Citizens Of Tomorrow - Society Master Essay

The challenge is not that the citizen future is difficult to find or complicated to articulate. It is simple, rooted in deep truth, and emerging everywhere. But it is hidden because every day people are telling themselves other stories of society, and their role within it. Critically, institutions reinforce these other narratives, taking up the oxygen of imagination, making them seem like the only possibilities.

We're not the first to suggest that stories can shape societies. In a landmark essay written 25 years ago, Donella Meadows, the pioneer of systems thinking, proposed that societies cling to mindsets or paradigms that she described as "shared social agreements about the nature of reality… the deepest set of beliefs about how the world works". They are, she argued, "the sources of systems". And more recently, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has sought to understand the US communities she studies through their "deep story" – a "subjective lens" through which they see the world.

We propose that one of the most pervasive deep stories is the "consumer story". It goes like this: our role as individuals is to pursue our own self-interest, on the basis that will aggregate to the best outcomes for society. We define ourselves through competition. Along the way, our choices represent our power, our creativity, our identity – they make us who we are. Every organisation and institution, from businesses to charities to government, exists to offer these choices. All are reduced to providers of products and services. This consumer story is how we get to Future B, the future Martian escapes, billionaires with disproportionate power, and extreme inequality.

As for Future A, this Orwellian future corresponds to the return of the "subject story", as in "subjects of the King". In this story, the leader knows best, charting the way forward and declaring our duties. The rest of us are innocents, ignorant of important matters. This deal becomes more attractive the greater the danger, which is why this story is making a comeback today. Governments and organisations that arise out of the subject story are paternalistic and hierarchical, with the supposedly superior few at the top of the pyramid.

Already in China, the consequences of this story are clear. The country's Skynet project has more than 400 million surveillance cameras in place, with a growing number of these automatically hooked into facial recognition and other artificial intelligence programs. The government knows almost everything its citizens are doing, from purchases to driving behaviour to social media posts to the amount of time a person spends playing video games. There's also the Social Credit System, an enormous data gathering and processing system, which automatically grants rewards or punishments. One already widespread punishment is to be banned from purchasing flights – according to figures published by China's National Public Credit Information Centre, this had already happened 17.5 million times by the end of 2018.

Other punishments reportedly include automatically reduced internet speeds, or having your pet confiscated. 

The subject story preceded the consumer story. It was the dominant story for centuries, shaping the interactions of the majority of humanity, from at least the 1600s, up until it crumbled over the course of the two world wars of the 20th Century. The consumer story, as inevitable as it often seems, only arose from the ashes of the subject, and has only been humanity’s dominant story for the past 70 years.

By contrast with the subject, the consumer story seemed to promise a golden dream, with its broader distribution of resources and wealth, its replacement of aristocracy with meritocracy. But now the consumer story is cracking. It is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, and threatens to take us down with it.

We have such pervasive inequality that it threatens the safety of everyone (even the wealthiest), while the story says that our primary responsibility is to compete to hoard more. We have ecological breakdown, while the story insists that our identity and status rely upon ever-increasing consumption. We have an epidemic of loneliness and mental health challenges, yet the story tells us we stand alone.

It is the old stories that are broken, not humanity.

The fall of the subject story and the rise of the consumer are proof that change at the level of a deep story is possible. The citizen story can replace the consumer, as the consumer replaced the subject.

In order to realise the citizen future, we must neither accept what we are given as the only possibility, as subjects do; nor throw our toys from the pram when we do not like what is on offer, as consumers do. As citizens, we must propose, not just reject. We must establish a foundation of belief in one another. We must start from where we are, accept responsibility, and create meaningful opportunities for each other to contribute as we do so. We must step up, and step in. As the pioneering architect and designer Buckminster Fuller wrote: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, create a new model that makes the existing models obsolete."

The process of rewriting the story is demanding for all of us. When the cracks appear in a long-held belief, it causes anxiety and pain. As the certain world is replaced by great uncertainty, the risk is that we cling to what we know more than ever. The gravitational pull of the familiar exerts itself, no matter how dysfunctional we know the familiar to be. When we recognise this, we can hold the space for this collapse and this transition more gently, more respectfully, with greater care. Otherwise, anxiety flips into anger, and people lose trust and faith in one another and their institutions. The result risks becoming a vicious cycle: as the challenges of our time intensify, we trust our leaders less, the outlets we seek in our dissatisfaction – such as anti-scientific beliefs, or conspiracy theories – become more extreme, and our leaders in turn trust us less. They become yet more inclined to stick to what they know – the old stories – denying us agency as they engage in futile attempts to solve the challenges for us, without us.

This is why the most essential work in this time should be a reimagination of what leadership is. If those in positions of power act as if there is nothing wrong, nothing to see here, our mistrust in them deepens still further. Leaders who build the citizen future start by acknowledging uncertainty, sharing questions and challenges with us rather than providing (or failing to provide) answers for us. They create opportunities for us to participate and contribute. They cultivate so-called "safe uncertainty": acknowledging unknowns, not denying them. They don't pretend to know exactly what the future looks like. They do reassure us that we will best build it by working together. As the philosopher and activist adrienne maree brown puts it: "No one is special; everyone is needed."

In order to survive and thrive, we must step into the citizen future. We must see ourselves as citizens – people who actively shape the world around us, who cultivate meaningful connections to their community and institutions, who can imagine a different and better life, who care and take responsibility, and who create opportunities for others to do the same. Crucially, the leaders of our institutions must also see people as citizens, and treat us as such.

If we can step into the citizen future, we will be able to face our myriad challenges: economic insecurity, ecological emergency, public health threats, political polarisation, and more. We will be able to build a future. We will be able to have a future – together.

Authors: Jon Alexander and Ariane Conrad, BBC.


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