Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a 2-post guest appearance by Alex Magnin, a Brooklyn-based technology entrepreneur whose latest startup is helping to “green Hollywood” (more info at the bottom). This series came about as a response to Peter Thiel’s ‘The End of the Future‘ tract. In part one, Magnin showed patterns in the creation of lasting progress — and encouraged us to fear not, because humans have shown an overwhelmingly impressive ability in their history to innovate and move forward past many daunting challenges. In this post, he looks at what we have to do to ensure history repeats itself….
Before his post starts, I just want to note how happy I am CleanTechnica has the readers and friends it has — this is a truly wonderful post, and I’m sure many of you will resonate with it. Thanks, Alex!
In Part One, we looked at what progress is made of. We saw the process of technological innovation and how it is turned into economic prosperity in a particular pattern. Today, in a recession, the march forward seems unsure. History shows us it should not.
Yet, just because things have cycled before does not mean for sure they will cycle again. Nothing is guaranteed. Our actions determine the future.
So, to make sure things go well, we must remember what is required of us to keep the pattern going, to ensure we continue to turn innovation into prosperity and progress.
Basically, while one person can innovate, many people must take up that innovation and use it well to generate prosperity. It is not inventing the technology, but installing and deploying the technology that makes progress.
So, while having more people in the world has been a great thing for technology, with more innovators making more innovations, it poses difficulties to progress: more people need to cooperate to deploy new technology in a way that creates prosperity and progress.
This cooperation only works on the basis of faith. When shared benefits require shared sacrifice, one must trust his neighbor to participate equally in both the sacrifice and the benefits. And this faith, of course, is a leap to trust – it calls upon our heart.
Society has worked well for quite some time. For the majority of our history, our societies were small. The leap of faith was easier. Recently, our worlds have rapidly expanded. So, the question of continuing progress, the type of progress that turns innovation into prosperity — progress that requires society-wide sacrifice for future benefits — will be a test of what is on our hearts.
The long-term trend has humans cooperating in our best nature. Logic dictates it. Universal morality boils down to the golden rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – at the very least, because in a free, competitive society unbound from that morality, it is a likelihood that, some of the time, you will end up on the wrong end of the stick. The process of civilization, the state, and the rule of law can be seen as a sort of mutual détente – the recognition that, in a zero-sum world of unbridled freedom and desire, we feel an uncomfortable possibility that we could lose. We realize we will do best by working together with other free people.
But a paradox of universal freedom is that it unleashes our wildest desires while its universality – the very fact that we have it, and so does everyone else – so expands the pool of potential competitors that the odds of anyone attaining all those desires become near-impossible. In our worst nature, this frustration leads to violence in its many forms – from wars over resources to jealousy of our neighbor, from skirting corporate regulations to children dying in famine.
So, we build institutions and culture to help us — to help us subsume our egos and drive oppression and violence out of our society; to help us cooperate better; and to lead us to greater faith in each other. The process is ongoing, from primitive to feudal to mercantile and to free democratic, but through human history, institutions and culture have been the lynchpins of progress.
Today, as economic growth stalls, our institutions appear ineffectual, and our culture indulges escapism and narcissism, a reminder of what got us this far is imperative.
Remember that being human means being able to conceive of possibilities beyond the momentary reality. It means being able to look towards our own future, but also to step into our neighbors’ shoes.
It was this conception that impelled us to trade ego for morality before, to treat others as we would wish to be treated. It is this conception that continues to impel us to turn individual innovation into societal progress, and to build the culture and institutions that help us do so. We need them. Optimizing technological progress for prosperity means optimizing us. The two are the same, because progress and prosperity in a free and open society exist within a moral framework – what I wish for myself, I must also wish for others; the zero-sum game is one in which I may well lose. So the future of progress is a question of what is inside us. Our minds may have limits, but the potential of our hearts is infinite. So long as there is no end to that capacity, there is no end to the future. This is a reason to be hopeful.
Alex Magnin is a Brooklyn-based technology entrepreneur. He serves as COO of Lua Technologies, building enterprise communications software for mass collaboration — Lua is working with the Environmental Media Association and the Producers Guild of America Green Initiative to help make the $31B Film & TV production industry more eco-friendly.
He is also on the Board of Directors of Every Person Has A Story, a non-profit connecting students around the world through digital photography.
Alex helps make cool things for the internet as a partner in Betamale Ventures, and was on the founding team and formerly ran product and business development at Martini Media, a premier digital advertising technology company. He attended Wesleyan University. He owes much to many, but in this article a particular intellectual debt to Alexis de Tocqueville and Rene Girard. You can find Alex at alexmagnin.com and twitter.com/alexmagnin
Peter Thiel photo via Suzia Katz