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America’s Future: Enlightenment or Dystopia?

The technological revolution will present a myriad of opportunities to advance humanity’s collective interests in ways that have never before been possible.

What we do with these opportunities will depend on the choices we make.

Social media is among the first of these opportunities. It represents the first wave of the technological revolution and provides an obvious path toward greater enlightenment.

Leveraging social media to create a path toward greater enlightenment will require a conscious and collective choice. It will require that we value intelligence over ignorance and learning over entertainment. It will also require that we prioritize the public interest over corporate profits.

The History of Enlightenment

Prior to the 18th century, most of western civilization’s collective knowledge came from the world’s churches and monarchies. It wasn’t until the 18th century that knowledge became more widely accessible, through the writings of scientists and philosophers like Newton, Voltaire, and Kant, in what became known as The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment ushered in a new era of consciousness in which knowledge, access to information and a free exchange of ideas flourished. Scientific academies, literary salons, and coffee houses, together with printed books, journals and pamphlets gave birth to collective thought and elevated critical thinking. Knowledge was no longer the province or the privilege of those in authority. It was open to anyone — and it created a meritocracy of ideas.

A New Form of Cultural Influence

Today, social media represents a new form of cultural influence. It is both a repository of our collective knowledge and our collective ignorance. It contains both truths and falsehoods, offering good and bad examples. And it serves us only to the extent that we can recognize the difference.

The problem is that many of us lack the ability to discern the difference. Many of us don’t know how to learn or think critically. And some, whether out of arrogance, ignorance or a sense of hopelessness, don’t even try. Some simply imitate — the good and the bad.

In the early days of social media, most of us assumed that a massive increase in global connectivity and shared information would be good for humanity. That optimism has now subsided as the list of known or suspected social media harms has grown.

Online political discussions are now often less civil and more divisive than those in real life; face to face communication is becoming a lost art — replaced by texting; “ghosting,” “sexting” and “cyberbullying” are the new unwelcome additions to our cultural lexicon; networks of ideological echo-chambers fuel extremist views and violent fanaticism is used to lure the uninformed and the disenfranchised down troubling paths.

The influence of social media, which now increasingly focuses on scandals, pranks, and extremist views, is particularly threatening for younger generations, who have had less opportunity to acquire a broad base of knowledge; become familiar with humanity’s accumulated wisdom; and/or develop the ability to discern fact from fiction.

According to a recent PISA study by the Organization for Economic Co-Development, only 13.5% of 15-year-olds in the U.S. can distinguish fact from opinion in a complex reading assignment — only 9% globally.

Change is Coming

The world is at a tipping point, poised to either evolve into a “Second Enlightenment” or fall into “Dystopian Division.” The choice is ours.

The increasing political, social, economic and environmental volatility that we are all witnessing is unprecedented and alarming.

One thing is clear — this represents a technological tsunami on the immediate horizon.

The Need for Adaptation

Success and survival in the 21st century will require an ability to acquire, analyze and integrate diverse sources of information while guarding against misinformation. It will require critical thinking.

Justice Souter warned, “Our republican government isn’t threatened by foreign invasion or a military coup, but by civic ignorance.”

This is especially true when misinformation is weaponized and intentionally deployed in highly targeted disinformation campaigns.

Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Division is at an all-time high. Studies have shown that we are now more polarized as a nation, than at any time since the Civil War. America is now divided into two tribes, Republicans and Democrats.

At a time when we should be planning and preparing, we are instead divided by race, age, sex, religion, economics, and identity politics. And we are paralyzed by political corruption and dysfunction.

If social media algorithms and profit-driven business models create perverse incentives, which foster moral outrage rather than authentic communication, and create threats to our children and our democracy, then we need to look for ways to reduce and reverse those incentives. We need to adapt to this new technology.

One such approach already being evaluated by some platforms is “demetrication,” the process of obscuring like and share counts so that individual pieces of content are evaluated on their merits, rather than subjecting users to an endless series of popularity contests.

We need to reduce the reach of unverified accounts, identify bad actors, trolls, foreign agents, and provocateurs, who game and misuse the system by trafficking in false, misleading and emotionally divisive information.

We need to harness this amazing technology to advance humanity’s shared interest in ushering in a new and more powerful enlightenment — rather than allow it to lead us into greater peril.

The Path to Enlightenment

In the end, true enlightenment will require that we develop an ability to think critically; a love of learning; an insatiable curiosity; a desire for the truth; and an intelligence that is derived from all of the above.

This is how we create a Second Enlightenment. We do it by leveraging technology and the best minds on the planet. We do it by choosing to do it — rather than by inciting division and wasting precious time on meaningless or harmful distractions. We do it by making the right choices — now!

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