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Back in the 15th century an exiled German goldsmith radically altered society with his strange claptrap invention. Gutenberg’s movable-type screw-press vastly improved on all previous printing presses (to say nothing of hand-transcription of books) and began an information revolution which has continuously accelerated ever since then. The written word, once the domain of super wealthy elite (or of a monopolistic church with an exceedingly parochial interest in knowledge), became available to everyone. The printing press chased away the ghastly fog of religious obscurantism and paved the way for democracy, reform, intellectual collaboration, empiricism, exploration, emancipation, and liberalization. Humankind stepped forward towards the reformation, enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

Except…

When printing technology first became widely available, the impact which it had on society was chaotic. Ordinary people of the time were not necessarily gifted at critical reasoning, and Europe was a powderkeg of antagonistic factions greedily angling for any advantage (speaking of which, gunpowder and artillery first came into widespread use in the 15th century, and their adaptation and improvement were hastened by publishing breakthroughs).

“Well…if it’s in a book, I guess it must be true.”

Suddenly society was awash in new ideas, incentives, and imperatives–all delivered with the magisterial force of the written word, once the sole domain of a cloistered master class. In this new world, you could show up at night and tack up a poster that said witches were a real & widespread malady which could only be defeated with fire. Suddenly gormless rubes would be running around burning everyone they had a problem with. After all, the anti-witch message was written down, and written things were known known to have the infallible weight of divine authority!

Blue Lives Matter

Indeed this is a thing that actually happened! Historians estimate that between a quarter of a million and a half million non-sorcerous people were killed as part of the witch panics which swept Europe in the early modern era. Fraud, calumny, conspiracy theories, and wild dangerous political invective swept the European continent (and the increasingly wider world which was a part of European colonial enterprise).

I am bringing this up not because I am an anti-literate or anything, but because, obviously, global society is deep in the midst of a similar revolution–except today’s information revolution is compressed and amplified by the speed and scope of globalized tech culture.

When I was a child, if you saw something on a glowing screen, it had gone through a long and expensive process to get there (and had passed a lot of powerful gatekeepers). Nowadays, any self-proclaimed expert with access to Youtube (or, uh, WordPress) can instantly disseminate their ravings worldwide to a self-selecting audience.

There is no easy to answer to all of this..nor should there be. On balance, the new manifestations of super-abundant information are wonderful and liberating. However, after living through the malignant Trump era (and the Trump pandemic), it is obvious there is more of a red column to the ledger than we initially imagined. Wish-fulfilling mendacity flies through the ethernet even faster than it ever traveled by means of broadsheet. Whole new taxonomies of demagogues, conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, quacks, and frauds invent & broadcast “fake news” more swiftly than rational and conscientious folk can debunk such things. And who is an authority anyway, in a world where so many truly powerful authorities are authoritarian?

There are no answers to today’s plague of misinformation and filter bubbles other than classic enlightenment solutions of critical thinking, empiricism, and cross referencing (with maybe a dash of deconstructionism thrown in to burst the filter bubble of whiggish liberal WASPS like myself). Obviously we need to ensure that teaching such values is at the heart of universal free (mandatory) education for all young people.

P.S. Although, frankly, the young people I have met around the city have developed great sophistication at parsing new media and roll their eyes at Nigerian princes, Breitbarts, Qanons, and essential oils the way a philosophe would sneer at a witch poster.

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Happy 2020!  This first Ferrebeekeeper post of the (de-facto) new decade arrives on January 2nd, a historically glum day, as people leave holiday merriment behind and return to their futile dayjobs.  As far as we can currently tell, the ‘teens were not a good decade.  Not only were there few major scientific or technological breakthroughs (beyond garden-variety “slightly better fuel economy” sorts of things), but, even worse, all of the politically expedient bunts which spineless or feckless leaders have made since the Cold War began to truly catch up to the world’s great democracies.  Again and again, government figures of intellect, probity, and conscience were outmaneuvered by sinister oligarchs and pro-business cartels who used dark money, demagogic tricks, manipulative new technology, and straight-up cheating to thwart the popular will. The decade’s putative bright spot, a roaring bull economy is really a sugar rush made of frack gas and stock buybacks. In the meantime, the dark side of global consumer capitalism becomes more & more painfully evident in the form of desertification, ocean acidification/warming, climate change, and general ecological devastation.

This is all pretty discouraging to face as you go back to pointless drudgery in your horrible open office. Maybe I could have at least listed some of the compelling new tv shows or ranked good-looking celebrities or something?

Well don’t worry! I believe the situation could become much brighter than it presently seems. All is not yet completely lost. The 2020s do not necessarily need to be another lost decade like the teens. By adapting two sensible reforms, we can make the next decade actually good instead of good only for crooked billionaires and their mouthpieces.  But when I say two major reforms, I mean two MAJOR reforms which would change how power and resources are allocated at a society-wide scale. As an American, I am addressing the problems here in America, but I believe these concepts are broadly applicable to democratic societies. The year is already getting longer so I will state these big concepts bluntly and succinctly.

1)  Our broken political system needs to be fixed.  Right now partisan polarization is ripping the country apart.  Even broadly popular common-sense solutions are impossible to implement.  Stunningly, extremists on both sides of the aisle would rather deny the opposite party a victory than do what is best for everyone in the country.   The way to stop this polarization is through ranked-choice voting in state-wide elections and through independent election redistricting.  The current system helps extremists.  Ranked choice voting would make it much more difficult for fringe candidates to be elected.  Independent redistricting would mean that voters choose their political representatives rather than vice versa.  Since polarization would no longer be rewarded, political leaders could work together to gather some of the low-hanging fruit which has been left dangling by all of these sequesters, filibusters, pocket vetoes, hearings, and other scorched-earth political gambits.  Obviously we can’t just implement such a plan instantly (it would be stopped dead by political gridlock).  But if we started using ranked choice voting just for primaries and local elections it would help.  Soon we might start seeing politicians with plans and ideas from both the red and blue parties, instead of these despicable apparatchiks we now have.

2) Public investment needs to be poured into blue sky scientific research, applied research and development, education, and infrastructure.  In the market system, corporations will spend money on things which will make money for them in the immediate future.  Government and universities do the heavy lifting by conducting real research on real things.  The government makes the internet.  Private companies make Netflix.  Since corporate behemoths (ahem…monopolies) have an ever greater say in how money is spent, less money is being spent on science, education, and fundamental real physical systems (transportation, communication, sewage, water, and electric grids). R&D, education, and infrastructure are the seed corn of future prosperity.  Right now, corporations are eating that seed corn (in the form of Trump’s stupid tax cuts for the economy’s wealthiest players).  Right now, research scientists–the people whose ideas will keep you from dying horribly of a disease or keep the the future from becoming an unlivable hellscape–are being forced to grind their teeth as some character with an MBA from Sloan or Wharton explains that fundamental scientific research to understand the universe does not meet critical business metrics. I don’t mind busting the budget, but we should at least get something in return for the money.

Of course these two broad objectives things will be hard to accomplish, but I believe they are well within our collective grasp.  Best of all, as things begin to improve, virtuous feedback loops will unlock even further  progress.  2020 will be a hard year as we push against the corruption and failures of the past decade (or two)  but I believe that if we keep these two broad goals in mind, we can make the twenties a roaring success that everyone will talk about with pride and happiness… in a future world which still exists!

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