To prepare for address I’m making at next month’s Annual Meeting of the AAC&U, I’ve been thinking about the different ways through history that people have collaborated — by means civic or commercial — to get us where we are today. I agree with those who ascribe our gains not to our abilities as individuals (however prodigious), but to our “collective intelligence,” our knack for pooling what we know and passing it along to our issue.
By this perspective, opposable thumbs and upright walking get their due, but are eclipsed by speech and culture. And then by our different means of propagating them: cuneiform, moveable type, the internet . . . each epoch seems to bring the planet closer to functioning as one massive neural network.
This can stoke some optimism. If the settled village trumps the nomadic clan, and connecting villages into city-states is even better, then surely the global village commons is the best yet? Maybe together, across the range of human cultures and ways of knowing, we’ll finally tackle some of the big problems? That is, now that we have Facebook and containerized shipping, can social justice be far behind?
Well, not so fast.
In my home state of California we have a particularly blunt instrument for collective governance, “direct democracy.” Half a million people can put anything they want to referendum, and the rest of us decide it. Our ballots can get enormous, dense and arcane.
In this world, the well heeled have little trouble advancing their interest by hiring signature-gatherers to block shopping malls and grocery stores. So, rather than harvesting our collective wisdom — I think of it as a Progressive-era anticipation of Wikipedia — it instead adds to the concentration of influence, and then hitches a ride on our collective folly. We legalize pot but then stuff our prisons on the three-strikes law. We limit taxes, we grant ourselves entitlements, we race to insolvency. The ballot initiatives approved by California are a window into our shortsightedness, ignorance, and greed.
I was musing about this last week during one of the meetings I don’t much enjoy attending, between the head of the California State University system and his 23 campus presidents, when I realized the big guy was fulminating on this very subject. He referred his chief execs to a recent Daily Show interview with John Burton, head of the state’s Democratic Party. It’s a good interview, appropriately angry and pretty funny.
Liking Burton’s point is easy; knowing what to take away, as we build a better future out of a dizzyingly connected world, is harder.
In my high school civics class I didn’t know why we needed an Electoral College, but that was before I moved here. Now the authority of the E.C. has all but atrophied, while elsewhere our decisions would clearly benefit from some mediation. But whose?