Technological Eden or Destruction?

Echoes of the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai

The future teeters on a pinhead, vacillating between a technological Eden and destruction. At the World Government Summit that just ended in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, international experts made the case both ways. Both were equally persuasive

Speakers offered strikingly different outlooks on what the future has in store. Major presentations stressed the accelerating trends of interconnectivity that crisscross the planet, and tie it inexorably into a tightly knotted global village. Impressive charts were displayed, attesting to vast advances in transportation, communication and the transfer of energy across the globe. These enable unprecedented movements of humanity and the increasingly shared reality created by the same media news and feats of popular culture that reach the remotest corners of the earth. They render the boundaries of states liquid and porous, hardly an obstacle for the unstoppable advent of technology that penetrates all barriers.

Speakers painted futuristic visions of driverless cars, megacities without traffic, and boundless technological innovations that turn yesterday’s brave new world into today’s ancient history. These optimistic themes rang particularly credible in the emirate of Dubai, only fifty years ago a remote backwater of poverty and under-development. Today it is a ‘shining city on the hill,’ a model of inventiveness and entrepreneurship, quickly becoming a global center to which the world’s greats increasingly pay homage.

The optimistic forecasts featured at the WGS herald immense improvements in life on our planet and celebrate the human spirit of creativity and inventiveness. Yet amidst all the exuberance and excitement, somber voices warned that this might all soon come to an end; that the forces of negativity and destruction are already unleashed beyond reprieve, bent on sending us back to the darkness of distrust and divisiveness, to a time not so long ago when the existing world order crumbled.

Speaker after speaker reminded audiences that inequality, instability and insecurity, those ‘riders of the apocalypse,’ are in the saddle once again worldwide; that election after election swells a tide of populism and xenophobia, sweeping into power autocratic leaders that pander to people’s anxieties and trade in ideologies of their nation’s greatness, the rest of the world be damned. Speakers painstakingly explained how ideological devotion and retreat from the harmony of pragmatism justify extremism, violence and mayhem, an “us versus them” attitude, that time and again has led the world into the abyss.

Enlightened presentations at the summit made it abundantly clear that the very same forces of inventiveness and change that promised spectacular human betterment, also spawned a widespread discontent, as galloping globalization benefitted a select few, leaving billions behind. That this, in turn, spawned a wave of global uncertainty born of a quickly vanishing past absent a clear road map to the future.

How will it all end, was the uneasy question on participants’ minds, anxiously debated at coffee breaks, bus rides and breakout sessions. Is technological interconnectedness unstoppable, and will the march of globalization, with appropriate tweaks, trump the occasional flare-ups of human discontent? Or will the pernicious politics of populism take over and arrest the progress of humankind for untold years to come? Are we ‘back to the future,’ once again, condemned to a déjà vu of 1930s Europe, where the various ideological “isms” (communism, fascism, national socialism) sowed their poisonous seeds and ultimately claimed over a hundred million lives and unimaginable devastation ? At the 2017 WGS in Dubai, no one knew for sure, though some ventured to prophesy.

A major theme at the conference was human happiness, with the world’s greatest ‘happiness gurus’ in attendance, enlightening their audience about the nature of the beast, and offering intriguing ways of assessing, inducing and cultivating happiness. This emphasis was particularly fitting given the venue, for Dubai is a quintessentially happy place, with a young, well-educated, prosperous population, immensely proud of its spectacular achievements, trusting in its government and grateful to its leaders. Indeed, the emphasis on human happiness may hold the key to human progress, as was wisely presaged by America’s founding fathers, who proclaimed the pursuit of happiness an inalienable human right.

Though happiness may be crucial, we must not lose sight of the grave impediments it confronts: the injustice, exploitation and the loss of dignity and personal significance that uncontrolled political, economic and technological developments may engender. Though psychological insights into happiness are precious, no amount of happiness training would be effective if the conditions on the ground spawned suffering and misery instead.

Happiness may be key to overcoming ideological zealotry and fanaticism that breed disaster, yet tricking people into happiness will not work. Rather, world governments must strive to produce real happiness through farsighted educational, economic and social policies grounded in deep understanding of the human nature and its reactions to world developments.

The real success of this world summit, thus, critically depends on governments harnessing the insights so generously shared throughout the meeting by wisely translating them into the language of policy and practice.

Arie Kruglanski is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. His WSG presentationj is available at facebook.com/arie.kruglanski

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