This week I want to discuss how our perception of the world shapes and guides our decisions about the future. In a previous blog, I discussed the power of narrative and how important that is in constructing reality. In this post, I want to challenge a prevailing perspective of doom that dominates the narrative in airwaves, broadcasts and most of social media. The dominant message is that our present world order is falling into chaos with no hope for redemption. This is not just a problem for large Media corporations that need to prey on fear in order to sell news but it has become the de facto perspective on any conversation about national and/or global affairs.
I want to start by making a simple statement: the world is getting better.
Let me take a step back and propose a new paradigm. What if we look at the globe not from the anecdotal evidence highlighted by media stories but actually more like a CEO looks at his/her company? What would that look like? Working for a large corporation for many years, I spent countless hours preparing presentations for executive leaders so they could understand the state of their business. The story told in these meetings is built on numbers and data. The narrative flows from pre-determined agreed-upon measures of success that allow the leader to see whether their unit is on track or not to meet their goals.
One could say that such view does not tell the whole story. That is indeed true. A company may be doing really well but that may not safeguard all employees from the threat of being laid off. For that employee, a profitable quarter means nothing. However, if the numbers are showing times of distress ahead, the story of many employees will be impacted. If the business goes bankrupt – everybody loses their job. Therefore, regardless of how dry numbers may be, they point to eminent signs of trouble that we must attend to. We ignore them at our own peril.
So, if you are the CEO of the globe, what would be some important performance metrics to look for? Thankfully I found this great blog by Bj Murphy that does exactly that, highlighting the trends around important issues like extreme poverty, wars, life expectancy, child mortality and others. The numbers show an undeniable improvement in all these key measures for the last 50 years. Believe it or not, these measures disprove the adage that “things were better in the olden days”. This is not to say that everything is getting better but such overwhelming data should make us pause to celebrate. Things are getting better in many fronts if we just have the eyes to see them.
Are we happier then? Well, if data is any indication the answer is “no.” In fact, quite the opposite, rates of depression are increasing world-wide. There could be many reasons for that. It is not clear, for example, whether people are simply more depressed or whether now we are able to better diagnose it and hence see an increase. Even allowing for that, this data is a sharp contrast to the one from the paragraph above. At least from these two pieces of data, we can conclude that a better world may not necessarily be a happier world.
Re-imagining the Present for Creating a Better Future
An unsung hero of the advances touted in BJ’s post is the rise of technology and science in the last century. If there has been a positive story, it is how science and technology have improved the quality of life. Yet, one can never forget the technology also brought the atomic bomb to our planet. They themselves could never be the answer for a better world but they have certainly enabled dreamers to make it a reality. This seems to be not only reality but also perception. In a recent Pew research survey, 42% of Americans indicated that technology has made their lives better, by far the biggest factor in a list that included medicine, civil rights and the economy. Technology advancement is one of the few narratives of hope in a sea of depressing storylines.
Here is important to highlight that perception is very relative to where we stand in relation to the past. Recently, white older men in the United States as a cohort have experience rising rates of depression and anxiety. One explanations is the sense that their life conditions have deteriorated compared to their parents. The question is not whether the world is getting better but whether “my” world getting better. This is not particular to the cohort of white older males but to all of us. This question is always asked with a point of reference in mind. Yet, is it possible to celebrate positive change even if our personal universe has deteriorated?
The first step towards imagining a new future is assessing the present from the perspective of the most vulnerable. If the world has indeed improved for them, then there is reason to celebrate. The data above supports this perspective. While there have been losers in recent change and much work is left to be done, the good news is undeniable.
From Tech Consumers to Tech Creators
If technology has made life better, it has also made it more complicated. Any PC user who had to endure using Windows for a while will realize that all the convenience brought by technology comes at a cost in complexity and troubleshooting. I believe part of the problem is that most of us approach technology as demanding consumers. That is, we expect technology to provide a pain-free solution to our problems. This is precisely the message large tech companies want us to believe: technology will solve all our problems and make life easier for everybody. That is often not the case.
To fully harness the benefits of technology we must move from consumers to creators of technology. Last week I was inspired by this story of an 11 year-old girl who invented a water tester to detect water contamination. When interviewed, the girl said she was moved by the story of water contamination in Flint, MI and wanted to do something about it. She exemplifies a true technology creator who took upon herself to solve a problem she cared about. Technology creators do not just use tech for convenience, they leverage it to solve problems. They use their God-given creativity to make the world a better place.
What if we could educate children and young adults to do more of that? What type of world could we build?