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The Veil of Circumstance: Technology, Values, Dehumanization and the Future of Economics and Politics
Jørgen Ørstrøm Møller has two competing themes for the reader to juggle in his book The Veil of Circumstance: The first is that we live in an era of scarcity, with burgeoning youthful populations having high expectations of a better life than their parents, but who must now engage in communication and knowledge-sharing to address pressing world problems. The second is a perpetual feedback-loop of “unintended consequences,” with globalization’s unfettered access to information, dehumanization and treating people as statistics, denaturalization and de-linking people from natural cycles and the environment.
Reading Møller’s work requires patience. His tomes and their many subtleties take time to digest. The rewards, however, are worthwhile and the former Danish foreign minister, privy to vast amounts of information, offers compelling and futuristic insights ranging from “resource productivity,” such as modular replacement in electronics via Lego and 3D printing concepts, to materialistic consumption having little effect on GDPs in a low-growth world and a patent system hijacked by financial institutions for extracting rents while not promoting innovation.
An overarching concept today is whether Westphalia – insular sovereign nation-states pursuing self-interest – is alive or dead? Møller suggests that the world of 17th century Westphalian origin is dead in a now interconnected realm that challenges normal definitions of borders, culture and religion. On the face, this may seem true, but the book was published just before the United Kingdom’s Brexit and Donald Trump’s shocking US presidential victory, both demonstrating gravitation to the nation state and not any sovereign reduction. Or, as Møller might suggest, both events may signify the last gasp and the darkest before the dawn.
Consider the book’s most thought-provoking arguments:
- The political system has been co-opted by financial modeling for cost efficiency and scientific management simply to avoid making painful political choices. This tends to bankrupt society by a creating socially unstable frameworks, such as shuttering unprofitable public hospitals and transit lines despite the non-economic benefit they provide. Recent elections have shown that domestic cultural values often lead among voters’ concerns – a concept many mainstream politicians, overly reliant on spreadsheets, have yet to grasp.
- Research is overly compartmentalized in narrow departments and fields, and interdisciplinary work offers potential for progress. The old paradigm should be deconstructed where disciplines are amalgamated into analysis for creating horizontal thinking instead of narrow vertical silos. Historically much reasoning was deductive to find a singular answer. Reliance on big data is inductive – turning the thinking outward, instead of inwards, and relying on combinations and algorithms to define varied causation in a sea of complexity.
- A new definition of work is necessary, defining its contribution to society holistically beyond static economic indicators. Jobs in public safety, personal welfare and education offer great tangible value for society, but fall outside traditional GDP measures.
- Western religions have long taught of the primacy of man, with nature a secondary consideration, whereas some East and South Asian religions oppose this view, understanding nature and people as intertwined in harmonious cycles.
- The US model has lost its allure for solving the most challenging problems. Misguided wars, dysfunctional politics, slowing economic growth and brazen disregard for other nations’ sovereignty has created suspicion among India, China and other developing countries about emulating the United States.
- The developing world has masses of uneducated people against a context of a robotized manufacturing, production and jobs eliminated by automation. The world’s poorest people cannot write computer code for the jobs of tomorrow in short order. Without being too direct, Møller instead gently steers readers towards considering some universal basic income as inferred from his analysis of the macroeconomic concept of burden sharing whereas the universal basic income would be a similar microeconomics concept.
Some criticisms that Møller and readers should consider:
Møller relies heavily on the works of sociologist Thomas Kuhn (1970) of postmodern theory and culture who defined paradigms as a “constellation of values, beliefs, techniques” shared by a community and the “concrete puzzle-solutions which, employed as models or examples, can replace explicit rules….” This is possibly where Møller derives his thinking of an inductive, not deductive future. Nonetheless, while a standard, Kuhn’s work is 50 years old, predating the internet which has quickly atomized media and communication around the 21st century world. Perhaps a better source would have been the viewpoints of Best and Kellner’s 1997 seminal work “The Postmodern Turn” which extrapolates many of Kuhn’s ideas.
Møller refers to “Steering Systems” – suggesting a greater force for good can somehow arise with rational actors confronting nationalism, populism and inequality – and this may be the book’s weakest argument. Events since Donald Trump’s election and the flood of Syrian refugees into the EU demonstrate that at times it’s impossible to know who precisely is behind the veil.
The power of an out-of-control legal/regulatory system, in particular: the long-armed US-centric system, derives tremendous benefit and power from an elite status-quo, long rooted in Westphalia. This system thrives on the certainty of binding agreements with legal enforcement. Møller’s paradigm is one of change and compromise, such as burden-sharing, but a nation run by lawyers can stymie the best of intentions. For example, many agree solar energy is a great renewable energy, yet powerful utility companies take communities to court for installing panels without paying for the original sunk costs of investing in coal-fired power generation that damages the environment.
Chinese domination is questionable, claims Møller who describes China and the Catholic Church as the only two empires to survive 2000 years due to value-based, affinity systems not anchored to territory. However, China is an autocratic system and culture that defies democratization. Similar to a US legal system that promotes certainty, the Chinese system promotes stability at all costs and will not disrupt the status quo for any perceived democratic benefit.
As always, Møller saves his best chapters for last. Interdisciplinary-Complexity, with comments like “the exponential rise in material wealth… may run counter to human [nature],” and Power-Shift Values, “in the cyber world, perceptions are the ‘master of the battlefield,’” challenge readers with futuristic concepts beyond the status-quo.
The main question this book seeks to answer is how to inspire and create new guidelines for living and getting along in a very crowded world of 8 billion inhabitants with shrinking resources and scant employment opportunities?
Despite globalization and advanced communications, people remain disconnected. Møller insists that the world cannot continue on this way. “The technologies we have created – globalization and digital networks – cannot prosper inside a system built on the concept and structure of the nation-state,” he writes. “National ideas and values must be replaced by trans-national ideas an values, which must in turn develop a new political system and economic model.”
Will Hickey is an associate professor and author of Energy and Human Resource Development in Developing Countries: Towards Effective Localization, Macmillan, 2017.