Climate crisis. Spiraling inequality. Technologies spreading farther and faster than our wisdom for handling them. Can we cope with such pressures?
Chris Kutarna is a Fellow of the Oxford Martin School and has a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford. He lays out the historic stakes of the time we live in, and points a path toward a different and more beautiful future.
The Gazette had a quick chat with him ahead of his talk at the Alex Trebek Lecture series on October 4.
By Johanne Adam
What is the main focus of your talk?
What I hope to convey in my talk is that there are these massive crises that need to be solved in our societies, but we feel stuck. We feel, maybe, helpless or anxious or frustrated or angry at a state that we can’t seem to resolve.
But should we feel liberated instead? In the sense that these same crises make clear to us that the paradigms that we live in, that we work in, that we think in, are broken. And the very urgency of, and scale of the crisis is what gives us permission to dissolve all past compromises, to explore radical new ideas and possibilities, and to come together in new ways in an effort to find alternative futures together.
Is there one specific crisis that stands out to you?
The crisis of truth in our society and on social media. It’s really interesting this journey that we’ve been on with social media: in the advent of the social media age, we embraced this uncontrolled medium with such hope because it gave people who didn’t have a voice, or maybe were censored, the power to make their voices heard.
We saw the power of that across the Middle East, or even in Canada and our own societies. And now that hope has turned to fear because this same medium has allowed hatred and lies to spread without control. And so we want to rush in and save our truths from the lies. The lies are the problem.
I really think that our whole approach to social media is flawed because we’re trapped in an outdated concept of what truth is.
How did this happen?
It is a legacy of the mass media age, when we developed some really corrupt notions of truth. It was in the mass media age that the manufacture of truth, like so many other things, became a big-scale industry. Through advertising, propaganda, and public relations, we learned that the simple truth was the best one because that’s the truth you can package and sell on a whole, new scale.
We had to concentrate ideas together into that one channel, to get onto the latest broadcast, to get onto the front page of the newspaper. So, we developed a habit of taking many little things and turning them into one big thing. And all we’ve done in the social media age is run with that idea of simple truths, and now we’re seeing how corrupt it is when a whole society operates with that notion of truth.
Resolving our social media crisis is not about suppressing the lies; it’s about recognizing that we have become satisfied with really weak truths, and we need to figure out how to use this new medium. Instead of hitting each other over the head with little truths, we must build much bigger and more complex truths together.
Has this happened before in history?
I point to the Renaissance era as an example of a time when our ways of seeing the world shifted pretty radically. At least in Western civilization, this is a period of time into which the Medieval age and the Medieval mindset disappeared, and out from which a much more modern mindset emerged.
And the interesting question is, what was the most impactful invention of the Renaissance? In terms of how we look at the world, I think it was the invention of linear perspective, which is the ability to describe three-dimensional space on two-dimensional paper. That was not possible prior to Leonardo DaVinci.
And the reason it wasn’t possible, and why it had never been done in prior drawings, is that it was in this time that the ability to precisely describe some special object on paper was refined and developed.
The whole field of technical drawing emerged during the Renaissance. And Leonardo DaVinci’s great contribution was his ability to refine his technical thinking with his art, to capture spatial reality on paper. Without that capacity, the scientific revolution would not have been possible.
This was a social and a cultural accomplishment. It changed the world only because everyone understood and adopted this new way of seeing.
What lessons should we learn from this time in history?
When we change our way of seeing the world, our world really does change. And we all need to take part in this in order for that change to happen.
Each one of us in our daily lives, when we reject simple truths and reach for complex ones, when we reject the piecemeal answer and reach for something more holistic, when we reject prejudice and reach for the whole person, each time any one of us does these things, we’re doing something necessary in order to establish a new reality.
What should we be looking at differently these days?
Climate change is a good example. Right now, we are having a conversation about this one big global crisis, when in fact, it’s not one big problem. There are many local little problems, and yet, there are big interrelations.
That doesn’t mean that you can solve it with one big solution. We have to get past our need for very simple truths and relearn how to explore and build more complex truths together. Climate change is this big challenge and we want to hit it with one giant hammer. I think we need to reverse that process and ask ourselves, “How do we bring more complexity into this so that we can impactfully respond at a local level, at a community level, in different ways?”
I feel like I’m going to put myself in considerable jeopardy with this talk because, as an academic, my genuine area of expertise is Chinese politics. But I’m going so far beyond my expertise in trying to talk about what I think is fundamentally most important in how we need to rethink the time that we live in.
And the audience will include a lot of academics, [so my talk] is a risky thing to do. I’m going to offend everyone with my talk because there’s just no time to recognize all the caveats. But I feel this discussion is important in order to weave the broader story.