Building a more conscious society

Building a more conscious society

Tomas Bjorkman will be among the speakers at next month’s Singularity Summit in Athens. The Swede describes himself as “an applied philosopher and social entrepreneur.” In this interview, he discusses the basic elements of the “Nordic Secret” (also the title of a book he co-wrote with Danish economist and futurist Lene Rachel Andersen) and explains the steps society needs to take to adapt to the digital revolution.

What does it mean to build a “more conscious society”?

A “more conscious society” is one where we, as individuals and collectively, are more aware of ourselves. Aware of our limitations and the freedoms that could be realized. It is a society that rejects the old Enlightenment view of our consciousness and our mind as a fixed, rational decision machine that is fully developed by the age of 20. It is a society that is aware of the lifelong development of our individual minds and the development of our societal culture, and that actively supports such developments. You could say that it is a “deliberately developmental society.”

What is the Nordic Secret? How can it help us navigate the paradigm shift that the rapid evolution of technology is leading us toward?

In the Nordic countries 150 years ago, we had visionary political leaders who knew the importance of creating a more conscious society. They saw the creation of a “deliberately developmental society” as a prerequisite to building strong and stable democracies. They referred to this by the German name Bildung. For this purpose, they created a vast network of “retreat centers” – 150 such centers in Sweden alone – with the purpose of supporting young adults in their personal inner growth. Up to 10 percent of each generation of young adults spent up to six months at a retreat, finding their “inner compass” and becoming authors of their own lives in a much deeper sense than before. By becoming grounded in themselves, rather than dependent on an outside authority for their inner security, they could all stand steady in the turbulent times of rapid societal change and could become much more active co-creators of the modern, democratic society. The sad fact is that now, in the Nordic countries, we have all forgotten about this important connection between inner growth and democracy. That is why Lene Andersen and I call it the Nordic Secret.

Does the paradigm shift you envisage include an evolution beyond the capitalist system, or can the major challenges – economic globalization, artificial intelligence, climate change – be dealt with by the capitalist mode of production?

The capitalist system is a very special implementation of the market system. The market is a very efficient way of allocating recourses in a complex world. But, in many ways, the present “capitalistic” implementation of the market has limitations that we need to overcome – not least the problems of externalities, like pollution. We need to reinvent the market! But we must also understand that the market will never be able to provide us with all we need in life as individuals or society. Many of our most important needs, both as individuals and as a society, are of the type economists call “collective goods.” Every economist – but unfortunately not many politicians – knows that the market cannot provide these kinds of goods and services. For these we need other mechanisms of provision. I develop this in my book “The Market Myth.”

The key to the digital revolution is data – which its supporters claim will be used to solve problems from intractable diseases to motor accidents to corruption. But is the world it creates – of surveillance, narcissism and attention span collapse caused by social media and ever-creepier advertising based on personal information – conducive to Bildung?

The bad effects we see today, of for example social media, are not an inevitable effect of the digital revolution. It is the effect of digital revolution driven mainly by private profit interests. Private profit interests are good motivators for technological innovation. But we should keep in mind that the interest of private profit and the interest of the common good don’t always align. This is especially true when monopolies are involved. Free market advocates in the last century were very worried about the bad effects of monopolies and enforced strict anti-monopoly rules and regulations that forced the breakup of such monopolies. But somehow we have “forgotten” this today. Facebook and Google are examples of natural monopolies that should either be broken up, or at least opened up to independent “co-providers” – like many countries have done for the electric grid or the telephone network. Or they should be declared public utilities and be managed for maximizing the common good, rather than as today: for maximum private profit, even at the expense of democracy.

How do events like the Singularity Summit help to smooth the way toward the required paradigm shift so that we can adjust to the new society technology is creating?

Singularity Summits and similar events help more people to become aware of the fact that we are rapidly approaching a completely different human world. A world that within 10 years will not be able to operate with societal structures and institutions that are already crumbling today. These are of course very important insights and this is why many leaders in the tech world are starting to talk about basic income and other innovative ways of organizing society. But the insight I see missing in many tech circles is the importance of matching technological development with personal inner growth – Bildung. For us all to function and thrive in a more and more rapidly changing and complex world, we have to develop an inner complexity that matches the complexity of our world. This is essential for our ability to make sense of – and find meaning in – our new world.

We live in an age of dissonance. There is a fundamental lack of fit between the complexity of the world and the complexity of our consciousness. The most fundamental source of dissonance is knowing that the world has made extraordinary progress, yet sensing that everything has to change. Therefore, we all need to develop our inner capacities to become co-creators of a more conscious society.

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