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Future Challenge

During conversations at work this week, I was reminded of how fortunate we are in America. A Veitnamese engineer observed that he was astonished by the amount of emotional energy we build in our presidential campaigns, when in fact nothing changes when an new occupant sits in the Oval Office. In Vietnam, people would take their money and bury it out in a field, because they didn’t know whether they would be forced from their homes after an election. And those serving in high office might find themselves jailed or executed.

This sentiment was echoed by our Hungarian visitor, the majority owner who complained that US policy had transformed Syrian, Egypt and Libya from stable dictatorships into violent anarchies. Of course, that’s not what happened – we simply chose not to throw our weight behond the dictators when their people rose against them. And the anarchy that resulted is symptomatic of nations whose institutions have been weakened by purges. Without any experienced leadership, those assuming power have to build civil society from ground zero against the resistance of those that benefited from the cronyism used by dictators to spread influence from government into the economic sector. The economic elite knows that dictatorship is essential to its privilege, and works hard to justify its restoration.

Among American youth, the evidence of recidivism in liberated lands must be demoralizing. They fought and died to create the opportunity for change in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the societies tear themselves apart in ethnic conflict and class warfare. Any such frustration would only strengthen the political anomie that I hear expressed by young engineers, hair-cutters and baristas.

What saddens me about this is that the coming generation, while facing enormous burdens, also has awesomely powerful tools available to it. My youngest son complains that modern educational standards far surpass those required of my generation, but I remember in high school having to drive down to UCLA to get source materials for my AP History reports. When he was struggling last year with a paper covering the prophetic writings of Verne, Asimov and Clarke, I shared my perspective, and he came back thirty minutes later reporting that he had been able to find supporting references through the search engines.

In social action, Facebook and other engines (some devoted solely to social action) allow organization across geographic and cultural boundaries. They have their defects – internet trolls have mastered the subtle sociology of fomenting hostility. But researchers at MIT and elsewhere are using network theory and content analysis to identify such actors. I expect that within the next three years we’ll see a blooming of collaborative social communities on the internet.

As that process evolved, particularly among business leaders used through years of social media to transparency in their relationships, we’ll eventually reach a tipping point in social control. The relationships established and maintained online will evolve so rapidly that they’ll be beyond the control of bricks-and-mortar tyrannies.

What is critical is that the youth of the world recognize that they are still working within systems dominated by relationships established through face-to-face interactions. They need to temper their expectations for progress until they have managed to infiltrate those systems. That may seem counter-revolutionary, but it’s simply the way of the world. While the opportunities of the future seem obvious to our youth, the world is not structured at this time to transmit power through those channels. They need to pull up their bootstraps and play the role of midwife to the future that awaits their children.

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