Reflecting on the vastness of time in which extraterrestrial life could have reached the earth, the physicist Enrico Fermi wondered, “Where are they?” One of the most plausible explanations of the absence of such extraterrestrial visits is also one of the most disquieting. It is intrinsic to the nature of intelligent life to expand knowledge over time and for its civilization to develop at an accelerating rate. But it may be also intrinsic to its nature to destroy that civilization as the rate of change exceeds its capacity to adapt to the challenges that this acceleration produces.
In my new book Accelerating Democracy; Transforming Governance Through Technology, I argue that one way to beat these possibly cosmic odds is to use technology to increase our capacity to make wise political decisions. Throughout human history individuals have invented new devices for human benefit. These inventions in turn alter the relations of people to one another, creating opportunity and need for better decision making. Thus, accumulating acts of individual genius often prompt humans to improve collective governance.
More information-rich forms of social governance are needed to solve problems technology itself creates. The technology that created agricultural surpluses made cities possible, generating new issues, like the mass disposal of human waste, requiring new social coordination. By accumulating wealth within a compact space, cities also attracted marauders, requiring new policies for defense.
But besides such specific problems, technological innovation generates more general difficulties for governance because such innovation renders the social environment more and more distant from that in which we were adapted to live. In the evolutionary era, humans inhabited small communities where members were related by sexual bonding or by blood to many other members. But as the polity moves from the tribe, to the city state, and then to the nation state, society can rely less on the fellow feeling of extended kin and ethnic groups to reach agreement and maintain stability. As a result there becomes a greater need to find solutions that can command broad consensus by virtue of their good effects.
From the time Pericles saw democracy as a way to debate the consequences of political action, successful societies have sought better mechanisms of information to assess policy results. Over time society has made use of technology — from the printing press to the internet– to make its analysis of policy more sophisticated and comprehensive. Today the pace of change is faster and thus the need to match political to technological change is more urgent. Man is both Homo faber–nature’s preeminent maker of tools to change the world — and Homo sapiens — nature’s master of symbols and language to represent and understand it. We will continue to thrive only if these capacities develop in tandem.