It feels, at last, that the 21st century has arrived. Until recently we’ve been at the end of the 20th, but now it’s different. Obama, of course, but something else as well.
There’s been a conversation going on—a wider, more inclusive and better-informed conversation than humankind has ever experienced before. You may have noticed the explosion of conferences, seminars, blogs, chats and twitters. What’s it all about? Two recent books—Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody— sounded the alert. It’s about the unexpected synergy of information. Informed, data-rich communication is reaching critical mass.
In the absence of data, you theorise. In an abundance, you just need to do the maths. And, because of all those super-efficient search engines, we share more and more data. Data dissolves ideology.
Two further books exemplify this: David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline are rigorous responses to the challenge of climate change. Both work from data rather than theory, and offer systems of management rather than ideologies. Both are number-rich and theory-light, and urge action—now. In MacKay’s words: “We have to stop saying ‘No’ and start saying ‘Yes’.” In Brand’s: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.”
We’re either at the start of a renaissance, or at the end of civilisation. Increasingly, from facts and figures and arithmetic, we’re building the intellectual tools to decide which it will be. While some shrill conservatives cling to the past, the rest of us are moving forward to something still in the process of being defined. That’s why, compared to them, we look a bit untogether. They know precisely what they don’t want, but we can’t yet clearly articulate what we do want. That’s the nature of the future—it’s a collective act of informed imagination. And the quality of information is improving.