Are growing dysfunctional gaps in our global society inevitable?
Maybe. But it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the current polarizing social and political forces that are ricocheting us in different directions. Plus, we’re experiencing one of the most profound cultural shifts in history. Even if the positive potential of the digital economy (AI, the cloud, conversational commerce, AR, sharing, the peer economy and on and on), which is tremendously promising for all of us, we haven’t grasped the full implications of a dramatic transition out of the old industrial world. Because in that world, we built higher- than-average GDP growth, advanced the idea of personal freedom and democracy for all, and most importantly, created a strong and wealthy middle class whose identity was based on hope for a better life through hard work. The middle class provided stability and ballast, even in uncertain times.
Now, 200 years later, we’re recoiled by unanticipated shock waves. We’re stuck in a vacuum between the old and new worlds, teetering in a state of precarious imbalance. The frightening reality is that the majority of us are clueless as to how to identify and prosper from the new operating system of the digital world that, up to now, has favored a small group of creative monopolist companies that have dominated and benefited from it.
Where does this leave the rest of us? The near future will be shaped by high transition costs and significant political/social/cultural adjustments resulting from five widening gaps:
People vs. Elite.
The gap between the ruling global elites (finance, business, universities, intellectuals, government) and regular people will become more transparent, incomprehensible and unbearable.
Nationalists vs. Globalists.
The discrepancy between the economic perception of globalization and regional values of rooted communities and nations is growing. Populism is becoming a tsunami, not just a new wave.
Peers vs. Experts.
There is a gulf between a small group of highly reputable and well-paid experts with specific knowledge and an expanding group of peers or laymen who are poorly informed but becoming more powerful within the digital culture through their populist voices.
Feelings vs. Facts.
There is a rise of a culture framed by feelings, ignoring an ever more abstract and complex world of data. According to Indian author and essayist Pankaj Mishra, we live in a time of “subjective facts.“ Feelings trump all, even in the face of truth, evidence or statistical data. “You can’t beat the feeling” is truly stronger than any seemingly fact-based truth.
Dumb Mob vs. Smart Mob.
The gap between a dumb, uninformed self-focused mob that views the world almost exclusively through social media, search, the internet and TV is pushing ochlocracy (rule of the mob) in opposition to those who know how to use digital media wisely and can moderate positions with balance and fairness.
In 1997, in a moment of exceptional clear-sightedness, philosopher Richard Rorty predicted that in a not so far distant future, a large number of “the electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.” He added, nobody could predict “what such a strongman would do in office,“ but such a strongman would be powerless to do anything but “worsen economic conditions” and “quickly make his peace with the international superrich.”
Are we experiencing life imitating philosophical prediction? We strongly hope Rorty’s conclusions are wrong.
Dr. David Bosshart is the author of Polarization Shocks and is the CEO of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, Rüschlikon/Zurich