2020 is likely to be remembered as the year that the last vestiges of remaining facade fell off the front of Society 2.0. Continuing economic challenges for the vanishing (vanished?) middle-class led to surging populist movements around the globe. Incidents of extreme weather continued to increase, leaving many communities fighting for their very existence. Brexit found the people of the United Kingdom wishing to pull back from the world, while finding that not as simple as possible. The same currents led America to also pull back from the world, resulting in several years of tumult followed by an election display worthy of any warlord-led country. People of color and marginalized citizens around the world organized to protest for equal rights only to be greeted by ever-escalating violence as the powerful tried to protect the status quo. And refugees around the world searched for a welcoming place to call home. All of this took place in a world wracked by the COVID pandemic, an event many had long warned about, but few had prepared for.
If we can survive the dying throes of Society 2.0, it is high time for Society 3.0!
I believe many of the issues that are facing us today are a result of 20th (and 19th and 18th) century societal and governance systems that have not been updated to handle the rapid pace of change we’re experiencing in the 21st century. Nearly everything about how our governments work has been unchanged for hundreds of years. While individuals have to some extent adopted social media and do interact online, one need only join a Zoom meeting since the start of COVID to see how much people still need to learn about day-to-day interactions online. We are far from developing the norms and mores for online life that we rely so heavily upon in our social interactions in real life. Non-governmental organizations and social clubs are still largely stuck in the model of collecting money from people tied to a place or single issue, and few take a systems view of the issues facing our world. All of these organizations struggle with citizen participation as people spend more time at work, work that may keep them from truly inhabiting a single place like people did in days gone by.
In 1922 William Ogburn coined the term “cultural lag”, describing the idea that traditional cultural values adapt more slowly than technology, causing a period of maladjustment for society. I think many of the issues we’re facing today are a result of that maladjustment. So how do we address it?
In most societies today, education is still viewed as an event that takes place early in life, and then ends. Our children spend a dozen or slightly more years in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Upon completion of this education, people join the work force, never to darken the door of a school again as a student. This approach is clearly mismatched to the needs of today. Spending 10 years, or 5 years, or even a year away from education can leave a person ill-informed about new technologies and their impact on society. We see this in public hearings where our elected officials try to understand technology that they may wish to regulate. We see it in the workplace when colleagues struggle with new ideas and new tools coming into the office or factory.
Our society needs to treat education as a life long process that is never complete. It should become the norm for people to attend virtual and in-person training events on a regular basis. Some of the ongoing education can focus on day-to-day skills - use of online tools, new work methods, etc. But much like a strong liberal arts education, some of these ongoing education sessions should focus on critical thinking and citizenship skills. Groups can be gathered to debate and discuss current issues facing the society, with a focus on developing policy responses to the issues.
The advantage of this approach is that it can then feed into greater citizen participation in our governments. If a citizen was required to attend a month of training focused on policy issues every two years, this training could be paired with elected officials, who would reap the benefit of hearing directly from dozens of citizens on pressing issues. Citizens could identify their areas of interest, helping to provide direct expertise to the government in support of policy development. Additionally, the government could open virtual briefing sessions, allowing more direct citizen input into the process. Perhaps, given the increasing strength of online tools, governments can explore more direct democracy options, allowing citizens to vote directly on proposals.
Finally, we need to address the well-being of citizens. Too many people today are unable to participate in government or civil society because they are overwhelmed working two or more jobs simply to provide for their family. I believe it is time to explore universal basic income, providing every citizen with a base income to ensure their basic needs are met. By pairing this with a higher level of involvement in government activities or non-profit organizations, I believe it could be viewed as a citizen dividend rather than a handout.
We are incredible at developing new technologies and tools for work and play. We have been less good at helping society as a whole to adapt to these new tools. Society 3.0 can be realized if we decide that society’s adaptation to these tools is as important as the revenue that can be realized through these inventions.