Greater freedom - greater responsibility


The Global Organism, by Peter Hesseldahl
Chapter 6

Not too long ago democracy was a matter of organizing people in large blocks. Trade unions and parties could muster great crowds to fight in common for their rights, and they could do so because people rightly felt that they shared interests with lots of others coming from the same profession or social class.
But focus has shifted; the individual has become the basis of the modern society. No one wants to be one of the masses anymore. The goal now is to realize your potential and to create your own identity. The freedom of the individual to choose exactly the job, education, life style, religious belief or form of family that you want gained in importance through the 20th. century, along with the rise in wealth that allowed consumers to experience the increasing freedom of choice in practice.
We became consumers and our goals became those of the advertisements and Hollywood movies: The dream of realizing yourself and expressing your very own personality.
The ideology of the western world is squarely focused on the rights of the individual; in general, the western - and increasingly also the eastern - consumer is not inclined to forgo any personal freedom for the benefit of the common good.

At the same time, however, we inhabitants of the planet are bonded ever closer to each other. Increasingly, we are becoming interdependent as we are woven into the same great web of connections - economically, politically and culturally.
Things are getting tighter in an environmental sense as well: There is a rising number of people with an increasing consumption on a planet that in many respects has finite ressources.
The hard fact is that the scope of the individual must be restrained unless our actions shall inhibit the freedom and possibilities of others. There will be an increasing need for a moral that recognizes our shared responsibility and mutual commitment to others as we are bonded ever closer on this planet.
The classic tension between the common good and the freedom of the individual will be central to the politics of the coming years. Personal and common interest must be balanced in view of the new conditions and rules of the game that the globalization and the technological development have created.
The word "responsibility" will - in several ways - be key when we consider which values are relevant to life from now on.

- We must be prepared to be held accountable for our actions in new areas and in ever finer detail, as our surroundings fill with electronic sensors and intelligent systems that do their best to track and profile anyone they encounter. Both individual persons and whole companies and organisations will be exposed in this way.

- As consumers we will gain much greater possibilties to shape the products we acquire, and as we gain influence it will increasingly become our responsibility whether we get the products that we actually want.

- Workwise, the completely predictable and routine jobs will disappear. These days you're expected to think independently and to be flexible enough to follow the ever changing conditions and demands. No longer can you expect detailed orders about everything you're supposed to do.

- The welfare state tended to drive its clients into passive dependency. But the notion that you can blame it on the system is becoming less acceptable. Instead, the individual to a much higher degree will be expected to assume responsibility and make an effort to secure his or her income, qualifications and health.

- Finally, it's clear that mankind in common carries a great responsibility to maintain the basis of continued life on the planet - a responsibility that is growing as we increase our knowledge and the extent of our interference with the functions of the natural systems of the planet.

Let me expand a number of those points in the following:

Tunnel vision feedback
The services and goods that we are offered are increasingly interactive; the way they are designed and the ways in which we experience them depends upon a series of choices that the consumer makes - perhaps in conjunction with an electronic "agent", a computer program that continuosly notices the consumers preferences and choices, building up a profile of individual tastes and needs.
Of course we've always had choices as consumers, but the trend is clearly towards a much deeper and more engaging interaction between the consumer and the producer in the creation and shaping of services or products.

If we look at the consumption of media as an example, we will have much greater possibilities to control and navigate the swelling rivers of information in order to find exactly the content we want as consumers. With filters, and learning "agents" we needn't sift through enormous amounts of irrelevant or not-quite-interesting information. Neither do we have to pay for the deliverance of information that's actually just a hassle to search through.
On the net I can choose international news from the New York Times, national news from the National broadcasting company and local news from the local paper - just as I can choose not to see the sports or boat sections. In time my media system will propably learn and become more active in suggesting programs or articles that match the kinds of subjects I usually watch - you can already see a rudimentary version of this sort of personalized media-service on websites like or - or in the flourishing of socalled "RSS readers".

There's an obvious danger of tunnel vision. In it's eager attempts to secure that the user is only presented with exactly the information that she wants, there's a risc of assisting the user back to a stage of infancy, where all she is ever presented with is comfortable, easy and familiar, never challenging the still more narrow and restricted world view that she's gradually getting stuck in.
It takes a certain strength to stand up to a system that - unless you tell it otherwise - will only keep feeding you with more of the stuff that the system knows you usually like. Not least if the system is biased towards recommending things that the company behind it would prefer to sell.
It's so easy to move on from anything inconvenient, so easy to opt out of demanding media, that you risc losing the deeper aspects of life. You cannot develop as a person if all you are willing to see must be easy and familiar. Culture takes an effort. Some works of art can be absolutely imcomprehensible or even disgusting, but given time and greater insight it may reveal layers upon layers of experiences and beauty. Unless you are curious and seeking, you may end up with a very narrow horizont.
It's not a particularly new mechanism - it was always important to have an open mind - but technology reinforces it, since interactivity will be part of so many areas of everyday life. Not only media and consumer goods, but also things like the curriculum of our education will be something we can each influence and shape to a much higher degree.
Ironically, the possibilities of individualization may lead the weakest to lose identity and merely accept a still more narrow range of what the system determines is best for them from what the system has to offer.

First and second tier
A horse is a good metaphor for the dilemma of technology. An experienced rider that can control the horse can go far and fast, but unless the rider is in control, he riscs being carried off to where the horse wants to go - or he might be thrown off all together.
It's a matter of who decides where to go. You cannot steer passively, and unless you do something, well, the system will follow its own course. We have acquired some amazingly strong tools to shape our own lives - but they carry an obligation: We have to use them. Otherwise, they will use us.

In my opinion this is exactly what will divide the first and second tier of our future society. First tier will be those with a predominantly active approach to the many choices and possibilities. They will use interactivity as a strong tool to pursue their own goals. They won't be lead by what choices the menu happens to offer, in stead they will explore and demand to have exactly what they need to move on in their current situation.
The second tier will be those that mainly just passively accept what's suggested, without raising questions or making demands that exceed the agenda set up by the system.

Which brings us back to "responsibility": It's all about taking responsibility for the results of the interaction. It will be a crucial qualification to act actively. Your status and what you achieve from interacting with the system will depend upon not taking everything for granted, but rather, seeing yourself as a participant in a proces, taking part in creating changes in the direction you want things go.

Think for yourself
Our responsibility as employees will grow as well. There have always been jobs that demanded creativity and independence, but they were in the ranks of managers and experts. The majority didn't need to think much further than doing exactly as they were told.
The workers at the assembly line of the Ford factories were certainly not supposed to be creative or flexible in their way of handling the task at hand. However, automatization and rationalization will gradually peel away most jobs that do not require some level of independent thinking. The jobs left will be of another kind, they will be jobs that demand exactly the creativity that schools ought to instill in their students. If you can't do your job in such a way that someone else can't easily replace you - then you're at risc of being replaced.

As I have mentioned earlier, more people will work independently in the future, without one steady employer. It will require another morale and disciplin to work without a boss. You can't expect to be put to work, simply following orders. You have to define your own tasks, take the initiative to sell your services, it's your responsibility to carry out projects and to maintain your qualifications, your machinery and facilities.
Many of the jobs that are lost in industry will re-appear in this new sector of "casually employed", but not everyone will thrive with the responsibilities that this way of life carries with it. It's a development that favors those who have the surplus to plan and take initiatives. It favors those that are used to thinking for themselves.

Again, we have to focus on the educational system. The passive attitude of simply taking what you are given, is an attitude we have been stamped with through school and television.
In order to avert a dramatic polarization of the population it's important to engraft the new rules of the game in the school children. As we heard Tom Bentley explain in the previous chapter it's a question of culture. The ability to think independently and taking on responsibility is not a matter of genetics but of schooling; it's all about what perception you have of your own role and of the effort you are prepared to make. We - and our children - must learn to be participants and co-creators.

The collective reality
Asuming responsibility for your life is not the equivalent of dumping solidarity and caring only for yourself. To the contrary, the tighter we are bonded in a single system, the clearer it becomes that the well being and wealth of the individual is directly dependent upon the whole system working, and that it is in the interest of everyone that individuals don't behave irresponsibily.
As the loops of interaction in society becoming tighter, we will experience that what is neglected or rejected boomerangs back in the shape of new, even worse problems - and this holds true both in the social and environmental domain.

"Independent" and "self-sufficient" are terms that are losing their meaning in an age where you can't get many seconds into the day without drawing upon the ressources and services of an enormous network of companies and the efforts of people thousands of kilometers away. We are constantly affecting their living conditions, and our own conditions are correspondingly being affected by the sum of millions of peoples' actions and demands.
Certainly we have gained a much greater freedom to choose our individual lifestyle, but it wouldn't be possible without the larger community, society, which provides a steady basis of clean water, safe roads, law & order - the underpinnings of a modern, convenient life.
In reality it is completely misleading to think of one self and ones' fate as detached from the collective. If nothing else the global environmental problems spell it out that the basis of our existance is common and its well being depends on each of us taking care of it. The fate of humanity is increasingly shared.

The third way
The relative emphasis on personal freedom versus responsibility towards the common good has been the most significant difference between the right and left wings in politics. Since the collapse of socialism and the difficulties of the welfare state in doing anything beyond keeping problems at bay, there has been much talking and thinking about a renewal of the social democratic ideology that would put more responsibility back on the individual.
Some of the most interesting ideas in that direction are coming from the UK, particularly from those promoting what is often called "the third way". The concept originated in a fairly narrow circle of political thinkers that have colaborated in various combinations on each others' books and reports. Their ideas have had a great influence on the ideology that Tony Blair renewed the old Labour party with.

The best known among them is Anthony Giddens who for decades has been aknowledged as one of the worlds leading sociologists. Since Giddens' appointment as director of London School of Economics he has managed to draw an impressive string of the worlds' leading economists and sociologists to the school. It seems that every few weeks another book is published by a member of the faculty which manages to further the understanding of the globalization of societies.
Giddens himself looks like a thin engineer from the 1950ies' England, appearantly always dressed in shirt and tie - but no jacket. He speaks with some local accent that I can't identify, and the British understated humour is always lurking just below the serious surface.
Giddens launched the term "The third way" in his book with that name in 1998. The slim volume was originally a colaboration between Giddens and two other authors. One of them was Geoff Mulgan. Mulgan is not as well known outside the narrow political circles, but make no mistakes about it; he is a central person in the articulation of the new British version of social democracy.
Back in 1993 Mulgan founded the political think tank Demos, which throughout the nineties produced a number of ground breaking analyses that have had a major impact in British politics, not least following Blairs' ascendance to power. Geoff Mulgan became a member of Blairs' staff, initially in his strategic unit in Downing street 10, and now as the director of a special unit in charge of renewing the public sector - it's called "The performance and innovation unit". Mulgan is still just around forty and his career seems unlikely to top there.
I've interviewed Mulgan a couple of times, the first happened to take place in Downing street 10, which to my surprise was not just a small town house. Behind the façade it turns out to be a large office building with several hundred people working and bad art on the walls. I had set my mind on having a cup of tea there, but the tea I had was actually nothing special. On the other hand, knocking on the famous door and being welcomed by the butler is imcomparable.

Geoff Mulgan has been influential in articulating the idea of the "stakeholder society" which emphasize that we all have both rights and responsibilities. In the welfare state people have grown accostumed to thinking only about their entitlements, but in Mulgans opinion this will have to change into a more reciprocal relationship to the government:
"There's is still sometimes in the way we talk about politics almost a slightly infantile, dependent view of how the public should be demanding things from the government and angry if they don't get them - and no sense that actually the public is a partner in providing better education, lower crime, better health, better environment and so on.
The changes people want cannot happen just through the old model of service provision. The only way of improving the healthiness of any society is not just through having better hospitals and better health services and help lines, it's through people changing their own life style, their own diet, their own sense of responsibility for their body.
If you want to improve education, its not enough to have better online service and class rooms full of computers, you have to change childrens own attitude to learning as important to their lives, and the attitude of parents to learning as important to their childrens' life.
If you want a better environment you have to change peoples' attitude to their car, and their understanding of the relationship between car driving and the environment", says Mulgan.

Egoism and altruism moving closer to eachother
One of the beautiful aspects of raising a familiy is the very concrete experience that ones' personal interests are inseparable from those of your kin. For newly fledged parents children are a tough challenge to the egoism they were used to enjoying. And they won't disappear again. You can't just turn off the family like you would put a robotic pet on standby if you are tired and irritated that it won't behave like you want it to. If your kids or your spouse are not well, you feel bad too.

Although it's not as plainly visible, that same mutual dependency holds for all of society:
"Look at this individualized society", says the German sociologist Ulrich Beck: "If you are an egoist and you want to have a healthy life for yourself, you may have to change the foundation of production, not only in your own country, but in many other countries as well. So your personal life and personal questions are very much related to global questions. More and more people know about this relationship and so they do feel responsible for what's going on in the world, but in a very egoistic way".
Ulrich Beck who became famous for his book "The Risc society", concludes that "Individualization is the highest way of being integrated into a society. It means that you have to be very sensitive on behalf of the others. Designing your own life implies creating a network with all kinds of obligations to others".

The American commentator Jeremy Rifkin gives another example of how the possibilities of the individual are closely related to the community:
"We grew up to believe that to be free is to be autonomous and have property so we are not dependent on others. But our childrens' generation, who'll grow up embellished in all sorts of networks, for them autonomy is separation and isolation. They want connections, they want relationships. So for them freedom is not exclusivity based on possesion, for them freedom is inclusivity based on access" says Rifkin.

The tragedy of the commons
So, does all of this mean that there's no contradiction between personal and common good? Of course there is.
Maybe the best way to understand it is as conflicts between different dimensions. Our actions have consequences in many dimensions; short term, long term, locally, globally, personally or to the community. We have an interest in seeing all those spheres doing well, but what's good in one dimension is not always good in all the other dimensions.

Naturally we tend to go for short term benefits for ourselves in areas where we can clearly see what we gain - which is exactly what the obligation-free, modern, global consumer has been granted tremendous possibilities to do. The problem is that it threatens the whole system in the long term if everyone primarily thinks about their own gains here and now.
The american biologist Garret Hardin called this mechanism "the tragedy of the commons": A consumption that exploits a common ressource will give the individual consumer an immediate benefit, but it drains the common pool of ressources. One individuals' consumption is hardly noticed as long as there are plenty of ressources and not many others are exploiting them. But if everyone starts consuming unimpeded then the common foundation may be undermined and everyone will suffer from it. Car driving is an obvious example; every new car on the street is a great benefit to the individual who drives it and the extra strain on the common ressources is only marginal - but eventually there will be so many cars that traffic becomes impossible for everyone.

The conundrum is that when someone gains from drawing on a shared ressource, the relation between the gain and the cost is hazy. Often those who enjoy consumption and those who pay the price for it are not the same. The problems created by consumption don't seriously bother the very people that should be the foremost in changing behaviour and thinking about others.

We're back to "responsibility". It has become very easy to forget that we all share responsibility because the system we are part of is so vast. In the community of a little village it would very quickly become appearant if you were consuming ressources at the expense of others or the environment. But in large cities, on the internet or in a global context you lose the sense that your actions have consequences for many others than yourself. The global warming is the ultimate example; it's very abstract to think about the impact of your individual contribution to such a large scale phenomenon. But: it won't free us from the responsibility. We have to take it on us, because no one else will do it instead.

The fall, continued
In an almost religious perspective one could say that mankind since our fall in the garden of Eden has continued to eat the fruit of knowledge, losing our innoscence. We are gaining knowledge of still new aspects of the world, and it enables us to intervene and control processes that used to be in the hands of God. And along with the ability to intervene comes responsibility for those actions. We can't relinquish it, cause even if one chooses not to use ones' knowledge, that would be a conscious decision, and we could have chosen differently.
We have the knowledge to create weapons so powerful that we can exterminate most of the life on the planet, we can save embryos weighing less than a pound, we can keep brain dead humans alive for years - and now we are charging ahead playing creators of new life form by means of gene splicing and artificial intelligence.

All in all a quite new division of responsibility between humans and gods. Collectively, mankind must take the responsibility for solving problems on a historically unprecedented scale: The climate, for instance - that's a BIG thing. Gene manipulation is another example: within a few decades biotechnology will enable us to design our selves and a major part of all the plants and domestic animals on earth, which will put yet an enormous responsibility on our shoulders. And there's no reason to believe that it will stop there. Future exotic technologies will continue that development.

Back in the eighties science author Steward Brand concluded "we have become gods - and we might as well be good at it".
We have become participants and co-creators at many levels: As consumers, on the job, in staging our lives, as citizens and as members of humanity - the first species to take fate in its own hands.
We have become free, we're in charge now. But ironically, this implies that we must restrict ourselves: to abstain from immediate pleasure for the benefit of the common good and long term stability. That is the prerequisite for freedom: that you are responsible enough to manage it.