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Asimov's Foundation The other weekend I reread Asimov's Foundation trilogy, one of the brilliant books that might have influenced me to work within the area of foresight. In these times it might be appropriate to use one of the major SF novels of all times in order to reframe the situation. I quote here from the first chapter when the scene is set and the famous Dr Seldon is questioned about his plans and has just mentioned the coming fall of the Empire:

Q. (theatrically) Do you realize, Dr Seldon, that you are speaking of an Empire that has stood for for twelve thousand years, through all the vicissitudes of the generations, and which has behind it the good wishes and love of a quadrillion human beings?

A. I am aware of the present status and the past history of the Empire. Without disrespect, I must claim a far better knowledge of it than any in this room.

Q. And you predict its ruin?

A. It is a prediction which is made by mathematics. I pass no moral judgements. Personally, I regret the prospect. Even if the Empire were admitted to be a bad thing (an admission I do not make), the state of anarchy which would follow its fall would be worse. It is that state of anarchy which my project is pledged to fight. The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity – a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and a movement to stop.

Q. It it not obvious to anyone that the Empire is as strong as it ever was?

A. The appearance of strength is all about you. It would seem to last for ever. However, Mr Advocate, the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might that it ever had. The storm-blast whistles through the branches of the Empire even now. Listen with the ears of psychohistory, and you will hear the creaking.

Q. (uncertainly) We are not here, Dr Seldon, to lis–––

A. (firmly) The Empire will vanish and all its good with it. Its accumulated knowledge will decay and the order it has imposed will vanish. Interstellar wars will be endless; interstellar trade will decay; population will decline; worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy – and so matters will remain.

Q. (a small voice in the middle of a vast silence) For ever?

A. Psychohistory, which can predict the fall, can make statements concerning the succeeding dark ages. The Empire, gentlemen, as has just been said, has stood twelve thousand years. A Second Empire will rise, but between it and our civilization will be one thousand generations of suffering humanity. We must fight that.

Q. (recovering somewhat) You contradict yourself. You said earlier that you could not prevent the destruction of Trantor; hence, presumably, the fall – the so-called fall of the empire.

A. I do not say now that we can prevent the fall. But it is not yet too late to shorten the interregnum which will follow. It is possible, gentlemen, to reduce the duration of anarchy to a single millenium, if my group is allowed to act now. We are at a delicate moment in history. The huge, onrushing mass of events must be deflected just a little – just a little – It cannot be much, but it may be enough to remove twenty-nine thousand years of misery from human history.

Q. How do you propose to do this?

A. By saving the knowledge of the race. The sum of human knowing is beyond any man; and thousand men. With the destruction of our social fabric, science will be broken into a million pieces. Individuals will know much of the exceedingly tiny facets of which there is to know. They will be helpless and useless by themselves. The bits of lore, meaningless, will not be passed on. They will be lost through the generations. But, if we now prepare a giant summary of all knowledge, it will never be lost. Coming generations will build on it, and will not have to rediscover it for themselves. One millenium will do the work of thirty thousand.

Here it is worth noting that the main inspiration too this novel, which started as a series of short stories by a 22 year old Asimov, published from 1942 and forward, came from Gibbon's famous work "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". When I see it in this perspective I can't avoid thinking of the role of the monasteries which worked as knowledge capsules during the dark ages.

What does Dr Seldon say about what causes the fall of the Empire:

  • a rising bureaucracy
  • a receding initiative
  • a freezing of caste
  • a damming of curiosity
  • ...a hundred other factors

And the effects will be:

  • its accumulated knowledge will decay
  • the order it has imposed will vanish
  • interstellar wars will be endless
  • interstellar trade will decay
  • population will decline
  • worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy
  • ...and so matters will remain

Do these bullets sound familiar?

Our thinking about what we have to do is most likely not in the same line as Dr Seldon – mainly because we don't have the luxury of having developed the science of psychohistory – but realizing what stage we really are in, when it comes to societal and civilization development maturity cycle in combination with ecological and technological reality is crucial if we are going to meet the future in a way which don't turn out to be a horrifying apocalypse.

So go back and read the quote again and come back with comments about differences and similarities between this stage of our society and maybe the roman empire, or Asimov's Empire.

Since we can trace the birth of many of our defining concept of this society back to the end of the middle ages, why not try to mirror what is happening today in how the world looked like then? Here is X things that I have collected which sometimes seems to be rewinded: Organizing The decline of the nation state as the dominant organizing principle Hierarchical structures are challenged by the open spaces and market way of organizing things - innovation Knowledge and world view Increasingly relativistic view of knowledge - broadcasting model is challenged and is losing it's politically and socially defining qualities The decline of the idea of a better future - the idea of progress The text-based knowledge society is challenged by a world of verbally told stories and images Breakdown of the quantitative perspective and re-emergence of a qualitative world view and geographical perspective - death of distance, valuing the people and the experience of a specific place without so much romancing about how far away it is from home' Re-emergence of the risk society - the world out there is a dangerous place and we need to be protected Value creation Re-emergence of a non money value exchange systems - open source, make, prosumtion Break down of the immaterial ownership logic, where   

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To be able to say something about the future in turbulent and redefining times as we are now, you have to revisit history. Since we can trace the birth of many of our defining concept of this society back to the end of the middle ages, why not try to mirror what is happening today in what the world looked like then? Can we weave the threads back and forth in an intelligent way in order to create new knowledge??

Here are 9 things that I have collected, which to me seems to be rewinding our society (back to normal?) in one way or the other. Think of them as threads or aspects or images to be used as a foundation for (re?)framing a discussion about the future.

Organizing

1 - The decline of the nation state as the dominant organizing principle is occuring on many levels. Historians date the nation state dominance back to 1648, a point in time when it became clear that almost all other organizations claiming power needed to relate to the nation. Since the fertile ground of the nation states have been so effective in providing testing grounds as well as long term investment opportunities many organizations have now outgrown the national borders. Another aspect is that new communication technology supports forming of networks and communities regardless of national borders. A third aspect is that many of today's challenges are to big for any single nation state to manage - global collaborative efforts and e perspective beyond borders are necessary ways of approaching these.

2 - Hierarchical structures are challenged by the emergences of networks, open spaces and market model of organizing things. In a time when a stable environment allowed for big, long term investments in repeatable tasks, the hierarchical model for organizing things became the dominant one. Since some time individuals have gained organizational powers for themselves which have made problem solving and value creation following more direct connections between people, often completely bypassing the hierarchies. Resilience and adaptivity have stepped up to be more important than productivity and efficiency which is creating deep challenges to most traditional organizations. Since some time it have become evident that innovation simply doesn't happen in stable, hierarchical organizations. It rather happens in spaces and markets where skills, knowledge areas and people meet in new ways.

Knowledge and world view

3 - We are returning to a subjective and relativistic view of knowledge, which is more obviously socially constructed and culturally defined than we have admitted since the era of enlightenment. The driving forces behind this change lies in the increasing educational levels together with a revolution in communication technologies which have made the broadcasting model obsolete and therefore is losing it's politically and socially homogenizing powers. Together with that the knowledge explosion and the emergence of the modern man who is more critical and have a strong need to create and defend consistency in his own situation.

4 - The decline of the idea of progress and a better future. When we can't imagine a better future and everything is leveling or is pointing downwards we are returning to a world view based on what exists here and now and flocks around what we think is stable and fundamental truths in order to live our lives.

5 - The text-based knowledge society is challenged by a world of verbally told stories and images. Technology today, and increasingly in the future, provides us with tools and infrastructures that enable us to express ourselves and spread knowledge without learning to master reading or writing. Even if some of us already have basic literary skills it is often perceived to be so much more convenient (more natural?) to consume information in the form of images, video and audio form, that we seems to prefer this before books and articles. That these forms also allows multitasking, something increasingly more important in a more stressful society also adds to the equation.

6 - Qualitative and subjective aspects challenges quantitive and objective views of geography. If you look at medieval world maps, Mappa Mundi, they are usually geographically incorrect and rather mirror people's world views rather than what the world really looks like. Since the emergence of science and global business the quantitative qualities e g distance, terrain and relative location have since the exploration era of the early 1500:s become extremely dominant way of looking at the world. With the communication and transportation revolutions we got trains, TV, airplanes and now Internet which all have contributed to the death of distance, which rendered many of these geographical aspects less relevant. At least relatively. Today it is not as important where you produce things, where you live or go to vacation in a geographical sense, but rather from a qualitative perspective. We rather talk about if the oranges are tasting better if they are from Florida or if they are from Spain, how you experienced your trip to Bangkok or Mumbai and if the quality of the systems are better if they come from Silicon Valley than from Bangalore.

7 - Re-emergence of the risk society. After having lived in a relatively stable world where many of the earlier threats have been taken care of by the nation state we again regard the world out there as a dangerous place which we need to be protected from.

Value creation

8 - Re-emergence of value creating without changing money - since the middle ages and though the industrial revolution the society have increasingly been permeated with the concept of money. With dramatically lower transaction costs due to new communications technology, have suddenly been able to communicate, share ideas and information almost free. The result is that we have found that a long row of other values can compete with the pure monetary values. This have created a wide variety of value creating processes which almost not involve any money at all. Major examples are the popular open source/open content movements which today produce much more than just software, a vast array of global innovation, idea sharing and DIY communities, citizen journalism and the spontaneous emergence of catastrophic aid activities when people are in need.

9 - Immaterial ownership logic under siege. When knowledge and education increases, information and data can spread freely to virtually no cost, and almost everyone have the capacity to participate in the innovation and value creating processes the artificial construct of immaterial rights are becoming much less valid than before. Focus seems to gravitate back to more down-to-earth physical and service values which are expensive to produce and distribute.

Comments or ideas?