Our Future: Introduction
By Michael Albert at Sep 13, 2010
Consider a sports team you are familiar with, basketball, soccer, football, cricket, or whatever. How does your team approach a five year plan to go from a weak showing at the outset to a desirable outcome five years in the future?
We know the broad answer, though in details it can get incredibly complex.
The team must first understand its current conditions. Who are its players, what is its budget, what are other teams and their attributes? What are the strengths and weaknesses of its own players? What other players are or will become available and how does it all weigh up? What about the quality of its coaching staff? And of course, what about the character of the “playing field” - the nature of the sport itself, especially any likely changes in its rules, the schedule, etc.? More, since conditions can change on their own or by other organizations’ policy choices and actions as well as by one’s own policy choices and actions, analysis of the current conditions one faces must be updated as each month and year passes.
Next, the team must decide what constitutes a desirable outcome in the future. Maybe the team wants a championship, whatever it costs. Or maybe it wants to maximize profits, no matter where it winds up in the standings. Or maybe it wants to serve a community or the broader public, or advance the sport itself, or whatever else.
Your team must decide its goal because what it wants affects what it needs to do to move from where it is - which is component one of its thought process - to where it wants to wind up - which is component two of its thought process.
Next the team must translate its thoughts about a constantly changing present, and its thoughts about a vision of a desired future, into a set of implementable policies and actions that lead from the former to the latter in the complex constantly changing context of other teams trying to do likewise, fickle fan reactions, a hard to predict economy, and so on.
In short, as the mental side of the team project, there is analysis, there is vision, and there is strategy and program. There are also games along the way, and analysis, goals, and means for each of those where the short run task is just like long run task only writ smaller, though conceived and implemented as part of the whole five year effort.
We could of course delve into the incredible details for your particular sport and team, but let’s instead already note that creating a new society is in some ways similar to our sports example. In creating a new society, as in succeeding in sports, we need to know where we start and where we are at any key moment as time passes, where we are going - the final goal we are seeking - and finally we the steps we should take to proceed in context of changing circumstances and opponents who want very different outcomes for society than those we favor.
Of course, to make society vastly better by altering its basic defining structures is a lot more difficult than winning a sports championship. However, there is an important subtlety about an implication of that added difficulty.
Changing society is actually so much more complex than winning a sports championship that the detailed intellectual side of changing society is actually in many respects easier, though the intuition and careful experimentation and flexibility required, is greater. This combination of relative intellectual simplicity and practical complexity is counter intuitive, but I think quite true.
The idea, first conveyed with an analogy, is roughly this.
Take physics, on the one hand, and a field like sociology, on the other. Virtually everyone would say physics is way harder. They look at the texts and journals of the two disciplines and compare - and, indeed, there is really a huge difference in how hard they are to read. In a week or two, a typical citizen can ask cutting edge questions in sociology - or even in a day or two, for those sufficiently confident. The average person can understand a lecture, or even a text pretty much right off. In fact, one can even pose cutting edge questions, and perhaps even propose possible insightful answers, again, virtually immediately. In contrast, in physics it takes years to even get to the point of understanding a text or lecture. To ask cutting edge questions much less to offer remotely sensible answers, is way harder still. So of course it seems that physics is way way harder than sociology. What could be more obvious?
However, the truth is that the opposite is true. Sociology is by a huge margin more difficult than physics, and that is actually why sociology texts are easier to read and become reasonably knowledgable of than physics texts. The point is, sociology is so difficult, as a subject, that we have accomplished relatively little vis a vis understanding anything much about it. As a result, we know so little, at least of deep patterns, that it is rather straightforward to become reasonably adept in addressing sociology issues, understanding sociology formulations, etc.
Physics, in contrast, is so easy, as a subject - yes, iso easy - that we have been able to pile up a huge amount of accurate information and theory regarding its patterns, so much so that to become familiar with even a tiny part of that accumulated knowledge, much less to extend it into new insights, is a massive undertaking. Yes, physics is mathematical - but again, that is due to being simple enough for us to discover patterns that we can summarize in equations - not because physics is so hard, but because it is so easy, relatively.
Okay, what’s the point?
I live in New England, in the U.S., Massachusetts, actually. The local football team is the New England Patriots. The coach is Bill Belichek. The playbook for any one game is an immense compendium of incredibly detailed commands and analyses. Knowing all the plays, their details, the roles of each player and the associated logic, plus the intersection of player strengths and weaknesses with on field needs and possibilities including the weaknesses and strengths the other team brings to the game - not to mention knowing budgets, opportunities for trading players, crowd impact, stadium conditions, and so on - is a herculean task. The sport is so amenable to analysis, and is so carefully and comprehensively dissected, that there is a vast body of information, intricately detailed, that extends to great depths, that one need to understand to affect the patterns that arise in football analysis, vision, and strategy. In contrast, because society is so much more complex than football, there is not a massive accumulation of reliable deep insights about its patterns. It is so hard, we don’t know that much about its innards and their relations. Ironically, the analysis, vision, and even strategy of social change that is essential to be a competent participant is more accessible to timely and popular comprehension, what is needed to be adept at football.
And so we come to the point.
Changing society is not physics, or as we used to say some decades ago, it is not rocket science, or, if you prefer, it is not football. Changing society is more like sociology. It is about daily life and the institutions that we encounter every day, and since everyone’s depth of understanding is limited, most of the information needed about people and social relations to understand and envision and strategize as well as people can, we are already familiar with, or can easily become familiar with. More, our understanding of the dynamics and possibilities of ourselves and of the institutions around us is at best so general, that again it doesn’t take years or decades to get up to speed, including with most careful insights available.
On the contrary, it turns out that aside from careful application of the insights - and that on the fly practical wisdom is not so easy, at all - and assuming that experts don’t make it obscure by using unneeded fancy formal language, the ideas we need to have in our mental arsenal to be prepared to effectively analyze, envision, and strategize for social change, isn’t meager but nor is it so much that it is out of reach of normal people with typical life pressures. In short, you don’t have to be a social change pro to be really smart about social change - though you do have to be a coaching pro, schooled for years in special ways, or almost, anyhow, to be really smart about a ball club.
Does that sound implausible? It probably still does. And if I added that I think the typical serious football fan in the U.S. has more in depth conceptual background and analysis of football and analyzes, envisions, and strategizes more deeply about football than the average serious political activist has in depth conceptual background regarding and analyzes, envisions, and strategizes about society, that too would probably sound like poppycock. Fair enough. The proof will be in the pudding.
This book means to communicate an array of information, insights, and tools of thought sufficient to empower any reader for intelligently thinking about, planing for, and participating in efforts to create major social change. My claim is that less time will be needed to get you ready for that at a top flight level of competence, even if you have no prior activist and society changing experience, than would be needed to get you ready to handle the intricacies of soccer or cricket at a top flight level of competence, much less physics.
Briefly, part one of Our Future is about the problems we face in today’s world. How is society organized and why does it need changing? What are its key defining features? What are our attributes, as citizens, given that we grow up and function in society? How do different aspects of society affect us, the citizens? How do we as citizens affect different aspects of society? What is history - why do things change? Why do other things stay unchanged?
Once we have an overarching picture of where we are at and how to think about society as it changes in time, we will take a look at a few specific elements of society that have special lessons to teach. Then we will conclude part one by understanding some of the benefits and pitfalls of our new social theory.
Part two then proposes our vision. It argues for the value of vision by showing why we need it. It provides some broad vision for six aspects of society - economy, polity, kinship, culture, ecology, and international relations. And all this taken together becomes the second component of our basis for evaluating and settling on social change actions.
Part three of Our Future is about strategy and program and is the longest section in the book. It covers broad principles, themes that arise, specific examples, and some plausible scenarios. It is particularly hard to do well because strategy, tactics, and program, are all overwhelmingly contextual. They change as circumstances change.
The task with analysis and vision is largely to convey a particular analysis and a particular vision. Because analysis and vision continually need updating and refining, another part of the analysis/vision task is conveying insight into how to be analytical and visionary about new matters or changed situations as they arise.
For strategy, however, there is no one strategy that is even roughly right to convey as a basis for building on. The whole strategic task is about how to think strategically in diverse settings and as situations change and unfold fluidly, often dramatically, so we have to react on the fly.
Part four of Our Future, finally, is a conclusion. It outlines some replies advocates of the views in this book might make to people who present doubts about key aspects of the book’s claims. It also presents a succinct way of summarizing the whole message.
As to the style of writing in Our Future, there is an interesting quotation that runs a bit against the writing stylist’s grain - which, however, comes from a great writer, Edgar Allen Poe - that perhaps best explains our hope.
“In important topics it is better to be a good deal prolix than even a very little obscure. But abstruseness is a quality appertaining to no subject per se. All are alike, in facility of comprehension, to him who approaches them by properly graduated steps. It is merely because some stepping stone, here and there, is heedlessly left unsupplied in our road to the Differential Calculus, that this is not altogether as simple a thing as a sonnet by Mr. Solomon Seesaw.”
No Calculus here. No sonnets by Solomon Seesaw here, either. We try to be succinct. If we must err, we try to ensure that it be toward prolix and certainly not toward obscure. Our Future tries to build a conceptual staircase toward informed, empowered participation in social change, with no steps missing. We hope it will be a staircase intellectually easier to climb than many others we have had to traverse in our lives. We hope it will be welcoming.