Confronting Novelty in Turbulent Times

In the second half of October, the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi will host the next Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club. This year’s topic is “Russia: Agenda for the 21st Century.” It is clear that it will be about Russia, but about Russia in the international context, Russia in the big world, Russia in the global game. A new world is emerging right before our eyes, and therefore we must understand what it will be like and how Russia will exist in it.

It is often said that the world situation is critical, that we are on the verge of colossal changes, that they have already come, it’s just we have not discerned them yet. Apparently, this is true, as well as the fact that humanity is short-sighted and regularly makes mistakes, fixing them with great difficulty and sacrifice. I must say, humans are very lucky so far: people’s lives are generally improving and the humankind has never lived so well.

Yes, there are many reasons for anxiety, a lot of fears, but is this a reason to be very upset? Has not it happened before? After all, the world has always been unstable, strongholds like the Roman Empire collapsed, wars lasted almost for centuries, ant not so long ago average life expectancy was less than forty: threats, risks, terrible dangers lurked for people throughout the human history.
So there seems to be nothing new in the fact that we live in turbulent times. It has never been calm. But at the same time, we understand that each epoch is unique, that each century has its own pitfalls and exciting challenges, its own navigation in the restless waters of life. Therefore, it seems to me, it is very important to understand, what, in fact, are the main features of our time, why today we are in awe and beg politicians to be cautious. What is new and how our lives will change because of this, what is its novelty? For example, the steam engine was known in ancient Rome, but it transformed human life, created a novelty centuries later, when machine production emerged.
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It is not only me who has a strange feeling of anxiety, approaching danger, a sense of tragic outcome in the current world situation. The most striking thing is that there are no so many rational grounds for such eschatological experiences. More precisely, only a couple of them: the incredible power and wealth of modern mankind, and the eternal limitations of the mental abilities of people, especially politicians.
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© Reuters
Today the most striking thing is that the technologies with which we operate in the world gained unprecedented power. But, honestly speaking, we do not understand yet how they influence us. In any sphere, we see, on the one hand, radical changes, and, on the other, we are not able to say exactly how the lives of people will change. Modern communications have connected everyone to everyone, but social, political or cultural life seems not to change quite radically. Yes, it is easier for us to get information and watch movies, but it is still difficult to make a good movie, and the lion’s share of information is supplied to us by those who do it professionally. I am not going to dispute the significance of the changes, but it is still not very clear what this will evolve to.

Medical and biological technologies promise us longevity and incredible health. But let’s say honestly, these are still promises, which, by the way, have been known since antiquity and even long before it. In the ancient Sumerian-Akkadian mythology, Gilgamesh sought the source of immortality. But his friend Enkidu still died. I am not a skeptic with regard to modern medicine, success is impressive, but people, even rich people, are dying like flies, although medical inequality may cause problems in the future. Even today, the rich have more opportunities to maintain health, but if this gap continues to grow, it can lead to horrendous consequences.

Digitalization and related communication capabilities are amazing us with new financial instruments emerging, the blockchain technology is coming, but for now the banks are standing fast. Financial sanctions, arranged quite traditionally, somehow work. In general, it is possible to multiply examples, everywhere we record the emergence of something new, but at the same time we are not in a position to fully formulate a fundamental novelty. And this intellectual gap is very important, because technology is faced with the behavior of people, and we cannot predict it yet, no matter what experts from Cambridge Analytica write.

Of course, the lineup of the main world players is new. By the way, these are the states whose inevitable and imminent collapse was so often talked about. However, they are still the main source of governance and, more importantly, self-identification.

Only recently, we lived in a bipolar world. Now a multi-polar one appeared with China and India clearly acting as the key powers. Moreover, the United States, because of either limited capabilities or its own reluctance, has definitely ceased to play the role of the global leader. The European Union is in the most visible way becoming increasingly independent, even through certain contradictions and great difficulties (but who does not have them!). But the EU as a whole has the very first world-class economy. Not only giants like the EU or China or India are playing an independent game. Obviously, there are regional globalities, a kind of communities, which aim to increase their importance. For example, the Arab world or Southeast Asia. It is impossible to say exactly what the world balance will look like in the near future. But there is a real feeling of emergence of a qualitatively different and inevitably approaching novelty.

The interdependence that has never existed on such a scale is still a novelty. And by virtue of technology, by virtue of the unprecedented industry flourishing, the quality of labor, global capital, interdependence has permeated the whole world. This is manifest in everything, even in our ability to influence the climatic situation on Earth.

Due to interdependence and its global nature, we see new problems with no clear solutions in sight. For example, what should we do with intellectual property issues? Or with technological standards? And, generally, how should global regulation be arranged? What areas should be subject to it, what bodies should implement it, what means should support it? How, for example, to punish those who break the rules? The example of the Paris climate agreements is not very impressive, on the contrary, it is frustrating. So, do we need new international regulatory organizations, or should we give an additional impetus to the UN, which so far works as a kind of lightning rod and discussion platform?

By the way, I recently had an opportunity to attend the T20 summit – a meeting of leading think tanks and universities of the G20 countries. And one of the main issues that was discussed there was the question of the necessary architecture of the world, models of regulation. In particular, as it turned out, with all the successes of Big Data even the delivery of goods by sea is still hardly controllable.

Light Breathing Before the G20
“Light breathing” is not the story by the Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, but rather a free translation of the name of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. Soon it will host the G20 summit. And prior to that there was a meeting of representatives of the leading G20 intellectual organizations – universities, think tanks, etc. – in order to determine what is worth discussing for the political leaders of the most developed countries in the world. The meeting was called the T20 summit.
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© Sputnik/Maria Plotnikova
Of course, these are not all the problems in which the new is manifest, but the nature of their novelty is not yet fully comprehended.

For example, we see the emergence of new weapons. Of course, the military love to boast and, fortunately, do not like to fight very much. But still, new weapons emerge and, in a sense, blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons. The latter, by the way, played a big role in our relatively peaceful life, but what will change if new weapons appear? There is no doubt that they will quickly spread around the world, because even the spread of nuclear weapons could not be prevented. It is absolutely clear that the emergence of new weapons must be somehow regulated, international institutions are needed for this. In the end, is it possible to assume that people will get rid of their aggressive nature and no one will want to kill others? Hardly so, and this is a subject for consideration.

In general, the number of new problems, new circumstances of life of the modern world is great.

Maybe the most significant thing that unites all of the abovementioned and other issues is not the interdependence, not global communications, and even not the desire of people to live better, longer, healthier, preferably forever, but – first of all – the problem of lack of a global narrative, understanding of goals of human development.

The Eternal Engine of Progress Broke Down in 2017
Just recently the humanity had a dream of a beautiful future. Now it has instead the frightening idea of the inevitability of new technologies in the hands of barbarians. It seems that the world clock goes both back and forth simultaneously and shows a completely inconsistent time - something like minus 26 hours and 88 minutes.
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© Sputnik/Alexei Danichev
I have written before that in the years of confrontation between the socialist and capitalist systems they had similar goals, which were fully described in the system of human rights and freedoms, personal space for creativity and general well-being. The latter, by the way, was quite amenable to calculation, that is, it was clear that in an ideal “tomorrow” you need so and so many apartments, houses, cars, sugar, wheat, and even hemp, tar and flax. Strangely enough, today everything is abundant, that it is even possible to feed easily millions of migrants without the slightest consequences for the world economy. Although not without consequences for the world psychology.

This is because the necessary global narrative has disappeared, and there is no answer to what bright future the mankind should strive, what the ideal world should look like “tomorrow”. Even worse, there are several strikingly barbaric answers that are very difficult to counter in ideological terms. Moreover, all of this is immersed in the ocean of inaccurate information and unstable knowledge, which only confuse us.

So, I hope we will have a lot of topics to discuss at the 15th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.