by Graeme Codrington
Around 600 years ago in Europe, a remarkable moment of human history began. We now call it the Renaissance. There was an explosion of new information, new learning of science and revolution in society, religion, politics and every sphere of life. A critical moment came in 1450 with the European invention by Hans Gutenberg of the printing press. And suddenly more information was available to more people, cheaper and faster.
The democratisation and explosion of information and knowledge built momentum that arguably is still underway today. In our lifetime, we have experienced the dawning of the Information Age, with revolutions in our ability to get more information to even more people, even cheaper and even faster. The Internet has catalysed a new deluge of data. Is it too much to suggest that we may have the same ingredients at play in our world right now, in the third decade of the century, as they did half a millennium ago? I think so, except for one enormous unanswered question at the heart of this Information Age.
And that question is not what you think. It is the issue that divides our world and we are seeing it play out in every sphere of life, from science to philosophy, from medicine to politics. I initially thought that this issue was the issue of truth. What is true, what are facts, what is correct? That is a big issue, no doubt, and that is a huge divide in society now, the difference between facts and conspiracy theories, between what different people choose to accept as true.
But it’s not the biggest issue that divides us in society. The biggest issue that will shape our world in the next few decades is not what you might immediately think. My name is Graeme Codrington. I’m based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and I’m a researcher, an author, a scenario planner and a futurist with a passion for the future of work. My contribution to the 2020 Sakirov the World in Half a Century Forum is to suggest that the society that we will find on Earth in the later part of the 21st century will be defined by the decisions we make about how we build communities and whether we build society for the majority or for minorities.
I believe the big issue that will unfold over the next 50 years is differences in the way that we choose to lead and organise society, not what we believe, what we think, or what we can prove. But please allow me to take a slightly winding path in order to make my point before I begin. Just let me acknowledge that I see the world through Western, European and white bias. It is who I am and it is what I have been brought up with and the basis of most of my studies while I’ve travelled extensively across the length and breadth of this world. I do not have enough insight into Asian and Middle Eastern culture to be able to broaden my analysis to be truly global.
I hope that other people pick up my thesis and do attempt to globalise it, maybe more than I am going to be capable of. So my analysis of both history and the future is from my position and where I see it, but from that position. In my introduction, I insinuated that the driving force behind human advancement in the past 600 years has been the expansion of knowledge and the growth of science and modernism and humanism and everything else that followed from that. And of course, that’s true at many levels. But even if we go all the way back to Gutenberg and to his printing press, we discover that almost immediately after it was popularised and printing presses began to make their way into every town and city around Europe and eventually the world, it immediately began to be used by competing groups to print propaganda pamphlets against each other.
In particular, and especially in Europe, it was the Protestants versus the Catholics, and vice versa. Of course, the owners of the printing press didn’t verify facts or truths in the things that they printed. They were just very, very happy to print whatever anybody was prepared to pay for.
I think that’s where we might be at the moment as well in human history, isn’t it? Today it might feel that the world is even more divided than it has ever been based on what we do and don’t believe, what we’re prepared to accept and not accept as true. On the one side, there are facts that’s normally my side, right? If I’m arguing for something being right and correct and factual, it’s normally my side I’m arguing for. So on our side, there are the facts.
On the other side, in the immortal words of Donald Trump’s short lived spokesperson Sean Spicer, there are alternative facts. Probably one of my favourite quotes out of the White House in the last few years, otherwise known as lies. Well, of course they would be lies if they’re on the other side. The divide is between the things we can prove versus conspiracy theories, the things we can objectively say are true versus the things we just choose to believe. And although that feels like the big divide in society right now, i, first of all don’t think that the divide is as big as it appears.
But I also don’t think that that is the divide that really matters. All the divide that will shape the next 50 years. Although I personally find myself more on the liberal and progressive side of politics and life and philosophy, I don’t want to in any way pretend that I’d think differently if my side were under the same amount of pressure and scrutiny as conservatives are today. We are all affected by confirmation bias. Our brains are programmed to do everything they can to prove what we already believe.
The things that we already believe we find evidence for everywhere and everything else we reject. For me, the divide is not about the choice between one set of facts and another set of facts, but rather the divide between whether we choose to allow for difference or not. Whether we’d prefer to build a community, either a small tribe or a family or a group or a sect, or a little cluster of people, whether we choose to build that or if we’re thinking bigger in terms of racial groups, cultural groups, religions, nation states. Whether we choose to build these groupings based on all the things that we have in common or only the things we have in common. Building groups that are composed of people who are like us and believe the things that we believe.
And that is what creates our sense of connection and belonging, or whether we are prepared to do the work to build groups, to build communities, to build societies that allow for differences, differences of expression, differences of belief. And don’t just allow for those differences, but actively embrace and even cultivate those differences, seeing those differences as a unique advantage, as a positive, valuable characteristic of that society. That, for me is where the big divides come. And it is the choice between those two options that will define the next half century of our existence.
Historically, the divide between left and right and we use that language. The divide between governments on the one side, big government versus small government. The divide between big business and labour, the divide between capitalism and communism, the divides between conservative and liberal or progressive on the other side. Those are mainly political, but also social and cultural divides.
They’re entrenched world views that have been almost caricatured in various nations around the world and how they see each other. Russia looks at America and sees selfishness embedded in the heart of the culture and warns their own people against it. Arab nations look at America and see immorality and a degrading of society because of it. America and Europe look back at Russia and cannot see beyond their caricature of Marxism and an outdated version of communism that hasn’t existed in Russia for years. America looks at China and sees repressive control.
China looks back and sees the death throws of capitalism, even while China tries to embrace a new form of capitalism that doesn’t have some of the social baggage they think they can see. In America and Europe, historically, the divide has been between where control happens. It’s between big government, in other words, government that makes rules that keep society in play and that often leads towards authoritarianism versus freedom. Well, at least that’s how it’s often been expressed versus allowing people to just get on with their lives. And we call that small government.
But I don’t think that those divides exist in the form that most political purists or theorists would have us believe. The edges of blurred. And the centres are not holding in the west, where that divide has been between government control and government programmes and government assistance of people, which is the more liberal or progressive side of things or the Labour focused side. Of things versus, on the other hand, the conservative approaches in different countries around the world, which just wants individuals to get on with their lives, to remove restrictions on what people and businesses can do. Those who are on the conservative side have always thought of themselves as the ones who have been more free.
They don’t want to create rules to impose things on people. And it sounds as if the Conservatives or the Neoliberals, if we want to give them another label, are the ones who are most in favour of freedom. Actually, they’re not. They’re only in favour of being free of people being free. If those people are free to be just like me, free to be normal, free to be part of the majority of our society.
And that’s the language that’s been emerging. It was the language that was used during Brexit, it was the language of the Donald Trump led Conservative Party, it’s the language of Bolsonaro in Brazil, it’s the language of Putin in Russia. It’s the majority. It’s the people who are like us and the people who are not like us. We need to somehow remove.
But these are not the people of freedom. I’m not saying that in a bad way. Freedom is largely overrated and almost impossible. Think about it this way. There are people who are saying, my body, my choice about the COVID vaccines, right?
Or covert responses like mask wearing, saying, well, it’s up to me. I get to choose how I’m going to respond to COVID And if I don’t want to wear a mask, I’m not going to wear a mask. If I don’t want the vaccine, I’m not going to take the vaccine. But we don’t allow that with public health emergencies. You don’t allow that with Ebola or with smallpox.
If somebody had smallpox in your community, you wouldn’t be championing their freedom to go wherever they wanted to go, their body, their choice. We don’t champion freedom. When it comes to driving on the roads, for example. There are rules of the roads. You can’t just say, My car, my rules.
That would cause chaos in society. This is a categorical imperative or philosophy, isn’t it? That how would this end? If everybody acted like you, if everybody acted with complete freedom and no regard for any rules that create a society, we would end very, very quickly in complete and utter chaos.
When we discover that we are human beings, we discover that we are part of society. No man is an island, as John Donne said. We have to find that balance. History and future will be defined by working out the balance between individual rights and societal rights, between individual responsibilities and societal responsibilities to the individual, the individual to society, and society to the individual. And over the next 50 years.
We’re going to see this play out in a number of different spheres of society, in a number of different places that are going to force us to make this key decision that I think is at the heart of the future. Do we favour the majority? Do we favour a more utilitarian approach where we basically say we’re going to set up society for the people who are the most normal, who are the most like us? Because let’s be honest, typically when we are talking language like that, we are talking about us and we are the ones with the power. The minority.
People who are minorities in whatever way they might be minorities in society do not have the luxury of talking like that. Or do we, on the other hand, set up a society that values, includes and fully protects those people who are different? Let me give you an example of one of the ways this is playing out right now, and that is of transgender sports people. So people who don’t fit neatly into the category of male or female. Now, the ancient Greeks solved this problem by not even allowing women to be involved in the Olympics and then their sports events.
Because if you are looking for the prime example of an athlete, well then in almost all endeavours, the male is going to be the prime example. If you’re looking for the fastest person, you might discover the fastest woman. But the fastest woman is not going to be even close to the hundredth fastest man. And if you do the same with the strongest person, you’re going to end up with normally a man. And so in most sports, whether it’s golf or tennis or swimming or athletics, there are very, very, very few endeavours where the best sports person out of everybody is not going to be a man.
So either we do what the Greeks do and we only let men compete or we just let everybody compete, but we know for sure that the men will win and that women won’t even get through the qualifying rounds or we create a separate category. That’s obviously what we did with the modern Olympics and now in every sporting code we created this separate category called women. But now, of course, modern science is showing us that they’re not two different buckets. There’s a spectrum of sexuality and we’re discovering that not everybody is who they think they are. There’s a movement at the moment which is saying that every sportsperson who wants to go into the professional sphere needs to be tested.
They have to get their chromosomes tested and they have to have a genital verification that’s not going to end well. Because there was a professor of genetics who actually did this with her students and over the course of two or three years, she allowed every student to be tested genetically and then stopped the experiment because it was very, very, very traumatising. For a lot of people because they discovered that it’s not as simple as X and Y chromosomes, that a lot of people have got complications in their chromosomes and a lot of people are not the gender that they think they are, because our gender does not express itself as obviously as our physical bodies indicate. I realise this is controversial, but this is where the science is leading us. And I’m not wanting to argue about the science in this lecture, but just to talk about the philosophical and societal constructs that come from this.
If we begin to test every professional athlete for genitals and chromosomes, we are going to prove that there are not two genders, that there’s a much bigger spectrum. And at that point, what do you do? Because it’s not enough to have men and women as two categories, like the Special Olympics, where you’ve got multiple categories, there’s what, nearly 90 different categories of disability. We might have to have many different categories of gender. It’s just an example of the complexity of either just saying, no, you have to fit into the category of best sports person, and that happens to be men.
Deal with it. Or we go one step below that and say, well, it’s only men and women, two categories, and that’s the end. And anybody who doesn’t fit neatly into it, sorry, you’re not allowed to play. That’s the conservative approach. And it’s an approach, it’s a view, it’s a decision you can make.
Or on the other hand, we can make a different decision and create multiple categories. It’s more complex, it’s more expensive, it requires a lot more work. But those are the choices we are faced with, those two options. I am more inclined to believe that choosing to build society around minorities to make space for diversity and difference is going to produce a better world. What would that mean in reality?
What does choosing to build a society around minorities mean? Well, it means we’ve got to think about public policy. Public policy that protects minorities, that creates space for difference. It’s about how we choose to spend public money supporting those people who have previously been excluded, who have previously not been able to access things, opening up spaces, like my sports example. But the same might take place in education and in religion and in politics.
It’s got to do with changing the way that we communicate science. Science should not be communicated by scientists. The people who study these things don’t necessarily have the language and the connection with society to take what they are studying, like gender studies, and turn it into a societal debate. We’re going to have to make sure that education is upgraded to include critical thinking. Scientific processing, statistics and modelling should be part of every education in every part of the world.
We’re going to have to encourage public officials, especially public officials, but everybody, to regularly change their minds and to tell us that they’ve changed their minds and explain how and why they did it. Right now, we don’t allow people to change their minds. If somebody made a statement 20 years ago and we find it, we don’t allow them to say, I’ve changed, I’ve developed, especially not public officials. And if we’re talking about politics, we need to move beyond oppositional politics, which is creating massive culture wars. And so we then talk about being woke on this side and cancel culture on that side.
We’ve got to move beyond the divide that we have in the world.
Now, as somebody who does subscribe to the more progressive view, the more liberal view, the view that thinks we should open up to more diversity, you’d obviously expect me to characterise the conservative view as being more selfish. By definition, almost. It is those who are in the majority that desire to build a society that has themselves at the centre of it. Selfishness is famously at the heart of capitalism. Adam Smith famously referred to this as selfinterest and suggested that if everybody acts according to their own selfinterest, the system will balance itself out and grow.
And there’s merit in this. And the longest period of sustained economic growth and wealth creation in human history is built on the foundation of selfishness. So some would say that’s a good choice, except that I would argue it’s not working, largely because one of Adam Smith’s other key principles was the invisible hand. And that invisible hand now has a massive spotlight shining on it. It’s not invisible anymore and we can see that.
It’s the hand of the rich and powerful. During COVID billionaires and upper, millionaires have increased their wealth by nearly 50% during a global pandemic, while around a fifth of the world’s employees have lost their jobs. It’s tough to argue that the current systems are working. And by the way, this is not a critique only of capitalism. It’s different, but similar results exist in all the bricks.
Nations Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa are seeing similar things. Different, but also much the same. What we need to do is stop focusing on trying to gather power for those who are already powerful. We must choose to build a society around the needs of minorities, around the needs of those people who have previously been excluded. That’s why I called this talk just us for all.
If we build a society where we are focused on those who are not like us, if we build a club for people who are not in our club, I think we will build a better club. I believe that those countries, those societies, those cultures, those religions, those groups that do this, that make the choice to do, to build themselves for the minorities, will be better off 50 years from now than those that don’t. I can’t predict which way things will go. This is not a prediction. I can only assume that different countries, different regions, different groups, different religions, different societies will make different choices.
In 50 years from now, we’ll be able to look back and see different options and work out which was best. What I can do is lay out the case for making the choice that I am suggesting. A choice to build inclusive and affirming communities all around the world, to build a brighter future with justice for all. If we do that, I believe we will build a better world than if we don’t. I thank you.