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OtF Core: The Open Future

To get a sense of how this perspective has evolved over the past couple of years, here's "The Open Future," the essay that kicked off a series I produced for WorldChanging in my final month. The most important improvement, in my view, is the recognition of the larger connections of this approach -- it's not just about emerging technologies. Still a bit too solemn, though.

crowduk.jpgThe future is not written in stone, but neither is it unbounded. Our actions, our choices shape the options we'll have in the days and years to come. We can, with all too little difficulty, make decisions that call into being an inescapable chain of events. But if we try, we can also make decisions that expand our opportunities, and push out the boundaries of tomorrow.

If there is a common theme across our work at WorldChanging, it is that we are far better served as a global civilization by actions and ideas that increase our ability to respond effectively, knowledgably, and sustainably to challenges that arise. In particular, I've focused on the value of openness as a means of worldchanging transformation: open as in free, transparent and diverse; open as in participatory and collaborative; open as in broadly accessible; and open as in choice and flexibility, as with the kind of future worth building -- the open future.

Creating an open future requires foresight, to be sure, but it also requires that we embrace a way of looking at the world that emphasizes responsibility, caution and (perhaps paradoxically) a willingness to experiment. It requires that we recognize that the status quo is contingent, and that we can never be in full control of our environment. Even the most powerful among us live at the sufferance of the universe.

The tools that we depend upon to enable effective, knowledgable and sustainable responses are neither surprising nor obscure: information about the planet, its people and its systems; collaboration and cooperation among the world's citizens; access to the means by which we expand our knowledge, feed our people, and cure our illnesses. Actions taken to restrict information, hinder collaboration, and centralize power in the hands of the few will, almost invariably, cut off our options. Actions we take that expand what we know, how well we work together, and how readily the people of the world can build their future, conversely, almost invariably increase the options we have for a better tomorrow.

As a planet, we face a handful of truly profound dilemmas taking shape in the first part of this century. It's no exaggeration to say that the decisions we make about how to handle these dilemmas will make the difference between a flourishing of global civilization and a fate akin to extinction. And while there is a small variety of world-ending challenges that could emerge at any moment -- from an asteroid impact to a naturally-emerging pandemic -- the key dilemmas of this century are entirely in our hands.

The first, and most certain, is the threat from global climate disruption. The more we learn about the changes now taking place in our planet's climate systems, the greater the challenge appears. We are unaccustomed to thinking about slow-moving problems with long lag times between actions and reactions; there is a real risk that the first serious efforts to cut carbon emissions will coincide with an acceleration of problems arising from decades-old changes to the atmosphere. Successful response to this challenge will require us to think in terms of big systems and long cycles far outside our every day experience.

The second, and as yet still incipient, is the impact of molecular nanotechnology. I've followed the development of this discipline for well over a decade, and our understanding of how self-replicating molecular engineering could be built is moving at a startlingly rapid pace. This may seem like an obscure concern, and it's true that molecular nanotechnology is not nearly as immediate an issue as the other two challenges. But molecular nanotech is an enabling technology that can create enormous differences in economic, technological and military power between the haves and have-nots. I don't fear a bolt-from-the-blue catastrophe like "grey goo" nearly as much as I worry about the race among nations to be the first to wield this technology and, as we've discussed here numerous times, there's no reason why focused work in developing nations can't come up with the necessary engineering breakthroughs. Students of political history know that periods where the balance of power shifts are often the most violent and dangerous.

The third, and most painful, is the growing difference between the hyperdeveloped and the most poverty-stricken parts of the world. It's not simply the moral crisis that a fraction of the planet swims in abundance while a larger fraction drowns in misery; the greater the number of people who take desperate measures for survival, the greater the number of societies rendered powerless by the status quo, the harder it will be to navigate the other global problems successfully. Starving people do not have the luxury of being thoughtful planetary guardians; weakened societies will not hesitate to take advantage of the immediate power arising from a new technological paradigm. To be blunt: unless we solve the problem of global poverty, we will not be able to solve the other two world-ending challenges.

But thinking of these solely in terms of the problems they present is not the WorldChanging way. It's clear that the steps necessary to meet each challenge can enable better solutions for the rest. The innovations in technology and lifestyle required to avoid climate disaster could dramatically reduce the resource competition that drives a significant part of the global zero-sum political game, scaling back both the threat of conflict over nanotechnologies and enabling the kinds of energy and agricultural infrastructure that can lift up poverty-stricken societies. The emergence of a responsible model for molecular manufacturing could enable multiple orders-of-magnitude leaps in efficiency of production and energy use, even while enabling the poorest societies to start building a universally high quality of life. And the efforts needed to solve problems of famine, unclean water, disease and privation will shape the course of research in energy and material technologies; the more we grapple with global poverty, the more we'll see the potential for solutions emerging from our technological choices.

Across all of these issues, the fundamental tools of information, collaboration and access will be our best hope for turning world-ending problems into worldchanging solutions. If we're willing to try, we can create a future that's knowledgable, democratic and sustainable -- a future that's open. Open as in transparent. Open as in participatory. Open as in available to all. Open as in filled with an abundance of options. There are few other choices that see us through the century.

We can have an open future, or we might have no future at all.


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