Amazon.com has an excerpt from the first chapter of Connexity. However, I think that in order to entice readers to this book, the author, publisher, and Amazon would be better served by providing the Introduction as the excerpt.
I'll provide a bit of that Introduction in the coming days:
In classical tragedies the hero's downfall is often rooted in his finest qualities. What he does best leads him inexorably to disaster. The argument of this book is that today we may face just such a tragedy. What brings out the best in us is freedom. Freedom allows us to realise our potential, to live life to the full, to imagine and create, and the growth of freedom to live our lives as we think fit, has been the greatest achievement of modern times.
Our problem is that freedom to behave as we would wish, without regard for our effects on others, runs directly counter to the other striking fact of the contemporary world: our growing dependence on other people. The world may never have been freer, but it has also never been so interdependent and interconnected. Only a small proportion of the world's population could now be self-sufficient. The rest of us depend on complex systems to deliver us water, food, justice, energy and health. Far more than its counterpart of a century ago, the modern business depends on distant capital markets, distant consumer markets, distant systems of law enforcement and education. And just as we depend on others, so do our own actions affect others as never before. If we drive a car the emissions affect the living standards of millions of strangers, however marginally. The messages we communicate can influence, irritate or upset strangers we will never meet. Our choices over what clothes to buy determine whether someone on the other side of the world retains or loses their job. Poor regions of the West depend on investment from Korea or Japan to bring them jobs, just as poor regions of Africa depend on technology from North America to cure new strains of disease. The decisions that firms take can bring prosperity to far-off places, but they can also lead to the destruction of traditional ways of life, and of environmental habitats.
This dawning sense of the connectedness of the world has come more than anything from the environment. The old assumption that the natural environment has an infinite capacity to absorb our waste and pollution is obsolete. We now know that humanity walks heavily on nature, and that the price of an economic system driven by consumer freedoms is being paid in the form of worse air, dirtier water and poisoned land. Today we face a future in which, as a result of industrial progress, global temperatures may rise over two degrees centigrade in the next century; in which, as a consequence, sea levels could rise by over a metre flooding much of Bangladesh, China, the Netherlands and England; and in which the chronic water shortages which already affect nearly half of the world's population could become even more commonplace. These are all startling symptoms of interdependence, and they mean that it is no longer realistic to think of the world as made up of discrete individuals, nations, mountain ranges and forests. Instead it is more like a web of physical connections, made up of rivers that provide water for many different nation-states, winds that carry acid rain, ocean currents that carry toxic wastes and radiation.
These natural connections are matched by the ones that we have made. The world economy has recently gone through another wave of integration, just as it did at the turn of the last century, and global trade has now been joined by global direct investments and the global diffusion of technologies. An ever larger proportion of the world's workforce now depends on distant markets and sources of capital and knowhow, and would suffer acutely if these were suddenly cut off. Tying the world together are the communications systems that first spread in the nineteenth century with the radio and telegraph, and now are increasing in scale and scope with the satellite and the Internet, the mobile phone and the navigation system. These too are founded around ideologies of freedom -- of free expression and free speech. All are breaking down the barriers, and the friction, that stand in the way of making exchanges. Just as the theory of Gaia showed that we could think of the biosphere as a single organism, the 'infosphere' now has some of the properties of a single, integrated system.
The best word for describing this new situation is an old English one: 'connexity'. It is more accurate than the word 'interdependence', which refers to the symptom not the cause, and it is richer in meaning than the word 'globalisation', which drains the idea of its moral content. [Hear, Hear] The word serves both as a description of the world around us, and as a shorthand for the challenge we now face. Etymologically it links us back to the roots of the word 'connect', which derives from the Latin con-nectere, to tie or join together. It is a reminder that the starting-point for understanding the world today is not the size of its GDP or the destructive power of its weapon systems but the fact that it is so much more joined together than before. It may still look as if it is made up of separate and sovereign individuals, firms, nations or cities, but the deeper reality is one of multiple connections.
This connectedness will dominate the lives of our children and grandchildren. The connections spreading around us are only a foretaste of what is to come. Even today, more than a century after its invention, less than half of the world's population has access to a telephone and little more than one per cent of all households use the Internet. Soon, the combination of a rapid rise in the world's population, continuing advances in technology and sharply falling communication costs, will make the world a far more interconnected place than it is today.
In this book I ask a simple question: are the achievements of freedom and the growth of interdependence compatible, or are we doomed to a classical tragedy in which our love of freedom destroys our capacity to be interdependent?
While I plan to provide more of the Introduction in a day or two, I would like to get to the convergence part of my post title. While this book is focused mainly on politics and policy, the theme of connexity is one that is showing up in technology, spirituality (Ken Wilber, Eckhart Tolle and others), business, and many other areas. It is one that has been around for millennia (Gnostics, Buddha), but one that has not been featured recently because of the 'good times' of the past century or two. We seem destined to pay attention to it only in times of crisis. By nature, we are reactive (fight or flight) and not proactive. It is possible that the scale of the 'infosphere' may be such that we will be proactive this time around. However, history shows us that it is not probable.
The optimistic answer sees freedom and interdependence as like twins, or like two organisms coevolving in tandem rather than in tension. It emphasises just how closely freedom and interdependence have been linked in the formation of the modern world. It argues that freedom to trade and travel makes people aware of their common interests, that it locks them into benign bonds that help them respect differences, and that abjure the use of force. The optimists point also to the explosion of new knowledge coming from science: the rise of new fields like microrobotics and nanotechnology, the rapid advances in older fields like biotechnology and neuroscience, as more scientific work is done each year than in the five centuries preceding this one. [Unfortunately, not all positive for mankind as Jane Smiley so candidly reveals in this essay.] Technologies, they promise, can solve the problems of the environment, guarantee secure supplies of water and food, and help us learn how to live together.
But the optimistic accounts, which remain the conventional wisdom across most of the Western world, and certainly amongst its more prosperous elites, skate over the profound tension between freedom and interdependence. To be meaningful, freedom entails being able to leave the family or the community, to act against its interests. Freedom has to mean the chance to behave in antisocial ways, and that naturally brings with it tensions of a kind that are felt in every home, every relationship, every firm, every association. Everyone knows from their own experience that within any relationship we feel both the desire to opt our and the pull of habit and duty, the temptation to follow our own desires and the knowledge that our own well-being depends on the well-being of others.
This tension is inherent in every area of life. But there are special reasons why it is coming to a head now, at the turn of the millennium. One is the difficulty of adapting to a more fragile global ecology without major changes in industrial and personal lifestyles involving sacrifices, particularly by the prosperous nations that have become most accustomed to their liberties and luxuries. Another is that new communications technologies like the Internet thin our sense of obligations to others, enabling us to hide behind pseudonyms, or surround ourselves with more fleeting transactions that demand less in terms of understanding and intimacy.
In politics the tension is rising because one of the most common reactions to a more connected world is retreat into the simpler, bounded identities of fundamentalist religion and nationalist politics, and into ideologies that deny the claim that interdependence brings any new obligations in its wake. In business the tension is rising because as firms become more powerful they seem ever less willing to accept the responsibilities that come with that power, concentrating instead on serving their shareholders and maximising their short-term profits to the exclusion of any other goals. In our culture, attachment to the value of autonomy is developing faster than any matching cultures of interdependence which would demand new habits of self-restraint.
The clearest sign of all of the heightening tension between freedom and interdependence is that in much of the world today the most pressing problems on the public agenda are not poverty or material shortage (although these remain acute for large minorities even in the richest countries), but rather the disorders of freedom: the troubles that result directly from having too many freedoms that are abused rather than constructively used. There are simple examples of this, like the fact that people with sufficient spending power tend to overeat, to eat too much salt, fat and sugar and to use drugs, whether alcohol, barbiturates or opiates, in ways that fail to to make them happy. Freedom of choice all too often ends with compulsive and self-destructive behaviour.
But these are just the simplest cases. Others, like personal relationships, are more complex. For many, particularly women, the right to break away from an unhappy marriage was a great advance, but freedom in family life leaves huge costs in its wake. Today, in the UK and the USA, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Millions of children suffer from the deficit of parental attention that tends to result if parents value their own careers and pleasures more than their responsibilities to their children. [One thing we could do is make potential parents aware of the problems of overpopulation and how it is possible to live full lives without bearing children.] Much the same could be said of the relationship between employers and employees. There never has been a golden age of mutual trust and loyalty, but in a fluid and open global market the pressures seem to make employers more casual in their treatment of their staff and employees less willing to make any commitments back: both see their relationship as short-term and instrumental.
Then there are the direct costs of an excessively individualistic society. It costs more if everyone travels in a private car and is willing to spend long spells in traffic jams; more if everyone wishes to live alone, or to live in a house large enough to accommodate the children of a previous marriage at weekends; more if people have to protect themselves against actions of others which in another society might be prevented by mutual moral suasion. In each of these cases, we are paying the costs that arise from the advance of a narrow and stunted idea of freedom.