10 May 2017

Questions for a world on the verge of change

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 10 May 2017

Albert Einstein once said, "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask".

The need to ask the right questions at a time of great change is vital, David Rothkopf says in his new book, The Great Questions of Tomorrow.

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Photo: Pexels

Rothkopf is the chief executive and editor of the F-P Group, publisher of Foreign Policy and believes that epochal change is coming and we are asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong direction.

He says people have a predisposition to ask questions based on their recent past, habits, or experience.

And that tends to lead to people asking the same questions over and over again, which, he says, means we’re not prepared for the big changes and problems to come.

Throughout history there are watershed moments, be they technological or social, that society can’t keep up with, he says.

“In those moments of great disruption we find that we really need to go back and ask ever more fundamental questions.

“Questions about the nature of the social contract, of a community, of a government, of the purpose of a government, of the nature of economics… legitimate questions to ask today.”

Rothkopf believes we’re at a watershed moment now.

David Rothkopf

David Rothkopf Photo: supplied

Since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism has been described as the great threat facing humanity and the great organising principle of security efforts, but it’s a red herring he says.

“The reality of course is that terrorism isn’t an existential threat, it’s not a great issue that’s changing our time unless we make it one. There are not lots of terrorists, there are just a few.”

But there are other bigger concerns that Rothkopf says we ought to focus on.

“Like the fact that in the next 10 years effectively every person on the planet is going to be connected in a man-made system for the very first time, which in turn means that the definition of what a community is, what a government is, what a state is, what economies are… are all going to change.

“What should be dominating the headlines: the discussion of the last effort to strike at a handful of terrorists in the middle of Afghanistan, or the fact that the whole global system is about to change?”

Rothkopf says are few motivations for politicians to think about making major changes, as they’re typically narrowly focused.

“They tend to resist change because change tends to put the power they have at risk.”

But there are people asking the right questions, he says, including some forward thinking governments.

Rothkopf points to the car industry in Sweden and the US – both saw major car manufacturers go bankrupt.

“In the US they had to bail out the company because if it’d gone bankrupt 1 million people would’ve been out on the street without social programmes to protect them.

“In Sweden Saab was allowed to go bankrupt because they knew the social programmes to retrain people and take care of people were there.”

He says the Swedish system allowed capitalism to work more efficiently because of its social safety net.

While parts of the planet will benefit immensely from current technological advances, he says it won’t be without backlash.

“Big technological changes produce big benefits in the long run but in the short run they tend also to produce backlashes and they also can be abused.

“If we’re looking backwards then this great wave of positive change we can ride, might end up being a tsunami that, you know, crashes over all of us and disrupts our lives in some really unhappy ways.”

Despite the many problems facing humanity, Rothkopf is optimistic.

“We live longer than we ever have, we are healthier than we’ve ever been, we’re more educated than we’ve ever been, we are more literate than we have ever been, and by we I mean everybody on the planet.

“This is the best time ever to live in and every ensuing period has been better than the preceding period and we can expect the same.”

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