Marginalized

Beginning at least as early as the pre-Socratic era around 6 centuries BCE, it was assumed that the earth (and therefore humanity) stood at the center of the universe. It was all about us - and only about us. 

This geocentric and homocentric view was shattered by 15th Century Renaissance astronomer and polymath Nikolai Copernicus in his 1543 treatise De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.  

The Copernican Revolution marks the origin of modern astronomy and helped precipitate the birth of science and the scientific method. The result was the Renaissance , which evolved into the Age of Reason or Enlightenment. While the earth would never again be the center of the universe, humanity remained a species so unique and special that we felt justified in seeing ourselves as sole inhabitants of the universe, the pinnacle of Creation, Lord among all living creatures, and by virtue of our ability to reason, destined to rule and control our Earth. 

 

Until, that is, 19th Century naturalist Charles Darwin published his Theory of Evolution, depicting humanity as the current but not ultimate product of a long evolutionary chain from a common prehistoric ancestor, and neither designed for greatness nor permanently atop the hierarchy. 

Displaced both from the center of the universe and no longer the natural Lord of creation, we still considered ourselves special by virtue of our unique rationality. Humans alone have the ability to think and reason. We alone act based on rationality. This sets us apart from the rest of the known universe.  The ability of the human mind to uncover and understand the mysteries of the universe promise a future of limitless potential. Knowledge is power, and the truth will set us free.

 

Until, that is, the era of Sigmund Freud and his followers, whose theories of mind and behavior (including the unconscious and repression, primary process, and the role of drives) made clear the irrationality of human thought and behavior.  After several generations where the primacy of human reason could no longer be assumed, the fields of cognitive science and behavioral economics have dramatically increased our awareness of just how irrational most human behavior is. 

Kahneman (leftmost) andTversky (just left)) will probably be considered the formative thinkers for the late 21st Century era of cognitive science and behavioral economics.

What a journey. These three revolutions in our concept of self and our place in the universe cannot be understated: first we were displaced from the center of the universe, then deposed from master of the universe, and now described as an error prone, largely irrational, and perhaps temporary species struggling to make sense of a universe that merely tolerates us. Despite Niels Bohr’s perceptive comment that prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, I have to wonder what comes next? Will the marginalization process continue until we are marginalized out of existence? 

I’d much rather imagine a transformation of self-awareness from defining ourselves as discrete individuals to defining ourselves as a human community, as individual consciousness is slowly suffused and then supplanted by a more adaptive and durable collective consciousness. 

Until the last half decade of the 20th Century, knowledge was inaccessibly banked and communication severely constrained. 

As we collected ever broader and deeper knowledge it became impossible for any individual or group of individuals to possess and master any significant portion. Our cumulative store of knowledge has been stored for generations in isolated silos, libraries, centers of learning, trades, cultures. Access has been limited both technically (expensive and hard to find, copy and distribute) and politically (as long as it is privately owned and managed, knowledge is power for the owners and managers). The Renaissance polymath became rare and is now extinct.  

Communication had two forms. There was largely unidirectional one:many broadcast and there was bidirectional one:one conversation. Many:many was limited to small numbers under difficult conditions of temporal/geographic synchronicity. (Think of how hard it is for 3, 10, 100 or 10,000 people to meet, share information and make a decision.) Many:many is now ubiquitous and cheap.

The technologies that launched the information age are in the process of eliminating both the technological barriers and transaction costs for universal availability of knowledge and community-wide communication networks. Human behavior and the culture it creates are changing in response. We are seeing the beginnings of this in democratization of media and information, crowd sourcing, network theory, commerce, politics, science, and even government and the military. Moreover, the pace of change continues to accelerate. Look at the shortening intervals between the cosmological revolutions described above: 20 centuries, 4 centuries, 150 years, then 3 decades. Perhaps 25 - or even 10 - years from now we will understand ourselves primarily as a community containing individuals, rather than as individuals in multiple competing communities. The potential benefit tests the limits of human imagination - as did the revolutions that brought us here. 

Alan Kay said: The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Time to get started....

Links to more on this topic::