#1 Has a New, Global and Tech-Driven Enlightenment Begun?

Hi from Morocco’s Cap Spartel, Readers — check out the first post in my five-part Medium.com blog series exploring tech’s impact on global risk; it builds on my past HuffPost blog series explaining the ongoing global legitimacy crisis. It is inspired in part by discussions with my NYU grad students and key ideas in my award-winning political comic book, The Global Kid.

Morocco’s Cap Spartel – this is where the Mediterrannean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean! I was there to speak on global risk at the 1st ever Cyfy Africa conference. #workingholiday #professor #blogger #risk #technology

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a notable challenge to the status quo in Europe. A group of scientists, philosophers and writers began questioning traditional ideas in science, religion, philosophy and government — this was partly a response to scientific discovery, the religious Thirty Years War and exposure to other cultures through greater exploration. These public intellectuals spread their criticisms through salons, pamphlets and landmark publications like the Encyclopédie. This phenomenon, as we know, came to be known as the Enlightenment. It inspired new ideas, movements and even revolutions in Europe and the US. Today, notable shifts are happening in the world yet again — and all at once. Could this be the dawn of a new, global and perhaps tech-driven Enlightenment? Let’s investigate.

First, like in the original Enlightenment, there is a clear challenge to the status quo today — but it is happening globally, not just in Europe. We are at a crossroads in four significant areas. Geopolitically, the US-led world order of the past few decades seems to be giving way to something new. Maybe it is simply post-hegemonic or perhaps it is finally multipolar? It’s still unclear how the world order will evolve but the change in status quo cannot be denied. Politically, tech-armed citizens have been challenging their political systems, in many democracies and dictatorships in notable ways for a while, even bringing down governments or certain political leaders. Is democracy still the best political system? It’s not so clear cut anymore. Economically, decades of globalization are clashing with growing economic nationalism — similar to what happened in the years leading up to the First World War — while anxiety builds about how automation may leave many jobless. Socially, years of dominant global values like democracy and human rights are being overtly challenged by rising autocrats, xenophobia and various strands of extremism in most parts of the world. This is an unprecedented global crisis of legitimacy. The status quo is undoubtedly being challenged.

Second, like in the original Enlightenment, intellectuals are spreading new ideas — but again it is happening globally. To be sure, we still have intellectuals — from academics to analysts and journalists (e.g. Noam Chomsky, Ian Bremmer and Fareed Zakaria) trying to help the public make sense of the world through their speeches, articles and books that are widely distributed online. But today’s Enlightenment also has a new type of intellectual spreading his ideas — the tech billionaire. The tech billionaire is spotting current and future trends, even offering policy proposals to the public; specifically, he is warning us about the negative impact technology will have on our economy and society, especially automation-related unemployment — as Alibaba’s Jack Ma put it, “in the coming 30 years, the world’s pain will be much more than happiness.” Tesla’s Elon Musk predicts universal basic income (UBI) will be “necessary over time if artificial intelligence takes over most human jobs.” Y Combinator’s Sam Altman launched a small pilot project for UBI in Oakland, California in 2016; now he plans to expand it to be the nation’s largest UBI trial, and with political support. Today’s intellectual — the tech billionaire — not only helps explain the changes in status quo to the public, he is also aggresively suggesting and testing new ideas to tackle these changes.

Third, like in the original Enlightenment, there are a few triggers that perhaps contributed to today’s challenge to the status quo–but tech is a unique contributing factor. Maybe one trigger is the 2008 global economic crisis or Great Recession which governments have never fully recovered from. Or maybe it is terrorism which has deeply embedded itself in most countries’ DNA, flaring up recurrently no matter what policymakers do. But technology itself is also a contender, having contributed to the change in status quo. It is technology that is already changing the very nature of power — the tech cold war has begun and it is technology on the battlefield that likely will determine the next leading superpower of the international system. It is technology that has allowed for the average citizen to be more activist against government, even bringing down entire governments and regimes. It is technology that is changing our economies and our future employment which may wipe out some jobs, even if new ones are created. And it is technology that has facilitated the dramatic spread of xenophobic and extremist ideology that feeds into our global identity crisis.

This is the dawn of a new, global and tech-driven Enlightenment. Technology has played a key role in challenging the status quo — geopolitically, politically, economically and socially — which is adding to global risk. The question now is where are we headed. Can technology also reduce such risk? Can it help create some stability in this 21st century Enlightenment? Indeed it can. The next four blogs will consider exactly this.