When you hear a line like, “It’s all over but the screaming,” you’re curious. But when you hear it at the meeting of the world’s super-elite at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, it really gets your attention. To be sure, it was said in jest. At least sort of: the basic point to which the comment referred is real. We are on the brink of seismic structural and social change. And we’re not ready.
The overarching themes of the meeting have been widely talked about. Pretty much every journalist snickered that the Davos “Mountain Few” (as Jon Stewart put it) talked a lot about the worrying rise in income inequality, but when 85 people have as much money as the poorest 50% of the world’s population, well, how could they not talk about it? “Extreme science” is reshaping life, death and the very idea of nature (spider genes spliced into goat’s so that there’s spider silk in the goat’s milk, anyone?). Privacy and security are on everyone’s mind in a post-Snowdon world. And, underpinning all of this, as Thomas Friedman pointed out, is the convergence of globalisation and the IT revolution. The two new technologies most up for discussion were 3D printing (we’re already printing human jaws, next it will be houses) and cognitive computing which could replace entire industries.
Taken together, these trends represent fundamental shifts in how our world works. They probably won’t feel like science fiction as they start to unfold – every change builds on one before so we become habituated to them. But they will be profound. The difference isn’t just machines doing our work for us and displacing certain kinds of labour. That trend has been around since the Industrial Revolution. And the difference isn’t just even that the so-called knowledge economy will collapse around us because knowledge per se won’t have much value anymore. Rather, the most significant difference will be in the way these trends could impact deep values like social inclusion, democracy, social stability and a belief in individual growth and potential.
On the threshold of the structural changes we’re in for – and mindful of the potential screaming – it’s more important than ever to be asking some big questions. The ones I heard repeatedly in Davos were where the jobs of the future will come from when whole industries are transformed or eradicated? And how do we avoid winner-take-all economies and the civil unrest that might go with them?
These are important. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee said, societies that don’t think about the future don’t tend to do well there. And there’s no doubt that the world’s governments will need very good policies and practices indeed to manage the coming changes.
But there are other important questions that we need to ask too. And for the most part, I didn’t really hear them in Davos. I was left wondering what it will mean to be human in this new world? And what will we need to flourish? Setting policy aside – what should we as individuals be seeking to nurture in ourselves through the coming transitions?
Considering not just the wealth of data on well-being but also its consistency, I’d venture that the things we’re most going to need to cultivate is connection. Not just social connection through smart phones or Skype or maybe even virtual reality. God knows these have their merits, but we need to think more deeply about the sorts of connections we need to be happy, healthy and (because I think we’ll need it) grounded.
We’re going to need meaningful connections to our own bodies. This means remembering that we’re not machines to monitor and measure (one delegate on a healthcare panel, referring to the wearable device Jawbone, said, “We wouldn’t dream of driving a car without a speedometer, so why are we trying to manage our health without these?”), but rather living animals who need to play and move. We need to walk long distances, dance, jump in puddles, skip and play. We need to be connected to our bodies through the use of them, not just through machines that read back our vital signs to us.
We also need meaningful connections to the world around us through our bodies. We need to touch and feel things with our hands and skin. We will need to gasp at the shock of cold lake water, pull away from the clingy fabric of spiders’ webs, feel comforted by the warm skin of a beloved’s body, and savour the richness of a tomato picked from the garden.
We’re going to need – more than ever – a connection to where we’ve come from, to the traditions that have shaped us and the human skills that are so awesome and beautiful that they’re worth cultivating and keeping even when they’re technically redundant: penmanship, stonemasonry, pottery, baking, needlework and so on.
And we’re going to need connections to a creativity that isn’t defined by or directed to technology alone but rather is valued in whatever form it takes, whether it’s the community spirit of a street musician or the social observation of a novelist.
These comments aren’t a romantic lament for a lost world. In a time in which people seem to be defining themselves as technological optimists or pessimists, I see myself simply as a realist. As it stands, we’ve got a whole lot of evidence that while the material benefits that technological innovation have brought are real and need to be acknowledged, we’re also grappling with unprecedented rates of anxiety, depression, obesity and so on. But there’s plenty of research out there that suggests what humans need to thrive. And it’s not technology, or at least, not just technology. It’s the connections that remind us of our very natures.
As we venture into what Thomas Friedman calls this ‘Gutenberg-scale moment’ let’s keep the notion of the good life front and centre. It should be guiding not only the policy choices with which we’ll be managing these structural changes, but also the daily choices (and refusals) we make.