The man in the photo, science historian and broadcaster James Burke, is a revolutionary. So pay attention. This is important.
I don’t mean “revolutionary” in the lame-arsed sense used by every pissant little company with a new kind of double-whacko widget that’ll “revolutionise” the double-whacko widget industry. Because it’s now available in three different colours.
No, I mean the real kind of revolutionary: someone who advocates a revolution — yes, as in a complete overthrow of the established political system.
I’ve just finished watching Burke’s ten-part TV series from 1985, The Day The Universe Changed. It’s available on DVD, but you can also do what I did and watch the whole thing on YouTube. At least until some copyright-addled arsehole decides that you can’t.
As Wikipedia says:
The series’ primary focus is on the effect of advances in science and technology on western philosophy. The title comes from the philosophical idea that the universe essentially only exists as you perceive it through what you know; therefore, if you change your perception of the universe with new knowledge, you have essentially changed the universe itself.
To illustrate this concept, James Burke tells the various stories of important scientific discoveries and technological advances and how they fundamentally altered how western civilization perceives the world.
Apart from anything else, TDTUC is an excellent history of western scientific thought. But, after taking you on this journey, Burke’s final episode is a revolutionary call to action.
Here’s the final minutes:
We still go on believing that today’s version of things is the only right one because… we can only handle one way of seeing things at a time. We’ve never had systems that would let us do more than that, so we’ve always had to have conformity, with a current view.
Disagree with the Church, and you were punished as a heretic. With the political system, as a revolutionary. With the scientific establishment, as a charlatan. With the educational system, as a failure.
If you didn’t fit the mould, you were rejected.
But, ironically, the latest product of that way of doing things is a new instrument, a new system that while it could make conformity more rigid, more totalitarian that ever before in history, it could also blow everything wide open. Because with it, we could operate on the basis that values and standards and ethics and facts and truth all depend on what your view of the world is — and that there may be as many views of that as there are people.
And with this [brandishing a computer microchip] capable of keeping a tally on those millions of opinions voiced electronically, we might be able to lift the limitations of conforming to any centralised representational form of government — originally invented because there was no way for everybody’s voice to be heard.
You might be able to give everybody unhindered, untested access to knowledge, because the computer would do the day-to-day work for which we once qualified the select few in an educational system originally designed for a world where only the few could be taught.
You might end the regimentation of people living and working in vast unmanageable cities, uniting them instead in an electronic community where the Himalayas and Manhattan were only a split second apart.
You might, with that and much more, break the mould that has held us back since the beginning, in a future world that we would describe as balanced anarchy and they will describe as an open society, tolerant of every view, and where there is no single, privileged way of doing things — above all, able to do away with the greatest tragedy of our era: the centuries-old waste of human talent that we couldn’t or wouldn’t use.
If, as I’ve said all along, the universe is at any time what you say it is, then say!
Now a few people are poking around the edges of this revolution. But how many actually comprehend the full breadth and depth of what’s going on?
Here in Australia, Senator Kate Lundy‘s Public Sphere events have started scratching the surface. At the state level, Penny Clarke MLC is kicking off the NSW Sphere next month, at which I’ll probably be speaking.
And yet, as I say, these events are only scratching the surface.
Because they’re looking at how the tools of Web 2.0 and beyond can be used to support the existing national and state governments and their institutions and instrumentalities. Because they still imagine that central authorities make everything happen. Because they still imagine that the role of the citizenry is to participate in systems set up for them by that central authority, instead of just autonomously doing things for themselves.
The true revolution is that the existing national and state governments and their institutions and instrumentalities will become irrelevant.
As Clay Shirky has pointed out, a 3-million article Wikipedia was knocked off in only the number of man-hours Americans spend watching TV advertising in one weekend. One weekend!
As Open Australia has demonstrated, just a handful of people can create a better and more flexible system for reading parliamentary debates than parliament itself.
As Mark Pesce has pointed out, old-fashioned hierarchical organisations actually get in the way of new systems emerging. And you can watch him say that on video.
Imagine what might be possible when the burden of clunky hierarchical dinosaur-organisations is removed. Imagine what might be done with 51 more weekends-full of community participation. Then, as James Burke says… then say it!
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