We are all of us, you and I, the old man fishing his nets on the Goan coast and the seven year old girl in the back row of the classroom in Sierra Leone, the door to a remarkable future for our world. Whatever we as a species achieve, it is as about every single one of us. We are the door. All we need is to unlock it.
When we first set foot outside the biospheres of a terraformed Mars; when we switch off the last unsustainable power plant; when we bring down the last border wall…you will have been part of that.
“You ought to be asking yourself all the time what is the most important thing in the world I could be working on right now? If you’re not doing it why aren’t you?” (Aaron Swartz)
“Try everything, make mistakes, surprise ourselves, try anything else, fail, fail better, succeed in ways we would never have imagined a year ago, a week ago. It’s time for us to be dandelions, willing to launch 1000 seeds and lose 900 of them if 100 or even a dozen of them survive and grow and make a new world.” (Neil Gaiman)
“There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.” (Josephine Hart)
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” (Carl Sagan)
My work here is one part of my contribution towards a wider project to build a world in which no one faces barriers to putting their creative and intellectual talents into practice. More important even than that, I want everyone to have the freedom to be able to contribute to our vision of what the future should be, and to realizing that vision. As projects go, that is, of course, huge beyond the scope of an individual, a group of individuals, or even a society composed of such groups. But the scale of the ambition, even its impossibility, is a spur to every step that can be taken towards it.
My aim through the services, advice, training, advocacy, activism, and consultation I provide is to empower organisations and the individuals within them to develop their creativity and so be part of building not only better, more fulfilling lives for themselves but a better world for everyone of this and future generations.
My aim here, in my research, is to explore the ways in which we can help this to happen, from the smallest level to the largest. I aim to produce white papers, and more detailed research on all areas encompassed in the objectives outlined here, with the aim of informing and enabling those who are already looking for avenues to pursue, and making the case to those who are not; setting light to imaginations and changing conversations. In keeping with the principles being furthered, all materials generated through this research will be available, for free, to everyone, to build on as they are able and willing.
Unlocking the Future
The most worthwhile and effective projects need to have three levels of focus. Any contribution to any of those levels is a valuable contribution to the whole, but without this necessary differentiation, all contributions lack the effectiveness they might otherwise have. These levels are, as projects progress, always in dialogue with each other and subject to iterative, and occasionally revolutionary, change through negotiation with experience and each other.
Wicked Problems and Winnable Battles
If we are going to successfully unlock the future we need two very different perspectives. We need, as a world, to be willing to have conversations about wicked problems, those seemingly insoluble challenges which, for all their intractability, we cannot shy away from. We need to bring as many angles of assault as we can to bear on these problems, and we need to experiment constantly. We need continual A/B testing for solutions to their wickedness. But we also need to undertake tasks at the smallest level where real progress is possible through achievable change, progress that will ultimately contribute to these global solutions. For both of these to happen we must constantly be asking ourselves – what are these wicked problems? Where can we achieve genuine wins?
A world in which we as individuals and as a species are enabled to use our full intellectual and creative skills, wherever they may lie, to creative better lives for ourselves and a better future for humanity, enriching the short time we spend here through culture, and collaborating together to tackle the challenges that face us in the century to come and beyond, challenges such as the AI singularity, the possibility of transhumanism, food security, automation, disease, and climate change – ensuring that those paths we will inevitably follow take us to destinations we are able to choose and pursue before the choice is take from us; and that where we have a choice of path, the decision we take is based on the best of evidence and the best of motives – all the while preserving the intellectual flexibility and curiosity to tackle the unexpected turns in the road that we will surely face.
To realise this vision at every level from the micro to the macro, treating at different times and in different ways the constraints upon one person in one workplace with the same seriousness as the cultural landscape of continents.
It will be evident that these preconditions provide very concrete muster points around which efforts to campaign, to influence policy, and to create real change on the smallest to largest scale can easily be formed.
- Universal Basic Income
The attainment of any vision can only happen through developing and perfecting the best tools, through the creation of the right conditions. Science and culture, indeed every kind of innovation, thrive when they have the freedom to fail. And the primary to the freedom to fail, and fail again, and possibly fail forever, is the need to provide food and shelter. So my first practical precondition for a world of unlocked potential is the provision of a universal basic income. Of course the word “universal” need not mislead us into thinking this is an all or nothing measure. One of the initial projects (Petrichor) I will be undertaking is seeking the provision of individual “enabling scholarships” that will effectively buy people, who from necessity have taken a job that does not let them fully use their potential, the time and means to develop skills and partake in research whilst not losing income.
- Open Access
For the freedom that a universal basic income furnishes us to be used to best effect, it is essential that everyone has access to the whole sum of human knowledge. For an individual to have the talent, the imagination, and the practical qualities to undertake something momentous but to fail through not having access to a piece of knowledge or even an awareness of a whole field would be a tragedy. To be instrumental in withholding that access would be criminal.
- Access to Skills
This is the key part of my practical work. It is not sufficient for their to be access to knowledge, or even access to the time needed to use that knowledge. There must also be access to the skills needed to utilise those resources. This means improved education, but it also means on the one hand global projects to disseminate high quality training materials, and on the other localised projects to ensure those materials reach everybody, in a format and a language that they can use. We know that through deep practice most people can acquire expertise in most skills. It is our duty to ensure that everyone has what they need to undertake that deep practice.
The kind of change that the things outlined above represents is possible on every level from the individual to the global. But for the greatest possibility of the greatest change, there needs to be, at a social and political level, the ideological and intellectual readiness to embrace that change. And that means changing conversations, one person at a time, because in three key areas there is not only inertia with regard to change but widespread and ingrained hostility to the conditions for enabling it to happen:
- Embracing failure
As a society, we celebrate success. But the problem is greater than that. The economic and social levers that drive activity, that deem this worthwhile and this worthless, are geared towards success in a way that is not only injurious to innovation but self-defeating. And yet it is that self-defeatingness of zeroing in on success, of worshipping “impact” in research and maximising the “useful” as a portion of the whole in any endeavour that provides us the fulcrum for changing the conversation.
- Taking an axe to the idol of work
“Hard-working” has become the most important epithet you can give someone if you want to express their worthiness, their deservingness of our admiration or our support. And it has become taken for granted that the opposite of “hard-working” is “lazy”, “undeserving”, or “scrounger”. If we take just a moment to reflect on what that says about us as people and about the vision of society we are working towards, we will see that this is actually not just ludicrous but quite horrifying.
- Rethinking intellectual property
I am a writer, and I have spent a lot of time at the heart of the self-publishing movement. As such I have come across not so much resistance as fury at the notion of open access. But unlike the previous two conversations, this is an area in which the idea already has enough traction that we know there is a way in. The Creative Commons movement is well-established, and across the globe it is increasingly a condition of public funding of research that the results of that research be publicly available. The wheel is already turning. We just need to ensure it is thoroughly greased.