Column: We are beset by changing forces

Brian T. Watson

In so many ways today, we are in a very bad place. People of all identities and political persuasions either recognize or sense this.

American society and the world face a number of enormous problems. We are beset by a range of unprecedented developments that are continually worsening and that are – for many reasons – beyond our capacities to respond to. We are not many years away from the full expression of the dire consequences of the crises that are building now.

The current states of just 10 of the most significant forces acting on and within societies globally are – on balance – driving people, circumstances and events in predominantly negative ways.

Those forces – capitalism, technology, the internet, politics, media, education, human nature, the environment, population and transportation – are powerful, interwoven, and often inseparable, and are producing consequences, changes, and threats that are existential. Some of these threats may unfold in the very near future, some are further away in time, and in many of the cases, we do not and cannot know when they may become unavoidably deadly.

Each of these forces today is either fundamentally flawed, producing dangerous results, unrepresentative of our best interests and the common good, or being exploited to our detriment. The evolution of these forces – which contain our tools and systems – is outstripping our capacities to satisfactorily control or direct them. They are faster, more powerful, more unilaterally introduced, and harder to understand than citizens, democracy, and society can effectively cope with. Not in every way, but in critical ways that matter greatly.

Let’s thumbnail-sketch just a few of the forces. Bear in mind that while each has produced substantial good, here I am focused on the larger problems they are now causing.

Capitalism has been pushed into a form that is predatory, distributing wealth poorly, and increasingly creating a volatile and giggish economy that corrodes the economic security of citizens around the world. Despite nearly full employment in the U.S., wages and working conditions leave millions of American households in debt, insecure, and living paycheck to paycheck. And artificial intelligence, automation, and robotization are poised to eliminate millions of jobs in the near decades.

Furthermore, with a flaw that is quickly coming to a head, capitalism has never been designed with a finite planet in mind. Capitalism relies on infinite growth, infinite consumption and steady land and resource development. Now, with nearly 8 billion people – all potential consumers – on earth, the organizing tenets of capitalism are crashing into the limits of the capacities of the ecosphere.

Meanwhile, technology and the internet continue to expand their dominance over ever-larger swaths of industry, commerce, finance, politics, entertainment and the media. Almost no area – commercial or personal – of our developed societies operates outside of the structures and platforms provided by computers, websites, apps and social media. This makes us incredibly dependent upon and vulnerable to the operation, ways, dynamics and consequences of the brave new digital world.

And machine learning, facial recognition, augmented reality, virtual reality, the Internet of Things and computer-enabled bioengineering and genetic modification are all advancing extremely rapidly and promise to further transform our ways of being – and not for the better overall.

We may think that the internet offers us infinite choice – a banquet of online offerings – and that is true at one level. But it is choice constrained within a screen, and choices defined and limited by the rules of Webworld. We engage with it only on its terms, not ours. And it is damaging our longstanding capacities for perspective and habits of mind.

Politics and the media are two additional, powerful forces at work today, and ones transformed by the dynamics of the internet. With money dominating politics and also essentially controlling the playbook of the online world – which is well on the way to shrinking the role of sober, professional journalism – the ordinary citizen is being assessed by data, diced, divided, grouped, manipulated and revved up. Ordinary people have legitimate reasons to be angry and alienated, but not at each other.

But the web – empowering the loudest, most obsessive, and extreme voices – is changing politics from a relatively deliberative process into a staccato, online-weighted circus. Politics, the media, and the internet are blending into one emotion-driven chaff show.

All of this is a matter of degree, of course. Capitalism, technology, politics, journalism and education have never been executed with tidy, idyllic, or consistent processes. But today we face a perfect storm of simultaneous and interlocking developments in every field that threaten to unravel society.

Every large problem we have requires us to be wise, collaborative, forward-looking, generous, fair, informed, realistic, and humble. Yet, buffeted by the web and other forces, we are – as a whole – becoming less of those things.

Before we can hope to find our way out of the fragmenting and increasingly dysfunctional and unsustainable circumstances of the ways we have organized so many sectors of our developed societies, we must understand our world today, understand the economic, technological, internet, political, media, and entertainment cultures around us, and be able to identify the most powerful forces in each that are determining the shapes of our societies and lives.

Brian T. Watson is the author of “Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We’ll Face.” He will be speaking at the Swampscott Public Library on March 10 at 7 p.m. Reach him at


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