubjectivity. Finally, the emancipatory interest is engaged in the critique of domination, repression, mystification and institutional inertia. It tries to define the conditions within which people can create an authentic existence for themselves.

Unfortunately however, questions of limits, of the character and requirements of ‘the social’ and the whole question of underlying human interests – actual human needs and qualities – mean little or nothing to techno-enthusiasts and Internet entrepreneurs. As we’ve seen their speech patterns, metaphors, discourses were, and remain, focused on the single-minded pursuit of power, exploitation, expansion and accumulation of immense financial rewards. These features go a long way towards explaining why the Internet and many associated technologies became debased and also why they parted company from authentic human and social needs. The rise of homo economicus and the rapid expansion of humanly arid technical systems could not but produce a generalised dystopian sense that human affairs were spinning out of control. During the second decade of the 21st Century traditional research, scholarship and the scientific method itself were also being undermined by the diminished rationality of technical innovation coupled with denialism at an astonishing scale. Moreover, the tendency of traditional disciplines toward subject compartmentalism made it difficult to address the growing complexities of macro-change. Many people began to experience a sense of the coming-apart of earlier structures and assumptions, often expressed as multiple failures. For example:

 

  • A near-universal failure to resolve major environmental issues.
  • Unwillingness on the part of global elites to rein in growth or reduce over-consumption.
  • Unresolved questions about the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and its aftermath.
  • The related failures of globalisation and ‘trickle down’ economics to create a fairer and more equitable distribution of wealth.
  • Growing instability and upheaval in the Middle East consequent upon the Iraq war and the abortive ‘Arab spring’.
  • Multiple failures of the US government to regulate or reform Wall Street, apply its own anti-trust regulations to the Internet oligarchs, develop appropriate policies on high-tech innovation and respond effectively to global warming.
  • New waves of high-tech innovation were and are undermined by corporate power, mass surveillance and a newly enfranchised criminal underclass (Glenny, 2011; Zuboff, 2015).

The environment created by these interrelated and ever-shifting phenomena was and remains complex and challenging to say the least. Governance virtually everywhere has become more difficult. So it is regrettable, but not entirely surprising, that high-tech innovators have had little of value to say about the world they have been attempting to create. So long as their own innovations made it to market, these ‘straws in the wind’ were held to be of little significance. A variety of non-empirical and broad-based approaches to understanding were quietly developing in the background. Since they are too numerous to receive adequate attention here they might well form the basis of a separate work. Yet the task of grasping some of the interior aspects of social change in the post WW2 era was taken up by interdisciplinary scholars such as Lewis Mumford, Hannah Arendt, Ulrich  Beck, Zigmunt Bauman and Jurgen Habermas, among many others. More recent perspectives shedding further light on these matters include accounts of hypernormality (Hooton, 2016), anticipation theory (Poli, 2010), the ‘de-growth’ movement (Cattaneo, 2012; Videira, 2014) postnormal studies (Sardar, 2015) new economic paradigms (Raworth, 2017) and the wider use of Integral methods (Egmond & de Vries, 2011).

Overall, the selective blindness of the high-tech sector is less an indication of strength and power than of ‘thin’ and, in the long run, unproductive views of reality. The entire sector – and those who seek to reinvigorate it –  would do well to re-direct their attention toward blind spots such as those outlined here. Properly understood, they provide creative springboards, stimuli for new thinking and new opportunities such as the following.

 

  • Grasping the reality of global limits and the vast number of opportunities for values development, creativity, design and adaptation that they imply.
  • Re-valuing aspects of ‘the social’ such as empathy, care, respect and in-depth communication between equals.
  • Consciously seeking to understand and enable fundamental human interests, without which it is doubtful if advanced and vibrant human societies can endure.

In short, careful and genuine investments in richer worlds of meaning and significance foreshadow completely different outlooks and a radically renewed palette of options.