What the Wall Street Protests are telling us

(third in a series of articles entitled “Will our species pass the BIG intelligence test?)

Ray Kurzweil said in his book The Singularity is Near, “A more intelligent process will inherently outcompete one that is less intelligent, making intelligence the most powerful force in the universe.” But what do we mean when we talk about human intelligence? The answer does a lot to explain the Wall Street Protests that are proliferating world wide.

In the context of these articles the term “human intelligence” refers to our collective intelligence which is the sum of all knowledge available to individuals as they confront the challenges of the present and future.

Our collective intelligence has grown exponentially over the last thousand years alone. The invention of writing was a gigantic step, allowing knowledge to be transferred great distances and across multiple generations. More recently, computers and the internet have made virtually all knowledge available to a large fraction of the world’s population—with ever more powerful search and computational tools.

But our willingness as individuals to specialize has also been a critically important part of the growth of our collective intelligence. Some scientists devote their entire working lives to a single, highly specialized subject. Those same scientists would be hopelessly lost if they had to depend on their own survival skills to feed and defend themselves—but they don’t have to be concerned about such matters because farmers farm, fishermen fish, soldiers fight… We are cooperating for mutual benefit.

We have come to the point… Our future (if there is to be a future of any cosmic consequence) depends on our ability to cooperate with one another—on a global (and eventually, when and if we become a space-faring species), universal scale. Cooperation is the key to the future.

So, if cooperation is the key, and we are cooperating successfully today, what is the problem?

The problem is that, today, most of our cooperation is founded on individual self-interest. Economists (and even some philosophers) see nothing wrong with this. After all, they would say, historically, it has worked.

It certainly worked in our earliest times, when cooperation was the only reason we survived as we competed with lions, tigers, bears and other predators that were faster, stronger and better armed with natural weapons—and outnumbered us by a large margin. And it worked, (more or less) when the agricultural revolution came, and again when the industrial revolution came. And, most would say, it worked with Keynesian economics. And it worked with democracy—more or less…

But there is our problem—and the root cause of the world-wide Wall Street protests. Cooperation that is founded on self-interest is inevitably a “more or less” thing. Some people get more and some people get less… And few are happy with their lot. As our numbers grow (the human population was about one billion in 1900, six billion in 2000 and projected to be nine billion in 2040) the unhappiness grows. The people on the “more” side of the equation are so few—and on the “less” side so many. And when less means tragic poverty and starvation, as it does in so many parts of Africa, we know in our hearts that there is something terribly wrong… And when I say “we” I don’t just mean those individuals that are on the extreme, life-threatening, side of the “less” equation. We ALL know that we cannot continue as we are—even those with “more”…

We see the signs. Teenage suicides on the rise; extremist rampages (religious and right wing); senseless mass murders like the Columbine massacre and, more recently, the Norwegian disaster. There is something fundamentally wrong with our “cooperation model”.

Of course knowing that something is wrong and knowing what to do about it are two entirely different things. The so-called Wall Street Protests illustrate our confusion. In my own home city, Toronto, the confusion is almost comic—and at the same time tragic. The protesters are agreed and “unified” by their certainty that there is something wrong—but a poll to define the “wrong” would find no unity at all. Nobody has the faintest idea what the solution is. The Toronto protesters could not even make up their minds where to march, let alone what their goals are. In Europe it seems to be all about “pain and gain” to deal with economic woes. Nobody wants to be on the pain side… And all over the world resentment grows that the power holders: the corporate executives, the billionaires, the banks and our duly elected representatives all seem to be Teflon-coated, invulnerable to the pain side of any solutions.

The solution, at least in concept, is simple. We have to come up with a new, better, cooperation model; one that is not driven by selfish forces like greed; one that does not promote consumerism to the point that people feel they must have objects that they can’t afford and don’t need; one that does not define success as having extravagantly more material things than anybody else…

The Wall Street protesters are right about one thing. We need unity. We are not going to survive as a civilization (perhaps, even, as a species) as a writhing, angry mass of nine billion self-centered individuals.

They have the core of the solution right. It is a two letter word. I used it twice in the last paragraph and twenty three times in this article, so far. It is the word “we”. Our outlook has to change from “me” to “we”. But when I say “we” I don’t mean the “we” of the politician.

In our democracies, when our politicians say “we” they are talking to the voters, reaching out for their emotional, and later, voting support. The politician says “we” in a scheming, self-interested way, calculated to show the voters that he/she understands the voters’ local conditions and (let’s face it, selfish) wants and needs. They are inciting the tribal “we” in all of us, making the world into an “us” and “them” place. That is not real democracy.

Real democracy is world democracy. Where “we” means us—all of us on this planet. And not just 2011’s population, future generations 

How do we get to that nirvana, a real democracy of ALL the people? Bhutan, with its superior “Gross National Happiness” index has some of the answers. The difference between their outlook and the countries that view themselves as “advanced” can be simplistically summed up as “more spirituality, less materialism”.

Our species has always had, and will always have, leaders and followers. That is just the way it is—it recognizes that some are more fitting for certain tasks than others. Bhutan’s king fills a leadership role for BOTH spiritual and “political” purposes. So Bhutan has the advantage of an emotional unity that is extraordinary in our world.

But merging religion and state is NOT the answer. Just look at Islamic states and their pathetic versions of equality of the sexes. And we certainly don’t need elitist, tribalistic religions that consider all who don’t believe as they do to be inferior, even sub-human. But nor do we need atheism that cynically rejects all belief in a higher purpose for our existence.

What we need is a non-denominational Mahatma Gandhi with a world vision. A person who believes in the future of our species and sees that future as a responsibility for us to achieve—NOT a right. I wish I knew where such a person might come from. I can only pray to (a non-denominational) God that he will come… Then we may pass the BIG intelligence test. Then we may have a noble future.

4 thoughts on “What the Wall Street Protests are telling us

  1. Hi Peter, this was perhaps the best part I’ve read from this topic you’ve posted so far. I empathize with how you feel especially about encouraging cooperation than excessive competition that seems to run amok today. Self-interest while important to a reasonable extent, but hence the word “Reasonable” because greed and self-serving promotion in the media, corporations, and governments. Materialism is needed to maintain lifestyle of the individual and of society, but it has become the new religion in the modern day.

  2. Thanks for your comment Varin. Good to hear from you.

    I guess it’s a good thing that people realize (with the protests) that there are problems – and that it is a “we” problem.

    The saddest thing is that people in the Congo that have the most to protest about don’t – a) because they fear the consequences of speaking out, and b) because they have no hope that their problems will ever be solved. So they starve, they die, they get raped….

  3. I would post a comment on each piece, but will sum up my feelings here. This is the first piece I’ve come across that coincides with my exact thoughts. As a media professor, I’m constantly reading, analyzing and searching for solutions to the world’s problems. Can this happen via a mediated experience? I doubt it. I used to think that the media could be and would be used as an effective platform for positive social change, which is why I decided to study media communications. Sadly, I do not see this as happening. Rather than uniting us, it seems to further fragment ourselves, our societies and our desires for a return to a whole, unified being. Technology, inherently reinforces relations of power and inequality. Seems to me that the only way out of this dilemma is to eliminate capital. A utopian goal that will require radically new ways of thinking. A goal, which may seem unattainable, but one which battling for is necessary if we are realize our full potential as beings at one with the universe.

  4. Tammy, it seems that we are of the same mind. And are equally skeptical about the prospects of an “evolutionary” solution. But we (meant collectively, to include future generations…) MUST keep trying. To join the crowd that says “it will never happen” is endorsing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who wish for change – and hope for a meaningful future for our species – MUST keep trying. I know I will.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *