For our society to evolve to the next level, what kind of surpluses do we need to have? Please share your wisdom.
June 21, 2006 2:19 PM   Subscribe

For our society to evolve to the next level, what kind of surpluses do we need to have?

By "the next level" I would like to define it as:
affordable food and housing and education for everyone on earth.
Having a system that can vote in enlightened leaders and vote out incompetent or corrupt leaders.
That the pain and sufferings of remote others can be felt more immediately .
More respect for women's and children's rights.
A level playing field for all people regardless of who our parents are.
Judging and valuing others by their character rather than their talents (e.g. artistic or sporting or scientific talents or otherwise).
Putting in place systems that stand for fairness and equality and justice.
..... among other things.


So what do you think our civilizations need to have surplus of in order to move to the next level?


This question is inspired by what Jared Diamond said at 43rd minute of Episode 1 of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" DVD :
"Why DIDN'T {Papua} New Guinea develop metal tools by itself ? ....{Because} to have metal working specialists who can figure out how to smelt copper and iron, requires that the rest of the society who are farmers , be able to generate enough food surpluses to feed them. But New Guinea agriculture was not productive enough to generate those food surpluses. And the result was no specialists, no metal workers, no metal tools. "


Now that our civilizations have managed to have food surpluses in many parts of the world and have been able to feed many scientists and inventors, what kind of surpluses do we need in order for our society to evolve to the next level?


Potential answers:
Communication technologies that bring each other's pain closer to home? Education?
Anything more fundamental than education? .....Because we all know of highly educated idiots who behave like a man with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail and has difficulty adjusting to reality.



Is there a book or tv program or author who can shade light on these questions?

If you think my question is too broad , or too tendentious towards one definition of "next level" , then please help narrow or modify it.

Thanks a million.
posted by studentguru to Education (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
It seems to me that what's needed is to remove the profit motive from medicine, from farming, from education, and from anything that would be used as a tool to achieve the kind of next-levelness of which you speak.

As long as there is money to be made in anything, the desire to do what's best for all (and thus advance society as a whole) is replaced by the desire to do what's most profitable - and those two things are rarely in confluence.
posted by pdb at 2:22 PM on June 21, 2006


Seems to me you're looking for a mechanistic answer to philosophical/sociological/psychological problem. Sure, surplus food leads to leisure for specialization leads to metal work and so forth, but nowhere did basic human nature change. I mean, just look what people do with metal

So- can you change human nature? I'm guessing not. Can't beat it out of people, can't lure it out of people. At least, not all of the people all of the time. I'd say you're out of luck, barring sincere mass conversion to the golden rule.

But I could be wrong.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:39 PM on June 21, 2006


sexual fulfillment
posted by lunkfish at 2:48 PM on June 21, 2006


I don't think it is necessarily a problem of not having enough surplus. While it is well understood that the surpluses of agriculture did originally drive the creation of specialists and a different style of living, I don't think you can link all human "progress" to surpluses. I think I could accurately rephrase the question as "What conditions need to be met in order for humans to improve their standard of living?" and well... thats a rather long and involved question. "The Next Level" is your own projection of a better state than the one that came before, a distinction that is not real but purely artificial. You might want to look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Psychology 101), which I am not a personal devotee of but is a good place to start this discussion:

1. Physiological (Biological needs)
2. Safety
3. Love/Belonging
4. Status (Esteem)
5. Actualization

You can see that after the material needs of food and safety are met the next stuff starts to get pretty fuzzy. This is the place we are at now.

My own one and only condition would be:
- A really good worldwide democratic governance system.

A lot of the things you mention as being steps forward (affordable food and housing and education for everyone on earth. Having a system that can vote in enlightened leaders and vote out incompetent or corrupt leaders. That the pain and sufferings of remote others can be felt more immediately. More respect for women's and children's rights. A level playing field for all people regardless of who our parents are). These are really a personal preference and reflect your own political leanings. What you need is NOT a set in stone "Perfect" system but rather a system that reacts directly to its participant's actions. One such system is capitalism. Trying to impose any kind of "top down" perfect government laws always ends in disaster. The more adaptable your system is to the will of the people the better off it will be. Even if the majority of those people are idiots and you do not personally agree with them, letting the system take care of itself is the only way to evolve to this "Next Level".

You could tighten up the paragraphs and try to narrow down your topic a bit beforehand in the future.

On Preview:
For instance I completely disagree with pdb about "what's needed is to remove the profit motive from medicine, from farming, from education, and from anything that would be used as a tool to achieve the kind of next-levelness". THE "PROFIT MOTIVE" IS WHAT HAS BEEN DRIVING IMPROVEMENT IN THESE SECTORS FOR THE LAST 3000 YEARS!! People follow their own interests, and if there is more competition and pay for the best jobs, those jobs will attract the best candidates. If you think the govenment is going to be the one pushing advancement to this next level, think again. It will come from the private sector, from left field, where it has always come from. The act of shielding national farmers, shifting health responsility onto the govenment, and not requiring any oversight on educational spending is why those very sectors are in trouble. People respond to incentives and if you take those "profit motive" incentives away, you end up with really shitty buisness because there is no incentive to do better and no penalty for failure.
posted by sophist at 2:54 PM on June 21, 2006


So what do you think our civilizations need to have surplus of in order to move to the next level?

Charity, compassion, genuine kindness, and willing self-sacrifice.
posted by JekPorkins at 3:16 PM on June 21, 2006


Sophist -

I guess I was too vague in my blanket "remove the profit motive" statement. I agree with you for the most part, but I also see, in studentguru's first two points (affordable food and housing and education for everyone on earth...Having a system that can vote in enlightened leaders and vote out incompetent or corrupt leaders.), the need to take the money motive out.

Affordable food and housing is an extremely worthy goal, but as long as developers exist, their main motive is to make themselves a profit. I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing, but I do see it as an impediment to "advancing society to the next level".

Put yourself in, say, Larry Silverstein's shoes. You are a developer that controls the World Trade Center site. You thus control an extremely valuable swath of land - do you, as a capitalist, put up a ton of affordable housing, so that everybody in NYC who can't afford Manhattan rents can have a place to live, or do you put up commercial real estate that will make you a big fat profit on your investment?

There's no easy answer, and I didn't mean to make it sound like there was in my initial answer - I just greatly distrust the people that control things like land and business as far as "advancing the greater good" is concerned. If there's a profit in it, they'll do it, if not, they likely won't.
posted by pdb at 3:29 PM on June 21, 2006


(near) Unlimited energy (in an useable form).
posted by porpoise at 3:30 PM on June 21, 2006


It seems to me that what's needed is to remove the profit motive from medicine, from farming, from education, and from anything that would be used as a tool to achieve the kind of next-levelness of which you speak.

I think that this is almost completely wrong. Human greed is instinctual. Trying to eliminate our need to be the best, to be the richest, and to be rewarded for our greed will in fact be the demise of society. You can't work against human nature while trying to get to the next level. You must embrace our worst traits and use them for productive purposes. I think that governed capitalism (what we have now) does just that. Of course corruption and inequity exist. But to destroy all rewards (money, profit, fame, glory) is to destroy the search for the next best thing.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 3:33 PM on June 21, 2006


Society is not a monolithic block. A surplus of empathy, compassion and rational thought are what will prevent the violent part of our brains from killing off a post-industrial society. The agrarian survivors would probably do okay, either way.
posted by Mr. Six at 3:41 PM on June 21, 2006


(near) Unlimited energy (in an useable form).

This might be best answer to student's question. When the cheap energy runs out, its not going to be "next level" its gonna "try to survive". Which may very well be exactly what the doctor ordered as far as evolutionary pressures and punctuated equilibrium and sustainable living demands and whatnot, but it ain't gonna be pretty.

/peak oil off

If we had a surplus of infinitely energy I would certainly like to think we would do amazing things, but we might all sit around and watch TV and play video games. If I was on unemployment and had state-sponsored health care, that is what I would be doing.
posted by sophist at 3:53 PM on June 21, 2006


So what do you think our civilizations need to have surplus of in order to move to the next level?

Information and communication. Our politics are lousy because image (and money) trumps actual information, in too many people's decisions and votes. Capitalism is taking over continents because it provides the best information/feedback about what to produce.

An example of a group who is already leveraging new communications tools is the linux and free/open source software movement. (These are the hackers that first knew how to use email, discussion forums, code-versioning repositories, etc) Just imagine what will happen when teachers and students and farmes and voters and politicians and lawyers...etc get their own versions of network-capable communications tools.
posted by gemini at 3:55 PM on June 21, 2006


Charity, compassion, genuine kindness, willing self-sacrifice , empathy, rational thought are intangible assets that neither religions nor the self improvement industry can guarantee to bring into existence. Just take a look at the scandals and failed gurus in these industries .

sophist's question "What conditions need to be met in order for humans to improve their standard of living?" is a great angle to at the changes needed.

Unless somebody can come up with a fail safe way to globally increase and improve the intangible assets, let's focus on what we can produce physically.

Do you guys know of a book or tv program or author who can shade light on these questions?
posted by studentguru at 4:00 PM on June 21, 2006


pdb - would you agree that even the most destitute person has better health care available to them than 100 years ago? Let alone 1000 years ago? That is because health care has been a profitable and respected proffession and has attracted some of the greatest people to practice medicine. I can agree that everyone needs to have some minumum amount of heath care, regardless of their income, but removing the profit motive entirely is not only unrealistic but destructive to the industry.

do you, as a capitalist, put up a ton of affordable housing, so that everybody in NYC who can't afford Manhattan rents can have a place to live, or do you put up commercial real estate that will make you a big fat profit on your investment?

Ok lets say you DO go and put up a bunch of affordable housing. Now you have a bunch of low-income people living on your bazillion dollar real estate and you get some really nice thank you notes. This is not solving the long-term problem. There will always be more people who want to go live in downtown Manhatten for ultra-cheap rents. Why? Because it is a great place. And it is a great place because there are great buisnesses and opportunities for people there. There are plenty of low-income housing projects out in New Jersey and the buroughs, and I am not sure they really made anything better for anyone.

Perhaps I would be better off renting out my gazillion dollar WTC space for buisness and building better affordable out in the buroughs, making profit both ways and rebuilding old, broken down apartments to make way for better ones. Then, because I made a google of money this year, I can donate 1/3 to charity and write it off my taxes.
posted by sophist at 4:05 PM on June 21, 2006


Charity, compassion, genuine kindness, willing self-sacrifice , empathy, rational thought are intangible assets that neither religions nor the self improvement industry can guarantee to bring into existence. Just take a look at the scandals and failed gurus in these industries .

If the question is "what tangible commodities do you think our civilizations need to have surplus of, that can be guaranteed to be brought into existence, in order to move to the next level?" then the answer is: None exists or ever will.
posted by JekPorkins at 4:08 PM on June 21, 2006


If I was on unemployment and had free healthcare I wouldn't be sitting in front of the tv. Different people are motivated by different things. I'd hate to be unemployed, subsidezed or not. The heathcare I'd like free. To my mind there are things that should be cheap and things that should not be. Basic needs and education should be cheap if a socity can provide it. Luxiury items, or items that casue disproportiante damage should be expensive.

I vote energy as what is needed if you are thinking of this on a resouce level.
posted by edgeways at 4:08 PM on June 21, 2006


A really good worldwide democratic governance system.

I disagree. Or, I agree sort of.

Global democracy through a network of smaller nations that have a functional framework for resolution of differences.

Big countries often lose sight of the rights of their minorities, and worldwide democratic governance would only work if it's based on small enough governing structures.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:20 PM on June 21, 2006


I don't think the comparison with New Guinea really holds. The reason New Guinea didn't industrialise was because of a lack of technology. They simply didn't have the knowledge. In modern times, basically everyone has access to the same technologies. They problem is that these technologies aren't being applied across the board.

For example the reason Rwanda isn't as industrialised as The US, isn't because Rwanda doesnt have access to metal or industrial technologies. It is because Rwanda political and social systems are so different that they have not been able to apply these resources and technologies in the same way as the US.

I'm not really being clear here, but I don't think we need a surplus of something to reach the next level, I think we need some kind of massive political and ideological change.
posted by afu at 4:28 PM on June 21, 2006


"THE "PROFIT MOTIVE" IS WHAT HAS BEEN DRIVING IMPROVEMENT IN THESE SECTORS FOR THE LAST 3000 YEARS!! People follow their own interests, and if there is more competition and pay for the best jobs, those jobs will attract the best candidates. If you think the govenment is going to be the one pushing advancement to this next level, think again. It will come from the private sector, from left field, where it has always come from."

That is completly wrong. Every advance from farming to the internet has been made by Governments or elites that are protected and fostered by a government. Even religions need the tacit approval of the goverment in order to survive.
posted by afu at 4:31 PM on June 21, 2006


Drugs.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:44 PM on June 21, 2006


I think what's needed to get to the next level is time. I don't think the utiopia this question outlines is anywhere near a Comming Attraction, and I don't think that there's anything we, as a species can "do" besides try and not be such jerks all the time. Political, economic, and social progression and regression will probably continue much in the same way they always have. If you want to make a dent in it, I suggest getting deeply involved with a cause you're passionate about. That seems to be how most everyone else has done it.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 4:56 PM on June 21, 2006


Empathy.
posted by delmoi at 5:53 PM on June 21, 2006


Some way of ensuring everyone gets a really thorough education, in technology, psychology, culture, political science, communication, among other areas.

Partly to allow everyone to work productively in whatever economy we have, partly to ensure that people know enough to run their own democracies well, and partly to let us truly understand each others' motivations so we can trust each other. If we could trust each other we could then focus much better on problems like the environment, food distribution, etc.

I recognize that solving problems like food distribution would make educating everyone much easier, but the education problem seems more easily solved than food distribution right now ... I think.
posted by amtho at 5:59 PM on June 21, 2006


Perhaps I would be better off renting out my gazillion dollar WTC space for buisness and building better affordable out in the buroughs, making profit both ways and rebuilding old, broken down apartments to make way for better ones.

Agreed, in a perfect world, but I think that idea falls short in reality - developers (and I only used the WTC site as an example, this happens all over the country) seldom do the second part unless compelled by local government to do so. Which means they're certainly not doing it for a profit, which is what I meant by "remove the profit motive".

Most times, the rebuilt apartments that were once old and broken down are some mix of mostly market rate apts with a few "moderate income" units thrown in, which doesn't really help a lot of people improve their lot in life.

Once developers have made their gazillion dollars, they look for more places to make more gazillions. There are always isolated pockets where what you describe does happen, but it's the exception not the rule; make it the rule and I think that would help more than almost anything.
posted by pdb at 5:59 PM on June 21, 2006


If there is a next level to get to, it will be as part of natural evolution, therefore it will be down to chance and natural selection, rather than intention and technology. That said, we are on the verge of some freaky shit, like very cheap energy, real 'artificial intelligence', nanotechnology, ubiquitous robotics, computer-mind interfacing and massive connectivity of humanity. Whether this technology serves to increase equality and justice, or to increase the concentration of power remains to be seen.

Some folks believe the next level is called the singularity. Here is a very interesting panel discussion with some renowned thinkers discussing the likely impact of technology on humanity over the next 30-100 years.
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:17 PM on June 21, 2006


Easily-programmed nano-assemblers and disassemblers.
We're not too far off.
Being able to break things down into their component parts and make virtually anything out of the raw materials will enable less industrialized nations to quickly ramp up to higher standards.
posted by nightchrome at 6:19 PM on June 21, 2006


Wisdom
posted by parallax7d at 7:34 PM on June 21, 2006


Just take a look at the scandals and failed gurus in these industries...

Do you guys know of a book or tv program or author who can shade light on these questions?


A surplus of irony may be harmful without a surplus of imagination to balance it.
posted by Mr. Six at 9:44 PM on June 21, 2006


We will acheive utopia when the path of least resistance becomes the path of appopriate action.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:44 PM on June 21, 2006


I second amtho regarding education. The idiot with a hammer, to whom everything is a nail, is not highly educated—only highly trained. We need people with enough depth to keep advancing their specialties, but we also need a lot more breadth and interdisciplinarity to keep the new fields springing up and to keep the relevant information on the table. (Imagine how different the Internet would be, if a psychologist and sociologist could have looked at the comms technologies, figured out in advance what happens to people when you give them anonymity and an audience, and been prepared to introduce cultural and interface pressures against being a dick.) And real education causes people to think, and to discover motives for learning and self-improvement, and to have lots of tools whereby to connect visions to reality, and when that happens suddenly your society's behavior leaves the predictable, manipulable bounds of sheepledom and enters the holy unknown.

I second pdb regarding the selective mitigation of the profit motive. There are some things that the profit-motivated (a.k.a. private) sector has generally not done well, and providing appropriate care to the vulnerable is one of them. An example from pharma research: Treatments for leishmaniasis and Chagas disease have scarcely advanced in a century, but we have three, count 'em, three different compounds to help rich old men have erections.

I second Mr. Six's suggestion that you, too, are looking for a guru in a way. Don't be so quick to write off centuries' worth of study on the subject, 'How may we enlarge the soul?' Scandals and failures do not invalidate the whole field of religion any more than the K-T extinction invalidates the whole idea of living on land.

But I've come to suspect that the real answers lie in the intangibles, seconding parallax7d, delmoi, and JekPorkins. Right now, Western society is strongly fostering a cynical 'do your own thing'-ism; but I have yet to learn of a single society, whether ancient or modern, be it an empire, a family, a republic, a business, or the aggregate motorist population of a city, that did not depend for its survival upon a certain degree of obedience to the unenforceable (or what used to be called decency and cooperation). Our societal engines are conditioning more and more people to respond to 'please comply' with 'make me' instead of with 'I'll consider it', and I wonder what sort of crisis this may lead to. We've also been embracing the illusion that every person is independent of every other person, making us unwilling to sacrifice for (read: invest in) needed benefits to the whole. We haven't really bought into the idea that our neighbor's interest is our own. We've spent too much time practicing polarized rhetoric, and not enough practicing realistic, unpredictable, scary, intersubjective communication. Most especially, we don't usually treat people with much hope (i.e., motivating imagination), with much faith (i.e., investment of principled action, and by 'principled' I mean 'backed up with time-tested realities and with a sense of right'), or with much love (i.e., recognition of the full validity of their needs and of their well-being as equals with, and parts of, our own).

Now, to me all of these issues are, in fact, religious concerns. My very faith demands that I attend to them. You are free to disagree, of course, either as to their importance, or as to the way they are to be brought about; but if there is a God, who created humanity with minds, with hearts, and with the capacity to grow, and who presumably knew what needs and what abuses this would lead to, I reckon that promoting education, mutual aid, and harmony—and, more importantly, building us up till we promote them ourselves—would be right up God's alley. Again, you gotta reach your own conclusions.

Finally: Once we've got the education, the for-the-good-of-all structures, and the social orientation toward sustainable, scalable, ongoing growth (for communities and businesses, yes, but also for philosophical systems, artistic creation, scientific discovery, individual self-discovery, family relations, you name it), it will be plain as the nose on our face that we need efficient global distribution of nuclear-derived electricity, and we'll know how to do it too, without too much stupid, abusive politicking.
posted by eritain at 12:22 AM on June 22, 2006


I thoroughly second the surplus in cheap or free energy.

Energy would be a tipping point which would plow the way for many other advances and improvements in society. Following this, inexpensive mass manufacturing methods for complex products.

That is completly wrong. Every advance from farming to the internet has been made by Governments or elites that are protected and fostered by a government. Even religions need the tacit approval of the goverment in order to survive.


I quite recall the great governmental push for the steel plow.
posted by Atreides at 5:10 AM on June 22, 2006


Guns, Germs and Steel is a flawed theory. The idea that one's local ecology determines one's abilities is pompus at best, and intentionally destructive at worst. What an insult to those people to say that they have no choice to live in a way other than they do. It's a rather dated world view and it's wrong. For the sake of discussion, let's call it Environmental Determinism (not ED).

Take, for instance, the Amish that live here in the U.S. They have all the same resources available to them as those living in Silicon Valley, yet they have a very different lifestyle. They chose simplicity. The belief that distractions from a higher calling should be avoided so that achievement of the higher calling may more easily be obtained is proof that Environmental Determinism is not the final arbitur of lifestyle.

Furthermore, many have tried to explain the workings of the world by observing one influential factor and claiming it to be the only factor: Determinism. The world is far more complex than that and so are people.

So, the question posed leaves something to be desired. Surplusses do not a culture make, (though if you read anything by James Burke you'll know it has a part) and no amount of surpluss of anything will prevent evil in this world. There is enough food on the planet right now such that no one should be without three squares a day and with current production that is a sustainable rate.

If you want conditions to improve, start with pride and the love of money. (Please note I did not say money, but the love of money.) My influence, for good or evil, is nil in far away lands. My influence is strong in my neighborhood. Therefore, I have a responsibility to work to improve most in my neighborhood. Global thinking is nice as a goal, but fails as a plan.
posted by kc0dxh at 9:01 AM on June 22, 2006


This is an long, but interesting take from Marshall Brain on how a surplus of sustainable energy and technology could shape the future.
posted by battlecj at 9:19 AM on June 22, 2006


What does the world need? An enemy!

We need something to terrifying, so gutwrenchingly pants-craptasticly scary that everybody in the world will work together to fight it.

Aliens, extra-dimensional invaders, Ebolapoliobird flu Whatever.


Humans will never settle for less than they have now, or give up a percieved andvantage over others voluntarily. People are, on the average, evil and will never make sacrifices without an irrational reason.
posted by Megafly at 4:12 PM on June 22, 2006


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