The First Knowledge Economy State

By Ron Rivers,

One of my favorite lessons learned about U.S. democracy is the concept of states as methods of experimentation. We see it to a reasonable extent in the United States with different state’s approach to issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, education, and redistributive social programs.
What we don’t see is any significant variation in structural arrangements such as laws surrounding property and contract, education, and democratic practice. The first state to embrace the Knowledge Economy will be the one that dedicates the time and resources required to reshape these core institutions.

Whichever state chooses to be the first to embrace the Knowledge Economy’s potential will begin with a plan for consistent, piecemeal, and focused transformation. The structural changes that we need are a far cry from Capitalism as we know it, but no one could accurately label it Socialism. Knowing how intertwined our personal lives are with our chosen economic arrangements, the Knowledge Economy provides a model of exchange that raises the human experience in every direction it grows.

Law and Identity

Central to the American historical narrative is the private ownership of property. This concept has molded the American psyche for centuries, tying freedom to economics. It has also shaped our educational institutions, our definition of work, and our relationships with one another. Culminating into a system best illustrated by Reverand Martin Luther King’s Jr., “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”

What happens to rugged individualism when entire industries become unemployed in rapid succession due to breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and automation? We can imagine the inevitable scenario where transit drivers of all kinds, fast food, retail, and data entry workers rapidly becoming unemployed would not be handled well in today’s economy. Our present economic arrangements rely on resource redistribution to lessen inequalities created by our structures and will have no viable solution to such extensive and widespread financial hardship.

The first Knowledge Economy state will understand that a proactive approach towards restructuring laws supporting our economic structures is necessary to avoid repeating crisis driven by increasingly fast economic disruption. Policy-wise this translates to reimagining laws surrounding property and contract. In addition, knowledge economy implementation requires us to reorganize laws surrounding patents.

Patent Law

The defining characteristic of a Knowledge Economy is that it ties innovation and production into the same process. Imagine the concept of change as a foundation that we build upon, all new creations growing out of the imagination of past ideas and efforts. The higher the floor, the more rapidly human creativity can flourish in more directions. A Knowledge Economy values innovation over profit and in doing so operates under arrangements that lessen the strength of individual organizations to maximize returns while promoting a significantly higher level of access and opportunity for outsiders to innovate within an established niche.

United States patents typically last about 20 years which given the present rate of exponential technological growth[1] is, by my estimate, about 15 years too long. In a state economy organized in such a way to maximize the total creative potential of its citizenry, the goal is to allow as many people as possible to have access to the most advanced technologies and practice as quickly as possible. Reducing patent durations will enable us to provide innovators with a higher floor to stand on, accelerating both the pace and variance of innovation within a society.

As the U.S. Constitution supports patent laws, states seeking to embrace the knowledge economy would be wise to create separate sets of market arrangements to avoid getting tangled up in legal disputes. According to professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the single greatest achievement in legal history has been to determine that there is no unique form of market economy required by law.

Innovation firms could be attracted to these new arrangements with incentives such as public investments, workspaces, and technology access. In exchange, we could design profit structures with deep social responsibilities built into them such as social profit distribution after certain profitability tiers, and the responsibility to develop and facilitate continuing education programs for state residents looking to change the direction of their life.

Giving more people access to the most advanced technologies, practice, and procedure available will spur more innovation. The first Knowledge Economy State will require a population that believes that profit is not the defining factor of the human experience.

Private Property and Access

Implementing a Knowledge Economy within a state will require the emergence of a new type of social and moral code for the majority of residents. A shift from a profit-driven ownership mentality to an access based use approach. My argument is not for the abolishment of private property, instead for the expansion of alternatives to the singular form of property ownership we have now.

We can begin with residential properties. It’s difficult to attract and maintain talent when people cannot afford to live in locations where specific niche verticals are concentrated. Simply put, if we want to draw talented people from different walks of life, we need to think of ways for them to have access to a permanent residence.

One solution proposed in Amsterdam is that all new housing units sold cannot be used as rental properties[2]. This suggestion would decrease overall housing costs and lessen rent-seeking, a financial activity that adds nothing to the real economy[3]. An alternative idea is to fine landlords who own properties that are not occupied, encouraging them to sell the properties or lower costs to find tenants. Rent-seeking on residential properties is damaging to entire generations who were unable to take part in the cheap land and housing grabs of previous decades.

Image Credit: Hasbro Games

Alternatively, we could stop thinking of housing as a profit center entirely. One idea to accomplish this would be to establish permanent access to residential locations for people free of cost. If the public desires durations and conditions the details can be decided democratically.

This same idea could serve to help uplift so many of our residents who are victims of systemic poverty. You have a permanent residence, free of charge until you are ready to move on. Occupants of these access-based housing units would be prohibited from owning other properties and would be required to keep them in good order or face expulsion and fines.

By challenging residential rent-seeking, the first Knowledge Economy state begins to build a more comprehensive suite of protections for the individual. Giving every interested person the opportunity to attempt to experiment and innovate, to take risks, and to fail without fear of homelessness. An innovation economy protects its participants from decimation for trying something new. We know that 90% of startups do not succeed[4], but think of how many great ideas we’re missing by operating within a structure that both punishes people so immensely for failure and denies others entry entirely.

Consider the inherent structural classism proliferated by our present structure; it mainly empowers those with the safety net to fail to take risks. How much creative potential do we squander each year because our suite of social protections is inadequately prepared to deal with shifting advances in productivity?

A Knowledge Economy state recognizes that being poor isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash. Human ingenuity is our primary productive resource moving forward. The first state to recognize and organize around this concept will lead the rest in transitioning to a high-frequency innovation economy.


The institutional arrangements in a Knowledge Economy state are designed to help shape each person in a way that provides them the capabilities to change the direction of their lives at will. We understand the disruptive impact technological innovation can have on entire industries, and we know that the rate of change is speeding up. Therefore it is logical to conclude that industry-wide disruption will occur more frequently soon. The first state to embrace education as a lifelong process supported by institutional arrangements will lay the foundation necessary to take full advantage of the Knowledge Economy.

Primary education will need to shift from traditional encyclopedic memorization methods used to prepare people for hierarchical work structures to a more dialogue-based way of learning. Beyond the fundamentals, school becomes less about memorizing facts and regurgitating them and more about exploration and selective depth. Whenever possible subjects learn from two perspectives and then a discussion is fostered between the students and guided by the professors. We can illustrate this point with an example of American history, teaching the colonization of North America from both the native inhabitants and the conquesting Europeans perspective.

Given that the students of today will have perpetual access to all of the world’s information at their fingertips the memorization of facts loses its value. Creative problem solving, cooperation, and communication, become driving objectives of primary education, preparing students to enter a world of collaborative competition built around maximizing the potential of every individual.

Specialized secondary educations opens up to all individuals at no cost. Democratic elections can determine the qualifications and requirements for program entry. A Knowledge Economy state rejects the practice of requiring people to subjugate themselves to for-profit banks to advance their skills and understanding of the world.

Given that the economy is shifting to a highly skilled, highly transferable workforce having more people with advanced experience and educational depth lays a foundation for more radical innovation and experimentation. The narrative that more highly educated people diminishes the value of the education is false and only perpetuated by our present economic arrangements which encourage firms to seek the lowest labor costs possible.

Beyond primary and secondary education the first Knowledge Economy state will proactively create numerous pathways for continuing adult education in a wide variety of fields. The state can cooperate with its best companies to facilitate and design these programs. Funding can be in the form of total corporate sponsorship, public investment, or a hybrid model. The decisions should be made democratically, giving the public credible and transparent sources of factual information available in multiple mediums comparing the alternatives.

Recognizing that large corporations have more social responsibility than presently required, the Knowledge Economy state designs programs where adults can enter and learn the most advanced practice and procedure from the state’s best talent. Our long term goal is to give every person the agency in the direction of their life. Companies benefit by getting direct access to highly specialized expertise in their verticals, trained and prepared to adapt to their standards and procedures upon graduation. It’s a win-win and a necessary step to create a transition into a new era of economics and labor.

No Alternatives

Stagnation of the economy is bad for organizations but even worse for families. If we continue to allow a handful of companies to isolate the best technologies and practice, then stagnation is almost certainly a given. Coupled with advances in automation and artificial intelligence we find ourselves on the verge of a market and economic disruption, unlike anything we have experienced. Unfortunately, under present arrangements, these innovations will only stand to benefit a tiny minority. States that are serious about being ahead of crisis should begin the foundational work for transitioning into a knowledge economy today.

The choice to embrace a state-wide Knowledge Economy directional shift seems on the surface to be a far off fantasy given the state of politics in the many states and nation as a whole. In reality, it is both feasible and achievable. Our struggle is not ones of means. It’s one of imagination. There is no future for the methods of the past, and if we’re going to prosper, we need to rethink the structure of our most core institutions. Only then will be able to reach our fullest potential in both progress and our humanity.

The first state to adopt a Knowledge Economy will be the first state to have the political leadership that can create the language to convey the need to transform accurately.

[1] The Law of Accelerating Returns by Ray Kurzweil
[2] Amsterdam’s Plan: If You Buy a Newly Built House, You Can’t Rent It Out by Feargus O’Sullivan City Lab
[3] Finance, the Real Economy, and the Progressive by Ron Rivers OurSociety
[4] 298 Startup Failure Post-Mortems CBI Insights

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Progressives Need to Start Playing Offense

By Ron Rivers,

Progressive projects and social movements today are active in working towards building a more pluralistic future.  It’s never been a better time to be an activist because there are just so many things that we can improve in the world, some more critical than others.  Collective efforts of activists across the U.S. are making great strides in many directions, and yet at the same time, their work is regulated to trying to humanize the perpetual inequities that our present arrangements create.  Maybe it’s time we stopped playing defense with our policy. Together we could build a Progressive offensive offering creative and imaginative policy solutions that address core systemic issues of distribution of access and agency within our society.  A shared vision of a greater good is the first brick in the foundation of a unified population that can democratically choose a future beyond serfdom.

Defense Doesn’t Win Games

Much of the policy activism people are working towards today is about decreasing the inequalities generated in a market economy.  These programs take the form of some distribution of wealth financed via tax and transfer. The underlying idea makes sense because we understand that the growing wealth inequality is the primary driver for a significant number of problems facing America.   

Protecting social entitlements is a necessary action presently, but because of the corporate interests in our legislature, we’re always fighting back an encroaching tide of wealth transfer that hurts the majority of Americans.  Everytime we score a victory we find ourselves defending another offense. We keep moving forward, but it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.

If we’re going to have any hope of creating genuine change, then we’ve got to start thinking differently about our focus.  We need to confront the truth that all of our activism assumes that the present order is static. That there are set rules of engagement and establish frameworks for ideas of the possible dictated by what has been instead of what will be.  Even the most “radical” among us advocate for a substitution of structure pulled from history; Capitalism for Socialism, or something of that sort. We focus on creating access to equality and security but lack a real vision of increasing agency within our lives.  

We suffer from a failure of imagination, an ailment that is preventing us from creating a proactive approach to fixing problems of the present.   The Progressive vision of the future will never gain majority support without a break from the past.

Understanding our Offensive Strategy

Protecting access to entitlement programs will not matter if we do not codify the right to change the structure of our established institutions.  The most glaring flaw in our arrangements is that they are resistant to change in a time when change is occurring exponentially. Driven by the growth of information technology[1] change across emerging economic sectors is happening more rapidly than ever before[2].  Embracing and accelerating our ability to adapt to change is a necessary and unavoidable reality we must confront. So how do we incorporate change into our institutions with our activism efforts? The imagination of alternatives and their translation into policy is a great place to start.

Each of us can begin with an of an area of improvement that strikes our passion.  I’ll propose the deepening of democracy here in the United States as it is foundational to all progressive movements. Right now democratic participation in the United States ranks poorly compared to other western democracies[3], highlighting an opportunity for improvement.  At the same time, we observe changes[4] being implemented in states such as New York and New Jersey to move towards a more accessible democracy which provides us momentum that we will build upon.

Image Credit: NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Justice Agenda

Voting rights is an ideal example for our argument as these initiatives illustrate the concept of playing defense instead of offense.  These practices exist in numerous other western democracies, and the implementation here in the U.S. is essentially bringing our institutions up to speed with the rest the democratic world.  They are a step in the right direction but do nothing too innovative within our arrangements. We increase access to the ability to vote but do nothing to address the lack of agency embedded in the process.  It’s a missed opportunity to create real change that pushes the boundaries of how we operate within society.

A Progressive offense focused on voting rights would seek to push the boundaries of how and why people participate in elections.  It would require by law that candidate information for all contests, School Board to President, be accessible online easily and conveniently.  Thinking pluralistically, we would want to make sure that information the candidates provide is available in a variety of mediums so that every person has an opportunity to learn in a format that best resonates with them. Mandated civics education seminars for high school seniors and university students would be implemented to introduce our youth to the process and show them where and how to gather and evaluate information about candidates.  If we created a publically funded and owned centralized candidate information platform we could ensure that the experience of obtaining this information was as easy and convenient as possible, creating a customized user experience to for all individuals. All of these concepts do more than open up access to voting. They open up access to a personal agency within the process. By ensuring the information and communication about candidate options is directly available to the public at all levels, we build the framework for an informed electorate who understands the power within each person.

These examples demonstrate the concept of a Progressive offense, going above and beyond existing methodologies and infusing imagination and creativity into the process. Progressives should work towards becoming the movement that gives every person more stake in the shaping of the world and ourselves.  It is a task that allows for transcendence over the limitations the past projects on the present.    It’s an offensive strategy that opens us up to supporters who will realize that there can be a better way then belittlement through the present arrangements.  A Progressive offense is an embracing of our potential for change in the present unbeholden to the institutions of the past.


[2] Human evolution is still happening – possibly faster than ever by Laurence D. Hurst

[3] [5] U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout by Drew DeSilver Pew Research Center

[4]  The Law That Just Passed In New York Is A Huge Win For Voting Rights by Ari Burman Mother Jones

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Understanding Our Opportunity – Local Election Reform

By Ron Rivers,

The 2020 Presidential election is already making headlines during this first week of 2019.  Infighting seems to be running rampant with both of the dominant political parties as notable candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and to a lesser extent, Beta O’Rourke have spoken openly about running on the Democratic ticket while Republicans seem to be in disagreement about whether or not someone should challenge Trump in the Republican primaries. [1]  With all of this focus on the national elections it is easy for progressive thinkers, legislators, and activists to lose sight of the opportunity for significant holistic transformation of society in favor of the fervor surrounding Presidential elections and national hot-button issues.

In this essay, I will argue that the most significant opportunity for the long-term progressive change of society is the revising of our local municipal and state elections.  It’s an argument for bottom-up change that enhances the potential of every individual. If we can separate ourselves from the distractions, we will recognize that real change is both possible and within our grasp in the present time.   

Devils in the Details

Recently OurSociety released its 2018 Annual Report detailing their research and efforts to build a prototype for an online local election campaign information platform in New Jersey.  The information presented paints an overlooked but a specific flaw in our political process. In 2018 only 329 of the 1404 candidates running for local offices such as Mayor, Councilperson, or Committee Member had a dedicated online website or Facebook page about their campaign for office.  To put it another way, 77% of candidates running for local office in New Jersey had no online information about why they were running and what they intended to do if elected.

The data presented is a localized sample, but we can imagine that if a coastal, diverse [2], and wealthy [3] state like New Jersey is performing so poorly on transparent local election information, it is possible that other states may be facing the same problem.  This absence of candidate info directly translates to a lack of options for voters. It negates the argument that people don’t participate in local politics because they are lazy or uninterested, instead revealing that the details necessary to facilitate participation are merely unavailable.  

Data breakdown from the 2018 Impact Report

In 2018 it takes about 30 minutes to set up a proper website via WordPress and even less for a social media page.  Millennials are the largest voting bloc [4], and nearly the entire generation are internet users [5].  Given the facts, I find it difficult to imagine an acceptable reason as to why the vast majority of candidates chose not to make an effort to provide information online regarding their candidacy.   Humans are context driven beings, if we fail to provide pathways for understanding within our political structure we will never succeed in the expansion of democratic participation.

Overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood?

As the data presented on New Jersey local candidate elections primarily focused on access to information, we can only speculate as to why candidates’ online presence was so deficient in 2018.  Solving this problem requires us to be a bit imaginative in our exploration of potential obstacles, but in doing so, we can begin to develop a framework for how to best address this issue.

Using a Bloomberg Cities [6] analysis as a starting point, we find that three-quarters of the 1400+ mayors surveyed were over the age of 50.   According to a 2018 Pew Research study [7], little more than half of the people over 50 engage in the most popular online platforms (Facebook and YouTube) available today.  

If we assume that the age range of U.S. municipality council members is similar to that of U.S. mayors we have our first potential clue as to why information may be so lax.  It’s possible that the lack of sufficient online candidacy information is a generational issue. Simply put, the people running for leadership positions in our local communities are, by in large, not of the internet generation.    This translates to some potential issues ranging from fear of the unknown, lack of understanding of how to use online platforms, the perception of the potential value to be gained from posting campaign information online, and others.  

Assuming age factors into answering why so few of the 2018 candidates posted information online about their candidacy we can implement actions to address these concerns in the future proactively.  Demonstrating the value of having your candidacy information online can be addressed by providing via localized search data and community surveying. Having local candidate information online ensures that candidates can be viewed an understood by all community members, not just those few who can attend in person gatherings. saw local candidate info searches spike nearing election day

To address fears regarding the use of a new communication medium we make sure that every candidate running for office had the opportunity to speak with a support team member who will help onboard them onto the platform.  Via phone, virtual screen-share, or in person we will provide candidates an opportunity to learn the platform as their profile is being set up. By offering a personalized onboarding experience, we remove the barriers associated with learning new technologies.

Beyond possible age-related challenges, we could imagine that local candidates may have thought that posting their candidacy information online was just unnecessary.  Local elections get little if any press compared to larger state and national elections. Mayors and council members focus their time and efforts on solving issues impacting their local community such as traffic and parking, public safety, local economic growth, roads, and affordable housing.  These issues have a high frequency of impact for many community members but lack the excitement and outrage spewed forth from the national political machines. The error in this line of thinking is to confuse a lack of enthusiasm for lack of interest. Community members want to know who their options are, what they stand for, and why they are running for office.  Denying them access to that information in an easy and convenient format by abstaining from the effort to make it available is an undemocratic practice.

Of course, there may be more cynical reasons why candidates may want to avoid having their campaign information online.  The adage, “If it isn’t broke don’t fix it.” rings true in many minds today. There are Mayors in New Jersey who have held the same office since 1991, some of which whom have run unopposed on multiple occasions.  Candidates may believe that is in their best interest to stay under the radar, relying on column placement and the single letter next to their name to win the office. Unfortunately for their constituents, it seems as though their strategy is historically correct.   

Reforming Local Elections

Improving citizen access to local candidate information will require a multi-pronged approach but is an effort well worth pursuing.  At the time of this writing, we observe a renewed passion for election reform being presented from the Democrats [8] which is a positive step but still misses the mark of developing systemic improvement.  Campaign finance reform, voting rights reforms, redistricting, and ethics reforms are all steps in the right direction but will do nothing to raise the temperature of democracy in the United States. Deepening access and agency within the electoral process for all citizens is a core progressive goal of transformation in our democracy.  To do that we must begin foundationally, focusing on communities and local elections.

The legislative solution is that candidates should be required, by law, to have information about their campaign posted in an easily accessible online format. Accurately answering the questions of who they are, their professional history, and their vision for the communities they desire to serve.  This information would be required at the time official candidate registration and would deny candidates the ability to run if they were unwilling to share information about their campaign.

There are numerous options as to how candidates might present this option.  In setting up these options candidates would want to focus on ease of access to their platform of choice, cost (both time and capital), and the ability to connect with community members seeking to engage.

The first is a dedicated website such as which at the time of this writing costs $8.99.  A site hosted on WordPress with a free template the setup would take about 30 minutes and require a moderate level of technical competency.  The challenge with this option is for people who lack web design experience you’re going to have many websites that organize information poorly, are challenging to navigate, and do not present information consistently across the multiple candidate websites.  The result is a bad user experience, shifting learning about candidate options into a laborious task. Still, a poorly designed website is better than no site when it comes to candidate information.

The second option would be Facebook.  I am loathed to suggest Facebook for reasons  I will outline, but it is the most popular option for users in the standard age demographic of mayors in the U.S. and relatively easy to set up.  Facebook is the worst option for many reasons. First, tying a pay for views model like Facebook’s to local campaigns perpetuates the very problem we are attempting to solve, access.  If you aren’t paying Facebook to advertise your posts are not being seen by your followers. Second, shifting our local elections into the primary control of a for-profit organization will set us back in the fight in removing money from politics.   Third, Facebook has been dishonest for years in regards to Russian interference [9] and have attempted to use public relations firms to deflect from their problems. [10] We cannot trust the organization or its leadership to hold a stake in a vitally important public institution.

The third option that I will argue strongly for is the OurSociety platform or another like it.  There are key elements designed into the platform make it ideal for this exact function.  The organization is structured as a non-partisan 501c3 non-profit. It promotes no political agenda and offers no advantage to any candidate or contest.  It is free for everyone to use as a candidate or citizen.

User experience is central to the design offering tools for people at all interests levels.  Feature suites allow citizen users an experience designed to help them better digest the information in a format that resonates with them.  Candidate users have a professional grade suite of tools to help make accessing volunteers, organizing events, and sharing their ideas with the community.   Information is presented clearly in a concise manner that can expand easily. The entire database of candidates is available, but the default is a localized experience to whom we see on our ballot.

Sustaining Future Progress

In developing innovative solutions we must proactively address the inevitable challenges.  Who will pay for it? The platform can be designed to sustain itself if needed, free of any public investment. I propose a revenue model that creates sustainability through small fees charged to the winning candidates based on the position and length of term.  We can allow the public to decide if the winning candidate should pay this fee or subsidized by public tax dollars.  The latter being a great choice if the community as a whole wants running for office to be completely free of financial influence.  In the public funding scenario, sponsoring the winning candidates in my 2018 hometown elections would have cost every resident slightly less than a penny.   Excess revenues beyond direct costs are used to fund continuous platform improvement as the user base evolves.

The most compelling aspect of this model is that it doesn’t just remove money from politics; it transcends it.  A state-sponsored candidate platform gives candidates more exposure than they could ever get through paid advertisements through traditional media.  Aligned with legislation for the dramatic reduction of money in politics, a non-partisan, non-profit election info portal is a restructuring of how people access democracy at a local level and beyond.    

Citizen awareness can be achieved through multiple channels such as including information about the platform with sample ballots, advertising through popular search engines and social media channels, interviews with the program architects in local news media, and official press conferences announcing the structural reformation.  The state could also mandate an educational requirement for all high school seniors to spend an hour learning about the platform and participating in dialogue about the candidate options in their municipalities. Presenting information in a relevant and concise manner in a format that resonates with the user will ensure quicker adaptation and use.  If we are to engage our youth in the democratic process an online access platform provides the best pathway to do so.

Looking to the future, if we’re willing to get creative with how we structure the organization, we can experiment with developing a public ownership model with a term-limited rotating citizen board.  Scaling this model up to a national level is an achievable goal within a reasonable timeframe and would allow us to generate revenues that would exceed the possible costs of running the organization. Funds made beyond possible platform expansion can divert into new public projects, which the public can choose democratically.   In doing so, the project comes full circle to its core purpose, deepening democracy.

The vision presented in this argument is one that is both necessary and achievable today.  The policies being discussed by current political leaders to help reform our democratic process are a good start but will ultimately fall short of creating the meaningful change that is possible with a bit of imagination and implementation.  If we reject the path of least resistance and demand systemic solutions, we can create significant and lasting change in our democracy. Access to local election information and the increased participation rates that will follow is the cornerstone for a more transformative future. By imbuing access and agency into our political institutions, we lay the foundation for a democracy that genuinely works for the people, not just those who can afford to make it work.

[1] Romney’s attack prompts call to protect Trump from 2020 primary challenger by David M. Drucker Washington Examiner

[2] These Are The 10 Most Diverse States In America by Chris Kolmar HomeSnacks

[3] List of U.S. States and Terrtories by Income Wikipedia

[4] Millennials projected to overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation by Richard Fry Pew Research

[5] Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life by Jingjing Jiang Pew Research

[6] 7 Millennial mayors to watch by Bloomburg Cities

[7] Social Media Use in 2018 by Aaron Smith & Monica Anderson Pew Research

[8] Democrats plan ‘aggressive’ oversight of Federal Election Commission by Dave Levinthal & Ashley Balcerzak Public Integrity

[9] Facebook, Twitter and YouTube Withheld Russia Data, Reports Say by By Sheera Frenkel, Daisuke Wakabayashi and Kate Conger

[10] How Facebook’s PR Firm Used a Conservative News Site to Fiercely Attack Its Rivals by Aaron Mak

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Designing the Culture of Tomorrow

By Ron Rivers,

Technology and culture exist within a constant state of intertwined expansion. It’s easy to forget that the first iPhone was released in 2007, a mere eleven years ago.  Today approximately three billion people [1] use smartphones, about 39% of our total population. Each one of these devices providing access to much of the world’s full information.  Numerous social [2], economic [3], and political [4] revolutions have developed due to the increased connectivity and access to each other. These technological advancements deepen our empathy and understanding of one another, facilitating cultural innovation at a more rapid pace than ever before.

Still, much of what happened has failed to reach its fullest potential.  Our culture is deliberately manipulated in the interests of profits and political power.  Consumerism is depressing us [5], and we’re witnessing a global resurgence of desperate classes choosing fascism fueled by programmed anxiety and fear of the future.  Seemingly more divided than ever, I question if we are grasping the depth of the opportunities at hand. Are we destined to sleepwalk through our cultural awakening or can we reshape ourselves by restructuring our institutions?


Framing technology

Depending on the person reading technology can be perceived as many things.  Some people would recall computers, electronics, and other modern devices. Others might think of manual objects, such as saws, hammers, and ladders.  Some would argue that technology is anything with a purpose, which leaves a vast space for the imagination.

For our argument, we will define technology as any tool that we can use.   With this understanding, we can imagine the scenario where our evolutionary ancestor first picked up a stick to reach a piece of fruit.  This seemingly inconspicuous act created a fundamental shift of who we are and how we interact with the world around us. The understanding that, through our creativity and action, the universe was ours to shape forever changed what we could call the human experience.

What is and is not acceptable?


Empathy, culture, and technology

The prevailing ethos of a society correlates to the level of technological ascendency it has reached.   History contains many examples of new technologies reshaping the organization of the world and the human lives within it.

We can compare the concept of punishment in present society to that of those living during the Medieval period as an example.  Slaughter was an unavoidable reality for many people in Medieval societies. Compared to today significantly more individuals were butchering their livestock [6] for consumption than in the present time.  This consistent experience of killing animals likely had a desensitizing effect on the populace and may have contributed to the tolerance of public executions and punishments. Public torture and execution were a spectacle under the guise of justice. [7]  Often the legal sentence also served as a political ritual as well, demonstrating a message to others within the society about the severity of the law.

In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison [8]  he argues that public executions had unintended consequences.    Torture could generate sympathy for the accused and in turn fuel resentment towards the state.  This example provides us insight that humanity had the capacity for deep empathy at the time but lacked the proper technology to facilitate a fundamental cultural shift in what was considered acceptable punishment by the state.  But technology evolved and so did we. No present modern society subscribing to the westernized values of freedom would accept public torture as a form of entertainment.

Another example would be industrial farming technologies.  They remove the experience of butchering live animals to provide the meat many of us eat.  In doing so, our culture shifted. With the decrease in the common practice of animal slaughter, it’s significantly easier to forget about the process of mass producing meat.  Food Inc. and other documentaries like it can profoundly impact people because it exposes the practice beyond the blindness technology provided us.  Mass communication technologies have deepened our access to the truth and in doing so have changed the direction of sections of our population. We can observe this in action by reviewing the available data on the increase in vegetarianism around the world. [9]

Philosophically we have to decide what we want to be. We have not collectively overcome our empathy deficit, but we have advanced our understanding of what is and is not permissible within a free society.  In the process shifting further towards a genuine understanding of the sanctity of human life. This change, I argue, will continue in step with our technological ascendancy.


Humanity tomorrow

We live in an age of political and cultural uncertainty.  Technology does not suffer from this burden as progress is accelerating at an exponential rate. [10]  Technology and culture feed off of one another as each introduces new problems to be solved while simultaneously shifting our understanding of the world around us.   We know cultural malleability is real as the for-profit entertainment interests have driven our culture for decades. Armed with this understanding, we can conceptualize culture from a top-down approach, asking ourselves what type of values we would collectively want to share and what types of solutions would need to be developed to accelerate the manifestation this change.

Staying aligned with our examples of punishment we can observe present-day examples in Norway.  Norway boasts an imprisonment rate of about one-tenth of the United States. Even more impressive, they have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at only 20%.  Compare that to the United States where 76.6% of prisoners re-enter the penal system upon release. [11] It’s clear that Norway has chosen a different cultural value for members of its society and implemented research, technology, and practice to produce results that shame our efforts here in the United States.

Politically this would mean a reformation of how we incentivize progress within our institutional arrangements.  A proactive approach for creating technologies and solutions to drive cultural shifts conflicts with a profit-driven incentivization of culture.  Many of us can relate to the addictiveness of social media platforms, and it’s no surprise as they are designed that way. [12] Multiple platforms squander the opportunity to add real value to our lives so they can bombard us with advertisements, reducing their overall effectiveness.  Therefore we’re going to have to empower organizations undertaking these challenges to operate in new ways, unrestricted by the contemporary dogmatic worship of profit-driven results.

An example of how we could facilitate these projects would be to define a new set of laws specifically for these culture drivers.  We would want to create a deeper level of cooperation between firms and government to produce desired outcomes. These could be implemented by extending access to investment funding in the form of tax dollars and by opening up the most advanced technologies to these firms.

In exchange for this public support returns recognized from the project would be socialized.  We could structure the societal benefits of these firms in numerous ways. One would be that the firms could operate under a non-profit co-operative model, ensuring that the products they were developing can be acquired at a low consumer cost.

Alternatively, if the organizations are working with emerging technologies profits could be driven to institutionalize the most successful firms, implementing a model where the best organizations become the best schools, open to anyone looking to transform their role in the world.  Revisiting our focus of punishment and Norway’s prison reform; the solutions already exist so we could focus more on the human capital aspects, funding a team of experts to force implementation of the Norwegian methods within the American penal system.

If our goal is to shift our culture towards the pluralistic vision of an innovative and experimental society, then we must recognize that everything is subject to change.  By extending access to the necessary resources for people working towards the collectively determined cultural goals we provide ourselves with more agency in developing the direction of humanity.

Transformation is possible today. It begins by understanding the impact of technology is having on us as a culture and shifts direction when we decide to take a more proactive approach in the direction of both.  In undertaking this task we rely on the most valuable resource we have, human ingenuity, to develop the solutions to help us be better people. It’s a bet on our shared potential to change the world. An investment that has been proven throughout history to be a worthy undertaking.

[1] Newzoo Global Mobile Market Report 2018 | Light Version Newzoo

[2] Social Black Lives Matter – Could also be classified as political and economic.

[3] Economic  Occupy Wall Street

[4] Political Arab Spring

[5] Consumerism and its antisocial effects can be turned on—or off Association for Psychological Science

[6] Types of Meat By Melissa Snell Thought Co.

[7] Medieval Torture


[9] Why the Global Rise in Vegan and Plant-Based Eating Isn’t A Fad (600% Increase in U.S. Vegans + Other Astounding Stats) Food Revolution Network

[10] The Law of Accelerating Returns by Ray Kurzweil

[11] Why Norway’s prison system is so successful by Christina Sterbenz Business Insider

[12] Your Addiction to Social Media Is No Accident by Julie Morgans VICE

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Simplified Law of Accelerating Returns

By Ron Rivers,

Renowned innovator Ray Kurzweil has a list of accolades too long to write about in an article with “Simplified” in the title.  I had first stumbled upon one of his YouTube interviews  and after listening immediate purchased The Singularity is Near.  It’s a comprehensive text filled with fascinating information, but the biggest take away by many was Ray’s analysis of history to track the growth of technology.  He observed what he named the Law of Accelerating Returns – a pattern demonstrating that technology advancements were growing exponentially in relation to their size and cost.  This discovery has profound implications, and progressive thinkers who are working towards systemic transformation should be aware of it.


Just the facts

Depending on how you define technology, the Law of Accelerating Returns has been occurring since the first cell on Earth manifested or as recently as the last century.  Data demonstrates that within frames of time the processing power of our computer chips double, while the size of the chip and the cost divided in half.    This exponential growth has been observable in all modern computing.  Even more eye-opening, the rate at which the doubling is occurring is accelerating as well.

Source:  Wikimedia Commons


So what does this mean?

Technology is changing, and it’s changing fast.  The change of pace is happening so fast that we need to begin to redefine how to think about technological advancement fundamentally.  In the image above we see one of Kurzweil’s predictions made in 2001 and one he still stands by today – in 2029, we will have the processing capabilities to develop machines with human-level thinking abilities.  Around 2049 our processing power per chip will be the total capacity of all human life on the planet.

Beyond that lays what Kurzweil has termed, the Singularity.  The Singularity is a technological transcendence of the human race.  A fundamental shift in the way we understand and interact with technology leading to an evolutionary leap of understanding and existence.  Radically reshaping the way we connect with one another and the universe around us. In 2017 he predicted the Singularity would occur in 2045.

While Kurzweil has his critics, to date he has been correct on 115/147 with another 12 that were “essentially correct” – off by a year or two.  That’s 86% of his predictions which have become true. I’d never be mistaken for a proficient gambler, but those odds seem likely to occur.  Progressive projects should recognize the impact of these discoveries on both the present and future to help create institutional alternatives that would maximize the tremendous potential technology will unlock within us.

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