Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Future Shock

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write; they will be those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. Alvin Toffler

Thirty six year ago Alvin Toffler wrote "Future Shock" - His idea being that human beings are not well suited to handling a rapid pace of change. He coined the term "informational overload" to describe the key root of future shock. It is one of the themes of this blog that our knowledge of the future is imperfect and our skills of prediction are poor. Yet as Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues human beings persist in trying to create patterns out of essentially random events- he calls this the Platonic fallacy. Thus even the information that we actually possess may not be the information that we think we possess. It is understand these limits and in particular understanding how to react to our fallibility that can create robust systems.

As we examine the future, we are in danger of drowning real information in the noise of details- and this is particularly true in politics, where politicians also have less experience in handling executive decision making than ever.

It is part of the intellectual root of Liberalism that explicit limits must be set for state power- and as details begin to overwhelm our capacity to understand them, it will become ever more critical to break down larger decisions making into smaller pieces: more local decisions, more diverse and heterogeneous political choices.

The information society is drowning in extraneous details. Big picture thinking is now the only way to approach strategic decision making: yet that can only be predictive think to a very limited extent. The goal now must be to focus on the systems to cope with our own fallibility. The shift in political thinking is away from policy based on given predictions and towards systems that are robust and flexible enough to cope when we get it wrong. The key debate- across all democratic societies- is moving away from the false god of policy predictions and much more towards a debate about the systems of government. These are constitutional and executive: the government and the civil service.

The Liberal Democrats advocate quite radical changes to our constitution because we believe that our systems are unresponsive and inflexible. We believe in radical decentralization because centralized power systems are now too inefficient to cope with informational overload and because we believe that a mono-culture of policy options, in for example health, creates potentially dangerous rigidity. Economies of scale from national procurement are off-set by slow delivery and poor service outcomes. At each stage we are trying to improve the ability of government service providers to respond to changing circumstances. The failure of the large scale IT projects in social welfare is not a surprise- given informational overload, it is inevitable.

Liberal Democrats have a mature and developed set of ideas that are built around the context of individual freedom of action. We are not offering a change of policy within the current system, we are seeking a systemic change- genuinely radical. The key to freedom is to prune the activities of the centralized state and to create flexible geometries of power- some of which lie outside the state, like pressure groups and charities. It is only be limiting the activities of the state that it can deliver anything effectively to its citizens. In Britain, at least, citizens are voting with their feet- voter participating is historically low, because the state apparatus has not been flexible enough to respond or even reflect its citizens' wishes. Too many politicians have assumed the role of "Philosopher King" and presumed to second guess the will of the people.

Yet I do not fall into the trap of exaggerating the problem for my own ends- it is a debate of intellect and reason, not of emotion. I leave you with the words of perhaps the greatest philosopher king:

"Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present." Marcus Aurelius

No comments: