I believe that our time is unique in the history of mankind for at least two reasons: the first is that our consciousness is taking a quantum leap in its evolution, the second is that, for the first time, mankind is facing an ecological crisis that will affect all forms of life on our planet for generations to come.
The Evolution of Mind, Reality and the IQ Puzzle
For a long time I believed that it was possible to construct some sort of objective reality, a universal point of view, a philosophical hilltop from which we could – from a single, indisputable perspective – interpret the world. Since the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy it became more and more obvious, that such an idea cannot be defended. The reason is foremost language. As Wittgenstein proposed, it is our language that defines the way we open the world towards us. Language furthermore defines our life-form. It is language that informs our interpretation of reality. As language evolves so does mankind‘s consciousness. Logically, as consciousness evolves in the historical dimension, there can be no last objective reality. It does not mean, as the echochambers of social networks suggest, that there are no valid arguments and commonly shared questions. The interpretation and handling of realities has become one of the biggest challenges of our time.
There are several hypotheses to why, after decades of continuous growth, the IQ of average people has recently been dropping up to 6 points (see current research such as Bratsberg et al.). This argument is an important counterpoint to the assumption of self-perpetuating mental progress. Potential explanations seem factors such as (1) environmental degradation, (2) increasing social inequality, (3) the fact that traditional IQ-tests do not cover newly emergent skills of the digital age, (4) that social networks circumvent cognitive processing by comforting commonly held beliefs, or (5) that we gladly outsource our mental concepts to the digital technosphere (or any combination of the above). Google, our friend, knows everything better, so why should we bother our natural faculties?
Still, as a collective, we have managed to become highly innovative while keeping resistant to ethical progress and its implementation. We built the Large Hadron Collider, started nuclear fusion research reactors while private contractors are shooting the first tourists into orbit. Cudos to our ingenuity! At the same time, we seem incapable of keeping global warmth below 1.5°C. In its latest report, the IPCC warns that we might be heading towards a catastrophic 2.7°C. Simply put, the habitable zone by the end of our century is highly likely to be greatly diminished. Looking at current extreme weather phenomena, they are a sneak preview of the shape of things to come.
From a Globalized Citizen Perspective
As stated, the laws of phsics are non-negotiable while our minds can modulate and change physical settings. We are active actors in this game. The philosopher Bertrand Russell mentioned in an interview with the BBC in 1959 (below) that, in a highly interconnected world we do live, rather than die together, and therefore depend on charity and tolerance.
Today, we are fully aware of our ecological footprint, but how do our minds evolve as we are simultaneously driving, eyes wide shut, into catastrophic territory? In the following, I shall draw on my personal experience. Please feel free to relate your own.
I was born in 1963, a typical baby-boomer. It was the year that nuclear weapons testing in the biosphere ended. There are no traces of me on the Internet of my childhood or youth, even of my young adult life. I grew up in a time that was as analogue as it gets. To me, in hindsight, it was a great freedom to continuously reinvent myself as a young person without the all-seeing eye of social media. Currently, in 2021, I have become an international digital consultant on education. In my life, I have encountered dramatic autobiographical challenges and disruptions across the cultures that I had the privilege to live in.
Some decades ago, the autobiographical structure of my mind was far more linear and it was, more or less, following a logical sequence of (a) encountering one or more highly distressing life events, (b) subsequently falling into a deep existential crisis, (c) in desperation, entering some sort of creative dream-state of imagining desirable futures and finally (d), making all effort to turn the dream into a reality. A classical Challenge – Response mechanism. In the first half of my life this schemata has worked out beautifully, however at a high cost. As I get older, highly distressing events don’t work anymore as an impulse for autobiographical invention and personal development. Simply put: As we get older, our tolerance level towards stupidity and inefficiency is greatly diminished. We desire the freedom to prosper within a rational framework devoid of overbearing stressors.
Life has always appeared to me as a series of giant waves of opportunity. It was up to me to surf these waves well. This model, which I shall call the open, multidimensional world (in short OMW, which is, fittingly, also the acronym for ‚on my way‘), stands in dialectical opposition to the concept of the VUCA world. Our world has indeed become more vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. However, at the same time, it has become more open, more diverse and with far more creative opportunities than ever before, based on technological empowerment. VUCA is just one side of the coin.
Given VUCA and OMW, the perception of reality has changed within my generation from a more linear towards a multidimensional and asynchronous structure. The life of my parents still evolved along a straightforward path of formal education, followed by a long, ambitious and enterprising working life and finally, retirement. My autobiographical path, by comparison, is one of continuous lifelong learning, a complex global working life across cultures (both self-employed and for governments), with no plans for retirement as a creative person. If I should ever be forced to slow down at old age, it would be my time to write books, to publish obscure philosophical essays (that few people would be inclined to read) or to produce music and art that even fewer would enjoy. In short, I imagine having a rather splendid time ageing in dignity. Getting older for me implies staying embedded in relevant communities and to be surrounded by a global network of dear friends. A rich social life is the key to lasting happiness.
Cornerstones of a 21st Century Mindset
However, to turn such an ambitious dream into a reality, I had to let go of linear thinking. How does this look like and based on which assumptions?
The first condition for creating meaning in life is to be empathic, perhaps even more empathic than we might already be. Empathy is the ability to put oneself into the shoes of others. Empathy means identifying with the despair and pain of others, to understand their feelings and perspectives and to adjust one‘s actions based on the newly found insights. Without empathy and understanding, all our progress would become meaningless and even destructive.
In this predicament, soft skills have become the key to human progress. What is new in our age is that our actions and the effects of our actions (e.g., if we think about the consumption of meat, clothing or energy) are covered and obscured by long intransparent chains of production and redistribution via most diverse social actors. In our globalised economy, we do not experience the effects of our daily consumption immediately and personally, such ase.g., pollution or the social costs of our consumption. The organisational alienation created by global supply chains demands a new kind of professional empathy that goes beyond our commentary on reports in the news. My father once put this eloquently into a single sentence: ‘A small problem in your life might be a huge problem in someone else’s life.’ It is up to us to get professional about it.
The second condition is the ability to think and create multiple scenarios. How would my life look like, a few years from now, if I would stay in the realm of short-term university contracts? How would my life look like if I would return to Asia? How would my life look like if I decided to found a software start-up? A big problem is that few enjoy the luxury of an open-choice buffet in life. Admittedly, I belong to a privileged global elite. The more diverse, internally connected and strengthened by experience our competency sets, the more options open up for us in the OMW-world. To connect with others on high levels of engagement, the ability to think and live multiple scenarios is a new type of mindset. We live in multiple interlinked concepts of future scenarios. The driving power behind the escond condition is creativity. This is how quality education for all young people in the world is key to solving global problems.
The third condition is resilience. Setbacks and failures are inevitable. More than often, glamorous contexts from the outside look far less glamorous from the inside. As social beings, we resonate like musical instruments in an orchestra. We need the right kind of people with the right kind of mindsets to make us resonate and flow. Facilitating a sustainable creative flow, at least two versions of my Self come into play: my current Self and my future Self. The latter tells me not to give up, to keep searching for the lights that the future holds. At the same time, my present Self tells me to keep enjoying the moment, the here and now. Every moment, every relationship, every project is illuminated by multidimensional space, the sweetspot where past, present and future overlap. When it comes to projects, the present gets illuminated by the promise of the future. Even in our darkest hours, we never give up since we will never know what hidden good things this wicked world has still in store for us.
The fourth condition is technological empowerment. If we believe in VUCA, OMW, or both, one underlying fact remains certain: this new world is data-driven. The complexity of the digital age implies that we develop tools to empower our humanity with adequate tools and platforms. But things are never this simple. Technology is a double-edged sword when we think e.g., of China‘s role as the world’s first digital dictatorship, or the employment of surveillance technology in authoritarian regimes all around the world. Consequently, what we require from the perspective of open societies is the development of participatory and democratic technology that assists people in creating autonomous life-paths. When ideology tells people that there is only a single path, we know that there are always many.
Mankind Evolves in Virtual Mindspaces: Multiple Futures instead of a Singular Vision
The Times They Are a-Changin, to quote Bob Dylan. What are the Takeaways? As the world changes, our mindsets change even as our feelings of love and freedom connect us to past generations across time. Mankind as the subject of history, to cite Hegel, does not evolve in a fixed historical and mental space drifting towards the future. Subjects of the digital age exist on many levels. A contemporary ‘Phänomenologie des Geistes‘ would perhaps imply that people exist in their present material-historical setting (the here and now) as well as in the multiple virtual spaces of potential autobiographical developments. The more people become educated in the described creative and pragmatic manner, the more ‘spaces of possibilities’ can be imagined, populated and made come to life.