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GUEST ESSAY

Where are the giants who will upgrade the operating system of humanity?

Where are the giants who will upgrade the operating system of humanity?

When we look around, we see so many small people. Trump, Kennedy and Biden in the US, a trifling triumvirate. Putin, Xi, Duterte, Orban and Modi, whose large egos only serve to illuminate their tiny visions. And here in South Africa, we have had a procession of self-interested, incompetent and thieving leaders — corrupt Lilliputians all.

I was recently introduced to a podcast called The Jim Rutt Show. Rutt used to be chairperson of the Sante Fe Institute, that iconic multidisciplinary research institute in the New Mexico desert that brings together the best minds in the world to study “complex systems science” — biology, physics, economics, sociology and the like. Rutt’s jovial good ol’ boy demeanour camouflages a deep and wide-ranging intellect which is on liberal display in his podcast. 

The particular episode that I listened to was about risk. Rutt discussed AI, climate change, biochemical warfare, misinformation and — my favourite  — “epistemological decay”, a scary swarm of potentially bad things, some of which might spell the end of us, all of them a direct consequence of the recent increase in the rate of change in, well, everything, at a pace unprecedented in human history. It made for depressing listening, even given the considerable amount of time that your correspondent spends in the swampy world of doomsayers. 

Rutt and his colleagues are in the process of building a case for what they call Game B. It is no less than a plan to upgrade the operating system running the socioeconomic and political architecture of (at least) the US. Without it, he believes, we are spiralling towards human immiseration. Game A is over and we lost. Game B is intended to save us. 

The core idea of this so-called Game B is the necessity to reimagine and redefine governance. How do we make laws and policy? What moral precepts do we base them on and how do we promulgate, regulate, monitor and police them? Rutt goes so far as to suggest that the US Constitution, the sacred core of the US governance system, is no longer fit for purpose. Why? Because it was written when the US had three million inhabitants and the largest company employed 100 people, the steam engine had not yet arrived, no coal had ever been extracted and it took five weeks for a letter to travel from one end of the country to another. 

We’ll get back to Rutt later, but let’s hover here for a moment.  

Great men designed the US Constitution and packed it into a mere four pages, a marvel of distillation. They then sold it to the American public, which was a feat at least as admirable as the drafting itself. 

Hamilton, Franklin, Madison, Jefferson and others devised a Constitution that fuelled an enviable story, a model of wealth creation and citizen upliftment that has lasted for nearly 300 years, but which might now be reaching the end of its glory days. However, the introspection, the debates and the compromises that served as the raw clay of that document were infused with a single goal — to design an approach to polity that allowed citizens the greatest chance of achieving their individual aspirations.  

It is not just the US, of course, that has produced great people of vision. If one takes a look at just the last century or so, there are other giants, all of whom have had moments of greatness, sometimes standing out against their flaws — leaders like Churchill, Mandela, Smuts, De Gaulle, Gandhi, Roosevelt, Merkel, Walesa, Sankara and Gorbachev. 

Where are the giants of state today? When we look around we see so many small people. Trump, Kennedy and Biden in the US, a trifling triumvirate. Putin, Xi, Duterte, Orban and Modi, whose large egos only serve to illuminate their tiny visions. And here in South Africa, we have had a procession of self-interested, incompetent and thieving leaders — corrupt Lilliputians all, starting with Ramaphosa and seeping into every corner of the ruling party and including some challengers like Malema and Zuma. Small people, destined to be no more than footnotes to history.  

Jon Stewart of The Tonight Show did a hilarious bit on AI last week. In one scene, a senator is interviewed. Do you understand anything about AI? he is asked. No, he answers. And then, to emphasise it, he adds, “Hell, no!” in a US Southern drawl. It is sort of funny, but how did we get here, with elected representatives advertising their embarrassing ignorance of one of the most important technologically-driven sociopolitical issues of our generation? There seem to be few towering intellects left in the industry of state. 

Returning to Rutt and his Game B, the details of which will surely be the content of a future column, let’s assume his grand vision of a transformative upgrade of our socioeconomic operating system is clear, compelling and achievable. Who then is going to pick it up? Who will fashion it into a moral manifesto for a changing world and, more importantly, sell it to a fearful and desperate public, steering us away from our current headlong trajectory into an unpredictable and dangerous future? 

Where are the giants who will carry this responsibility on their broad backs?  

The question itself causes me discomfort. Are we still looking for saviours? Are we still so dependent on the leadership of others?  

Yes, I suppose we are. DM  

Steven Boykey Sidley is a professor of practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg. His new book It’s Mine: How the Crypto Industry is Redefining Ownership is published by Maverick 451 in SA and Legend Times Group in UK/EU, available now.

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