Tuesday, November 15

Harvest for the world

Gather every man, gather every woman
Celebrate your lives, give thanks for your children
Gather everyone, gather all together
Overlooking none
Hoping life gets better for the world *

I read an essay about a quarter century ago that moved me because of its implications for democratic government. I came across the writing by chance, while browsing through a Vogue magazine. I cannot remember the writer's name; perhaps Molly someone, a film critic. She analogized the Star Wars-type films to humanity's cathedral building era. She did this to make the point that in the place of the lone director handling all aspects of the film-making process (a la Cecil B. De Mille) were now thousands of talents laboring to produce a film.

A few months earlier I'd sat in an auditorium in India watching an unassuming young woman receive an award. She was one of several Indians brought there to be awarded for service to a village. She looked out over the throng for a moment, clearly nervous at having to speak before such a large gathering.

Then in a clear, ringing voice she said, "We cannot all be great people but no matter how small we are, we can all do great things."

A roar of agreement went up from the audience. I felt as if I'd been running for ten thousand years and finally reached a goal post. The age of democracy is here. It's been such a long time coming. It has gathered a force that cannot be stopped.

I do not romanticize "the people" or the democratic process. I see them as the only workable solution to a central problem that government has never faced until the rise of megapopulations. Mussolini promised to make the trains run on time. Today, people are realizing that there are now too many trains, too many ways they can derail, and too many people riding them to expect just one person or an elite to deliver on a government promise.

Megasocieties not only require and demand solutions, they require that government anticipate problems and head off the most serious ones. (Think pandemic, hurricane relief.)

Here we come to a snag. Until the era of megapopulations government has only been expected to manage problems (e.g., kick the can down the road, respond to the loudest complaints, etc.) not solve them.

Another snag: it is very hard to anticipate (a) whether a situation is problematical before it occurs, and (b) whether a potentially problematical situation is large or small.

Re (b) a case in point: A few dead crows are found on the streets in Chicago in a few locations. Calls to the sanitation department to remove them go to the bottom of the list because there are much bigger emergencies. A short time later there is an outbreak of West Nile virus, killing several people in Chicago. Later, officials grid the neighborhoods where the virus broke out and discover the outbreaks arose where the dead crows were reported to the sanitation department. (1)

If you drill down to bedrock you find that the worst problem was not the dead crows, the virus or the sanitation department. It's that Chicago's municipal government, as with all governments, necessarily hires management that specializes in one area or another of municipal management. A problem arose in Chicago that was outside the areas of specialization of the government workers, and which required a cross-section of knowledge bases to anticipate and solve.

You cannot get away from that situation -- not unless you pool all the knowledge bases and specialties represented in the population; i.e., put the entire population to work for the government. Yet that is essentially what democracy does.

The biggest challenge of our era is connecting diverse knowledge bases and generalists with day-to-day administration of governments. But you can't even begin to work at that challenge until the society has a democratic government. Why? Because you can't count on widescale volunteer input in any other form of government. Why report dead crows if you're hauled off the prison for complaining?

People in megasocieties have to see evidence that at the end of the road, their efforts are going toward problem solution, as versus keeping in power an elite whose only idea of problem solving is keeping themselves in power.

So today's despots are shoved into a smaller and smaller corner in order to defend their regimes. And using more and more energy and resources to shore the defenses. Classic examples are the regimes in China and Iran. What are they down to now? Manipulating the media in the effort to present phony evidence that they are solving problems.

It's all over for them; I know it might be hard to believe at this moment but we're in the mop-up period. No matter how ruthless the military commander, no matter how silver-tongued the demagogue, huge problems rippling in falling-domino effect through a megasociety are a force more powerful than guns and rhetoric.

When the chain reaction sets off, despotic governments are forced to run around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to cover up a million different manifestations of the problem. They're outwitted at every turn by the sheer size of the populations they rule and the complexity of problems -- in an age dominated by technology.

The relative cheapness of technology has meant that the masses no longer need to yearn to become a king or general in order to lead the good life. Government in developed countries is seen as a highly paid servant. If the servant screws up, people are too busy earning a paycheck to believe more than twice the promises of the servants. They want results.

That places non-democratic governments in a quandary. If they succeed in development, the masses will view them as a servant and act accordingly when despots fail to deliver on promises.

If the despots block development in order to keep the masses down, they find it increasingly hard to get the money to allow them to fend off revolutions -- in an era when bomb-making instructions are posted on the Internet and the bomb chemicals can be bought for a song.

There are still places in the world where despots can fob excuses onto others but, "God is punishing you" doesn't have quite the same effect when you run into an aid worker who exclaims, "Gee, your government really screwed up disaster relief! Same happened to us but we put the fear of God into the bureaucrats."

Populations today are simply too large to hope that a vast bureaucracy laboring under an emperor or oligarchy can fill the bill. Thus, democracy is no longer an option; it's the only edge humanity has against the downsides of our success as a race, which is measured in our great number.

1) See Dial 311..., which mentions the technology that could have headed off the virus outbreak in Chicago -- if officials had thought to use it before the fact. The implications for fending off H5N1 hardly need emphasis.

* From an Isley Brothers song, Harvest for the World

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