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.

 

 

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Monsoon rain is like nothing else. It hammers down from the sky like something solid, not water at all. When you’re outside, you either run like crazy to get out of it or give up entirely and let yourself get soaked.

It’s loud too. In fact it’s so loud that I did a double take when our hostess, Phyu Phyu Tin, owner of Yangon’s (aptly named) Monsoon restaurant told us that the building was haunted. “What?” I whispered to the woman next to me. “Did Phyu Phyu say it was ‘swamped’?” “No, haunted,” she whispered back. Phyu Phyu carried on, her voice raised over the din of the rain and the gentle swoosh of the ceiling fan, “It’s the ghost of a woman. We don’t know who she is. But we tend not to work late alone.”

Phyu Phyu was speaking to twenty-five or so delegates and spouses attending the Young Global Leaders (YGL) meetings at the World Economic Forum’s East Asia Summit earlier this month. It was the second day of the summit and the 300 or so YGL delegates had scattered across Yangon to attend “Impact Journeys” – full day immersions into different facets of Myanmar business, life and culture, from urban infrastructure to healthcare to the arts.

Our group had signed up for a full day immersion into the subject of Myanmar cuisine, with a focus on the potential relationship between Slow Food and economic growth. “Slow Food” refers, of course, to the movement founded by Carlo Petrini. Given that its roots are in Italy, “Slow Food” tends to conjure images of la dolce vita: picnics under olive trees, hand cured meats, artisanal cheeses, earthy wines sipped in the afternoon sun. It can also bring to mind uncomfortable images of food elitism, Tom Wolfe-like scenarios of over-privileged yuppies braying on about the merits of one particular Tuscan olive oil over another.

If you’ve been to (or read up on) Myanmar, which is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, both of those scenarios could actually sound quite grotesque. People in Myanmar, especially in rural areas, don’t always get enough to eat: rice, a staple, can simply be too expensive. Malnutrition makes children vulnerable to childhood illnesses and dysentery. The food transport system is virtually non-existent.

So, why did it make sense for us to be in Phyu Phyu’s humid and elegant restaurant, learning about Burmese cuisine and thinking about Slow Food, while the power dipped in and out and the rains fell outside?

The answer is that Slow Food is more than a gastronomic movement. It’s a political one. Conviviality, nurturing local knowledge and traditions, environmental sustainability, celebrating particular customs in an era of globalized production and consumption…. These aren’t frivolous, or even neutral, values. They are a statement about the importance of human social life and tradition, and about the right of everyone, not just to eat, but to eat in a human, healthy and connected way.

These values are starkly relevant at this moment in Myanmar’s history. For decades, the well-being of the population of Myanmar was subject to the whim of a series of authoritarian generals. Tax rice, devalue the currency, close off trade – it’s going to have a big impact on how and what people eat. But now, under Thein Sein’s leadership, and with Aung San Suu Kyi out of prison at last, Myanmar is on the threshold of change.

This defining moment is precisely why the World Economic Forum was meeting in Myanmar. Should development be allowed to happen pell-mell, or at the dictates of the market? Or should the people of Myanmar – not just its leaders – be empowered to engage in development in a way that fosters the health and well-being of the people of Myanmar as they see it?

The people of Myanmar whom we met, like Phyu Phyu, definitely want things to improve economically, but they also want development that’s human, sustainable and consistent with local values. Phyu Phyu herself described her shock when she visited the US and saw rampant obesity and streets colonized by fast food chains. That wasn’t her vision for prosperity in Myanmar. And that vision is knocking hard at the window: a Korean fast food chicken chain was just about to open a block from our hotel.

Slow Food is also an ideological framework for thinking about how development could unfold in Myanmar. There are concrete expressions of its implications, like the idea of creating a local food festival that celebrates Myanmar cuisine the way the Mistura Festival celebrates Peruvian cuisine. But Slow Food could also frame how other aspects of development go forward, for example, by ensuring that small farmers are included in decision making, by bringing global food brands into conversation with local food producers, and by keeping food justice squarely in the public debate.

Phyu Phyu and her team taught us how to make Burmese lentil soup, “bachelor” chicken curry (so-named as bachelors might make it after a big night out, with a pinch of marijuana if they’re extremely naughty), spicy fish curry, tea leaf salad and Burmese-style spring rolls (based on a Chinese recipe, but jazzed up with tamarind in the dipping sauce). They also taught us a thing or two about the excitement and anxiety of being part of a culture poised on the edge of drastic change. And they reminded us that certain patterns don’t have to be inevitable. Models for the good life exist. They’re there, ready to be adapted for what’s needed. Myanmar can turn on the lights and banish the ghosts – be they of the past or unwanted futures.

“Bachelor” Chicken Curry Ingredients

My contribution!

My contribution!

Mortar and Pestle for pounding chilis

Mortar and Pestle for pounding chilis

Downtown Yangon

Downtown Yangon

The Sule Pagoda: a focal point of Yangon's spiritual and political life

The Sule Pagoda: a focal point of Yangon’s spiritual and political life