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Thursday, December 26, 2013

What's Wrong With The World Today?

The world continues to evolve in ways that are hard to imagine. One hundred years ago, we could not have predicted the state of the world today, and we can not predict how the world will be one hundred years from now. However, what we can do is understand how the world is today and discuss why. This may give us some ability to change the trajectory of the world's direction. In the last century seven aspects of life have changed significantly. Let's look at them: 

1. Movement: Everything is moving today. We are moving and everything around us is moving. Until the 20th century, the visual arts were mainly paintings that did not move. Today, the popular visual arts are movies, TV shows, documentaries, etc. where the characters move and talk. People did not travel much and now we can drive or fly at will. Speaking on the telephone required us to sit at one place and now we have mobile phones which allow us to move and talk. Same thing for the Internet. The interaction with the Smartphone is interactive (kinetic). Because the Smartphone screens are small, moving fingers is required every few seconds to consume the content. An average person looks at the phone 150 times a day. That requires a lot of movement. Our eyes are moving more as well just because there is more to see. Our standard of living is enabled by global trade. Trade is all about movement. What will life be like without the movement of labor and goods around the world? Unless you go to a movie theatre or watch the performing arts, when are you not moving? Of course, all of this kinetics has brought us many economic gains. But, at what cost? Why do more people have ADHD today? Why are people in the rich countries so stressed? Why are the monks or people living in villages so happy? Can we be mentally calm if everything is always moving? 

2. Choices: The choices we have today are mind-boggling. 100+ different types of cereal in a grocery store! The number of things you can eat and drink has increased exponentially over the last century. Starbucks claims to offer 87,000 drink combinations. The number of things you can do with your free time is close to infinite. The number of channels on cable always amazes me. We have the choice to travel anywhere in the world. I can visit any of the billions webpages on the Internet. You are no longer limited to marrying someone from your village. You can choose to marry any of the millions of single people around the world. Even the new iPhone comes in three colors. Of course, the choices are much greater for people in the rich world. There are people in poor countries who do not even have the choice to live. There is no doubt that choices have contributed to economic growth. Choices also enable you to get things you want. How do you know what you want? Most of it is the result of social conditioning and insecurities. How are the choices affecting our mind? Is there any correlation between choices and happiness? 

3. Isolation: With all of the interconnectivity and communication technologies, we are more isolated today than ever before. Communities work when there are interdependencies among their members. You don't need to depend on anyone today. Everything is available for a price. People don't live with their extended families any more. More and more people are moving to cities. Don't listen to anyone, do whatever you like. Are we losing our ability to compromise? Life has become a competition to satisfy senses (eating, drinking, vacations, sex, entertainment, etc.). I don't think the human senses have been in more control of the human mind. Corporations work relentlessly to dehumanize you. Employees are explicitly told not to compliment co-workers, not to trust anyone, always have a paper-trail, punch the timecard, eat lunch in one-hour, etc. etc. Our friendships are based on convenience and not on love and commitment. Social media products like Facebook are supposed to bring us together. In some cases they may, but in many cases they allow us to hide behind the screen to avoid rejection. Many people I know see a therapist just so that they have someone to listen to them empathetically, that role used to be filled by friends and family. Humans have stronger relationships with machines (iPhone, PS4, TV, etc) and fictional characters than with other human beings. Some buy dogs and cats to feel connected with a sentient being. Why are we still unhappy if we can do anything we want? What is the meaning of a human relationship? 

4. Democracy: We are seeing the aging of democracy. No one will disagree that the governance system in the US is not working well. In 1913 the US tax code was 400 pages long and today it is ~74,000 pages. Most of these pages are loopholes for organizations that benefit politicians. If every vote is equal then what happens to the minority whose concerns are not shared by others? If a society is to be judged by how it take cares of its weak then the US democracy has been a failure. How can a rich country not afford to provide healthcare and education to its citizens? And, how do you justify spying on all citizen communication in a democracy? How do you justify selling guns to citizens after hundreds of school children die due to gun violence? Is it just the current government representatives or is it a systemic problem related to the aging of the system and are we just finding out the cracks which were not visible before? China has moved 600M out of poverty without having a democracy. The Chinese system is not better than a democratic system but what it has achieved in some areas is remarkable. Instead of rejecting the entire system why can't we learn from it? How much of democracy is getting into power through oration and staying there compared to acting in the best interest of the citizens? Can we create a better system? 

5. Large Organizations: What have the UN, WHO, EC, WEF, IMF, World Bank, etc. achieved in the last century? The fall of the USSR had a lot to do with central planning. The world we live in today makes large centralized organizations useless. The people in charge of these organizations fly first-class around the world and dine in fancy restaurants in Geneva while planning how to make life better for people in Afghanistan and Somalia. Try living there! What did the UN do when the US attacked Iraq? How many countries have come out of poverty because of efforts of the World Bank? How many diseases has the WHO eradicated? I would argue that the Gates Foundation has done more for health than any other organization. Somehow these organizations have an inverse relationship between size and effectiveness. Isn't there a better way to allocate resources to solve big world problems? 

6. Morals: Religion has played a critical role in spreading morals. When morals were developed the world was not connected and societies were homogenous. We lived in tribes with people who were like us and we moved with our feet or on animals. There was no access to information about how the tribes 3000 miles away were living. Today, the world is connected i.e. we can travel anywhere and we are aware of what is happening in the world and the societies are heterogeneous i.e. people of various color, religion, sexual preferences, race, etc. all live in the same society. Can we go beyond tolerating differences to forming loving relationships with people who are different than us in our society? Can we still justify giving money to the local symphony knowing that the same amount of money can save thousands of lives in Africa? Do we need new morals? 

7. Education: Is education an instrument? Or, is education an end in itself? This is an age-old argument in philosophy. The current education system is designed to produce workers. Most people who get degrees end up working for big and small corporations. Most people study to get jobs. What would the world be like if we studied just to study so that we are better citizens of the world? What is taught is lost by students the second they finish taking their exams. Is the current education system teaching us how to think? It may be teaching us how to shut our brains and believe what we are told. Why are morals not taught in the education system? Can't we change the education system to create a better society? 

There are many positive things in the world today compared to one hundred years ago. However, I have only written about areas which need attention for us to leave a better world behind for our children. Humans have the potential to do the impossible. Can we put our minds together to change these seven critical areas to make the world better?