In the 1960s former US President Lyndon Johnson signed off on laws to create what he called “The Great Society“, his follow-up to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. There are mixed analyses to this day over the effects, some pro and some con, but his ostensible goal was “the elimination of poverty and racial injustice.” Most of this change attempt was orchestrated through legislative means.
We’re not there yet, and perhaps never quite will be, but the ideal itself is certainly worth pursuing. Opponent criticisms are tempered, I think, by the fact that the following two administrations (Nixon and Ford) extended the programs further. Now current US President Barack Obama is touting yet another stage to this social progression, although couched in necessary contextual terms such as recovery and the ambiguously-useless change.
It is with that foundation in mind that I began wondering what a “great society” should look like presently given our opportunities and advancements, especially in medicine, agriculture and high technology.
The two main socioeconomic book ends, socialism and capitalism, push and pull at the citizenry of any country involved in large-scale trade and in many ways interfere with the natural tendencies of progress. For example, capitalism is dependent on growth of some sort, usually by obtaining new customers (retention of existing customers leads to diminishing returns). That growth has to surpass the true rate of inflation in order to provide investors with acceptable returns. All of this is elementary. But what I’m leading up to here is how capitalist mechanisms can impede the natural disruptive upheavals that technological breakthroughs would otherwise drive.
Socialism, on the other hand, pushes commonality on the people and tends to act like a drain on innovation.
While the bulk of capitalist transactions in the US today are in the purview of small businesses, these are the invisible, mundane exchanges which we take for granted and by their nature will rarely be drivers of significant change. The lone inventor who alters our lives forever with that amazing little gadget is more myth than reality.
Instead, the advances that largely affect us come from massive corporate concerns, which have a vested interest in “leaking” them gradually. Milking a research and development investment ensures that the initial product(s) will not be a flash in the pan and money can be derived from the work for at least as long as the patents hold out.
Think tanks, futurist authors and even media outlets such as Wired magazine are fond of exploring the landscape of tomorrow and speculating on its appearance. In some cases their views have served as important guidelines and eventual benchmarks; the prescient writings of Alvin and Heidi Toffler come to mind. All of these sources point out the great pressure of technological change drivers.
But as hard as technology may push, markets in a great sense push back– turning potentially sharp disruptive advents into steady, manageable releases. And while individuals may clamor for immediate progress on some front, the general public ironically resists. The result is a fairly-steady status quo that does occasionally succumb to massive paradigm shifts but only after the resistance has been thoroughly ground down from the assault. However, the prospect of an impending Technological Singularity throws any confident predictions into doubt (more on that in a separate future article). Next, I’ll dig deeper into some fun facts about societies and human behavior.