Today, with a smart phone, any individual on the planet has access to the power of most recorded knowledge. Over the past two decades, connectivity has spawned social networks, chat rooms, usenets, blogs, wikis, bulletin boards and other ways of communicating. As we communicate more, and arm ourselves with more information, we face the difficult challenge of how to make decisions. If the First Enlightenment was about science – “How we know what we know”, then our Second Enlightenment might be about decisions.
From Enlightenment About Knowing To Enlightenment About Doing?
In the 16th century “New Learning” led to “Natural Philosophy” and in turn to the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Enlightenment was a cultural movement of intellectuals challenging dogmatic ideas, advancing knowledge using the scientific method, and reforming society through reason. During the Enlightenment people developed an agreed body of knowledge and a process for improving it, “Science”. Science can be described as a continuous process of deciding what we know. Science has advanced markedly since the Enlightenment, but these advances have not been accompanied by a corresponding set of advances in deciding what we do. Recent interest in better methods of developing information through consensus, such as James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, should extend to better methods of making group decisions.
A potted history of group decisions begins two million years ago with primate social structures, many of them exhibiting forms of democracy. Conflict led to the evolution of tribal command-and-control structures, which existed alongside tribal social structures. About 2,500 years ago, we attribute to Athens the invention of formal democracy where all members of society, pace women and slaves, have an equal share of formal political power. Around 2,200 years ago the Romans add a small twist, representative democracy. We’re still waiting for the next big advance. Moises Naim observes:
“Democracies based on single-issue NGOs and opportunistic electoral machines are weak democracies. And they are proliferating… Almost everything we do has been transformed by new technologies and organisations. Everything, that is, except the way we govern ourselves.”
[Moises Naim, “If I Ruled The World”, Prospect, May 2013, page 6]