I Have… No Dream
Many Universal Threats, But Where Is the Universal Vision?
We stopped voting. We actively avoid news. We don’t read. Don’t we care anymore? Maybe. Unlikely though. It could possibly be just a matter of era. A generational mood. Despondent, blasé times. When we don’t blame the leadership, we blame the tools. The tools could be media, it certainly is social media. When all else fails, the audience itself, we actually, are more often than not pointed at as the issue. However, when politics — but also religion, philosophy and arts — don’t inspire anymore, don’t give us any future towards which they would lead us, what else to expect? Can you really project or invest yourself in hollow slogans and programs? Without a vision, they just look like so many personal ambitions.
Dreams, hopes of a better future, … that would make us sit up, open the door, get out there and act! And when I say “us”, I mean all of us. To qualify, a vision would be a holistic opportunity, a goal we would all share. What we are over-supplied with are dire warnings, laments, exhortations, ultimatums and, ultimately, regrets about this, that, and the next one. Probably accurate, but not an inspiration to action. There are many universal threats out there, but where is the universal vision? Where are the common hopes, the common projects to federate us? Is there today any future where we would not only gain but give, in a word, a future where we would have personal significance. At best, we are given fragmented views, scattered directions and ad hoc partial projects. We are offered another version of today. Possibly yesterday, at a pinch. The facts and statistics speak for themselves (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).
Over the first 6 months of 2022, we have seen a widespread supply crisis, the return of inflation, an epidemic, a regional war. Possibly the seeds of a global war. The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse are well on their way then. And yet, where are we going? Where to with fertilizers, energy shortage, monkey-pox and Ukraine? Not even the WHO, WTO or UN seems to know what the goal should be. We hear laments, tears, wriggling of hands, then, ultimately, there is just silence.
I believe we simply lack a true universal vision, a common aspiration.
Race to the Moon
Everyone remembers the race to the Moon. Maybe not the details. We may not even remember the same context, nor have the same interpretation or view. We may just remember the actual flight to the Moon. Or the pictures of Earth taken from the Moon. Or that it is a parable for the struggle between capitalist and socialist systems. Regardless, the Apollo program will live on forever. Like Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin. The words, images, names, simply speak to anyone anywhere. The Race to the Moon has a vast, meaningful, universal narrative behind it. Whatever your politics or religion, the words of JFK, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”, could be said by anyone. They speak to everyone. And so they inspire all of us. The direction given is clear. We know where it leads, what it means for us individually, and what we could contribute personally. In the same way, we are all invited to share into the speech of Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream”. It pulls us forwards and upwards. You just get it, whether you read the speech details or give it a passing glance.
In both, tomorrow will not only be better than yesterday, it is an entirely new world. A world worth living for, worth fighting for, worth working for. One world where everyone can sharpen the details to the extent and intensity s.he sees fit. A dreamscape that we build together. The rhetoric of both speeches is heavily marked historically; very classical. Yet, both could fit TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, a blog, YouTube, .. or a parchment, a microphone, a black and white TV screen. Anything really. It is not the tool, but the evocative vision, the hopes and dreams they summon, that makes them.
Are such visions just wishful thinking? Is this just another teary memory of a mythical “greatest generation”? A boomer rant perhaps? Maybe. Maybe not. Shared visions don’t only get us to sit up and listen, they lead to action. We may even disagree with them, yet they give us a beacon towards which to rally, or against which to oppose.
This is not at all what we have today.
We are sliding into apathy and inertia
Look at a map. It is amazing to see how many regional and national entities share borders, a sea with either Russia or Ukraine, one of their client countries or strategic partners. How does a potential world war on your direct borders impact you? If you are Russian or Ukrainian, obviously directly. For the rest? We have a spike of worry, a fleeting interest, some outraged engagement, and soon enough, the soufflé goes back to domestic issues. Is there any clear vision of where we are actually going next? We have fragments of messages, ideas and old debates, not a coherent vision for tomorrow. Nowhere. It looks as if we are continuously recycling answers to recycled issues. What right to choose do we have if these are the alternatives we are proposed?
Only last month, France voted not to choose. It should have been a thunderbolt. After all, 57% of the voters choose not to choose! 53% did not even show up. 4% did show up, only to say that they did not want to choose, voting nothing or invalidating ballots. Yet, all commentaries went into the unprecedented representation in the country: one third of the vote went hard left, one third hard right and one third to the amoebaean centre. No clear mandate to govern, not even a clear program either way. Par for course, and not an exception.
We see the same slow erosion of interest in the UK, in Germany… Dismiss this as the blasé reaction of Western Doom and Gloom, and you will miss a growing apathy across the world, even in Nigeria. Only India shows consistent high level of grassroots engagement, interest in political news and votes. Only India engages today in a national saga. Could it be a lively sense of competition between 2 programs, 2 narratives, 2 visions? Seems so to me.
We need a universal vision to federate energies
A universal vision is a future into which we can all project ourselves. A shared goal to aim at. It defines who we are, what we are. It gives us a destination, a stake in the future, a sense of worth in the common success. Where do we want to go together, what is our individual stake, and what is our expected individual contribution?
For groups, societies, economies to actually exist, a shared universal vision seems pretty much a basic requirement. After all, that is why vision statement exist for companies. Why should it not be the same for nations, groups, families and individuals? A shared goal, a shared destiny, a shared challenge, cements, possibly even creates, the society itself. At the very least, it shapes a common narrative.
Originally, a shared vision could have been as simple as how to irrigate land for the common good. For historians, this has been long suspected as the most likely origin of government. Today, you will find this in the all-time favourite game Sid Meier’s Civilization. That explains the success of the city-state of Sumer. Higher visions, far-reaching destinies give us individually a context. A shared vision gives us something we want to achieve together. Sounds obvious? Without it, we might as well stay home. Indeed, like Pangloss, and tend to our gardens.
It’s all about community, opportunity and contribution
What would be a good vision today? Literally type the sentence in a search engine and find out. In DuckDuckGo, the answers were all about “vision statements”, that or optician answers. Anecdotal yes, revealing also.
Are we too well informed not to grow cynical and make this situation workable? After all, with more than 7.5 million blog posts published every day (thanks for reading this one btw), Twitter, Facebook, Discord channels et alii, it is likely that someone somewhere laid out some great vision. Statistically, that is why, for me, it is not the content of the vision itself that is the issue. It is its shape, i.e. what and how to make it happen. We can learn as much by trying to describe it as from the ashes of counter-examples lying all around us.
For this, let’s check out the current contenders in the public sphere, whether social, political or economic visions. There is no lack of worthy causes lying around: saving the earth, these people or that, preserving this or that culture, curing this or that disease, food, integration, education etc… So, what do they miss? To be honest, it seems like flicking through a sticker album of doom, gloom and misery over the past years. The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse are riding over the horizon like the knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. 3 basics are missing thus we fail to draw in the individual in any of these visions.
First, a vision would have to make us feel part of the “we”. It must define clearly the group and who is part of this. If aiming at being universal, the “we” must therefore be as well universal. Second, the vision must outline the individual benefit. It is not a question of cynicism, the project must really talk to us. Even religions do that. Finally, I don’t believe that we like to simply be passengers. So the last block has to be what can “I”, the individual, contribute to the vision? Only with these 3 elements, can we truly feel on-board. With this, no feeling of instrumentalised causes.
For a vision to succeed and federate energies, it needs to define the community, the opportunity and the contribution.
“We” are more than a patchwork of individual groups
A vision can’t be exclusive. If the core of it is centred around the particular plight or set of issues of a single specific group, then you will lose all others. We have a strong corpus of visions for specific groups. Today, we tend to stack them. However dire the individual problem, the overarching vision cannot be simply a screamed warning. It has to aim at federating energies.
Over the past century, our societies made progress and we are reaching a point where nearly every group is at least acknowledged. Yet, we can’t simply see society as a patchwork of individual groups and interests, however relevant. We must first define what we want to be as a group entity. We have to move to a society that both recognises the individual, the diverse individual groups, and at the same time what glues them into a One. Not just a pile of many. We certainly are in a selfie culture. And so, we tend to define ourselves by excluding what is not “me”. We miss a visionary glue. Talk to me about your problem, I will talk to you about mine. The more I listen to you, the more I expect you to listen to me. We are evermore into a spiralling competition for attention, recognition and ultimately resources. You could think this is very mechanical, possibly simplistic, yet it feels as if today’s watchwords, slogans and projects, however well intended and necessary, just come at cross-purposes. We miss a common frame with a common direction.
Shared social, political spaces have imploded into as many splinters of individual goals. To be most successful, efficiency dictates therefore that messages need to be as rough as possible. As an example, “let me be Prime Minister” was the entire program of the French Left in the last elections. A personal ambition more than a program. And the other two political programs were not even that clear.
I believe that a fundamental expectation we should have in the 21st century is that, any and every group, issue, topic, interest should be given a representation, a proper voice in an actionable and the relevant sphere. Issues and specific problems must not be ignored. Yet they cannot obscure the need to build something together. A social, political project cannot simply be a sticker album of issue-specific goals.
We can trace the origin of this in American politics, as an individual interests-led system. Even then, their peak decade was when they could overcome these and come up with universal enough visions to make the world sit up and listen. JFK and MLK. Not Clinton or Trump. Dangling “us” vs “them” is a basic vision. It generates heat and passions. Yet, heat and passion also burn fast or spiral out of control. A vision, to be sustainable, must therefore acknowledge, but also propose a way out of that duality. A universal vision means as well a universal narrative.
What is in it for me?
Once we know what group we are part of, we need to understand the goal. What is the measure of success, and of course, what it would mean for me. This is not a question of cynicism, but a practical one.
To be truly universal, the vision has to be looking forward. Create a future narrative. The results expected have to be realistic immediately; reachable enough that we can picture it, smell it, hear it. A vision will always be a function of our own experience, background, environment. To be believable and inspiring, visions have to be graspable, achievable, reachable to build a personal rapport to it. How we would fit, what would or could be in them for us. As individuals. A common project must transcend our personal experience. No surprise to me that today’s science fiction series are very much like endless 1950s remakes, or simply lifted entirely from historical events. Rather than having a truly original content.
A lot of projects claim to have the individual interest at heart, to put the human at the centre of it. Yet, most fail to illustrate practically what is in it for the individual. Many actually rely on an expected inner sense of good. This presumption of the primary good nature of the individual is an ancient philosophical bias, a cop-out we saw that in my previous article on “the price”.
To create a message strong enough to shift a society, a handful of traditional rewards will not drive a strong sustainable basis. The very notion of success is shifting. “Economic exploitation”, “economic fairness”, “get rich”, “work more, earn more”, “entrepreneurship”, salaries, serfdom, all had their place as a mainstream issue when this was the base dynamic of societies — probably for the past 2 centuries, from 1820 to 2020. As the production line disappears as a base reality with the advent of digital automations, we slide into a society driven more and more by other topics than economic conflicts. We need a new definition of the human position in a non-production led social mapping. That means defining new rewards. The past 2 years showed that the economy, and financial rewards, were by now rather relative. If you can create billions overnight, why not continue? We have not yet seen the full impact of this.
What can I contribute?
In any project, the true cement is the feeling of the individual that s.he will contribute to the success.
Today, we have many visions which are just a tagline with a donation-link below. The message, un-spoken but clear, is actually: give me the money to “enable us and keep clear of our path”. The same is true of politics, where voting is often a blank check. “Vote and forget” ballots. Decisions seem taken out of our hands with no recourse, until the end of the mandate. And the next vote puts a different individual in charge, for probably a very similar if not the exact same policy.
The audience has radically changed when it comes to contribution. We can decide the outcome of selected TV shows! It is still rail-driven content, but we have more and more the opportunity to define our own entertainment. Whether we act upon it is another matter altogether. The most important thing is that we know we could influence what was yesterday an intangible given. Politicians, artists, authors, could actually interact with us live. Should they choose to. Some do, yet, it seems more like a gimmick. So far, practical reasons and technical knowledge of the issues mean that we still rely on delegation. That is understood and agreed. However, without a clear vision, the very rational principle of delegation will slowly erode into something seen as arrogance. Delegation has to be revised drastically. After all, it has been a long time since we needed black and white pebbles to vote. And back then, you still could very well make yourself heard over the crowd on the Agora.
Insta-democracy today would have little immediate benefits, if any. Imagine continuously voting live for any issue? Soon, thumbs up and down would move into trolling, and you would have a measure of immediate skin-deep reactions, not great for subtle matters. Yet, we could re-engage with the grassroot interest, with a strong over-arching vision and shared narrative. That is happening in India with vibrant engaged political communities and groups. It is global mobilisation and the ability to feel what could be our impact at these levels that splits the shared space. Institutions live in their own reality as we both moved away from each other, if only because we feel we have less and less to contribute.
Living in the same timeline is important
The timeline in which we exist as individuals continues to diverge from the timeline in which institutions live in, both in frequency, deadline, reaction times. Commercially, we are trained to acknowledge, if not answer, within a few hours. In Asia, that is down to the same hour. Should it not be the global norm? In Europe, where this social fatigue is at its worse (institutions), the go-to answer time from academia to governments, is at best 12h-24h. Individual time and institutional time splinter. Only a few notice it. Elon Musk has mastered how to instrumentalise this fracture. His tweets, posts, go unanswered for hours, allowing him to essentially speak alone. If we want to regroup societies, we need to defragment them. If we want visions to be heard, there must be a common timeline.
A practical way to achieve this is by crafting a message which does not rely on an immediate timeline, but can transcend it, while remaining within reach. Take 2050. Great date, but it is humanly understandable. As much as the year 2000 was a world away in 1975. It may sound very down to earth, but that specific juggling act will make or break the vision’s credibility, but above all, the power of mobilisation. Talking about the next generation sounds and looks great and all, yet, it does not invoke a immediate enough vision to urge action. We can’t even truly project ourselves in another country’s reality if we are not physically there, even when we lived there for years. We simply cannot project ourselves with the same enthusiasm and truly empathise with other parts of the world today.
Finally, this vision has to be validated by competing ones. One vision is not enough. It may be messianic, yet it cannot exist ex nihilo. To create traction, grab attention and generate enough engagement there have to be alternative, possibly competing, choices. My vision is better than yours is undoubtedly a powerful motivation in human history. It would be miraculous that any one human or group could come up with the radical final vision, even less one future. We need to have credible alternatives so that we can balance the relative merits of these visions. Democracy as it exists today was partly built from the opposing views, the political debate between aristocrats and democrats, Sparta versus Athens. At least, we would miss Alcibiades and the Socratic dialogs.
I have a dream to dream
A universal vision would allow us to write our collective names in history. Without it, we are adrift on the tides of ideas, history and philosophy as we miss a clear vision of what we want to achieve.
I have always been fascinated by token signifiers we take for granted, their meaning lost to history. For example, wedding rings. They are obvious piece of jewellery, their history is invisible, what they mean is universal. Sure, they are heavily marketed. Yet they feel like a universal cultural basic block. Probably, from the Egyptians, through the Romans, on to the entire world by now? Or jeans. From Moscow, to Beijing, Tokyo, Delhi. They were, maybe still are, an aspiring expression of freedom. A perceived, if idealised, version of freedom of the American Midwest of myths. Both by-products of visions we share.
Me, I have no dream. Like you, I observe an erosion of the engagement in our collective futures. We may have different ideas for this vision. Coming up with it will generate debate. Yet, it has to happen. Ultra-fragmentation and its result, sticker book tactics will not create the necessary impulse to lift our eyes up and aim for a common future.
Above all, a universal vision will give us back the feeling that we can contribute, and help create this new future. We will choose this, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
And as the reverend MLK said, “when we allow freedom ring [all] will be able to join hands and sing”.