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ALLENDE: From a conceptual basis, then, what year marks the beginning of the 21st century?
WANG: I don't know that I could pick one year that encompasses the entire shift. But I think we can definitely state the exact moment that the 20th century ended.
WANG: Nov. 4, 2008, and it ended sometime between the moment Barrack Obama stepped onto the stage at Grant Park and his first words to the nation as president-elect.
ALLENDE: So it was a political shift?
WANG: Not at all. It was a shift in possibility. The 20th century was predicated on material possibility, which included a mechanistic sense of weight and inevitability. A president like Obama wasn't supposed to be possible, because people believed the message that "the system" would never allow it. Electorates, agencies, corporations -- people understood them to be flawed, but people accepted the inhumane and inefficient authority of these institutions out of an ambient belief that high levels of friction, waste and corruption were inevitable in human society.
ROBERTSON: One could argue, then, that the Bush Era was the highest expression of that belief (laughter).
WANG: Many have, but in all seriousness, I think the 21st century owes Bush a debt of gratitude. His administration created a credibility vacuum that Obama and others filled with possibility. And I don't mean that in terms of political policy, but in the awakening that occurred within the 2010s. The advances of that decade were all based on knowledge that was available during the Bush Era, but little was manifested because 20th century culture was so convinced that the rules of possibility were strictly limited.
ALLENDE: Why do you think that was, Dr. Singh?
SINGH: Ted may disagree with me, but I think the most important moment in the transition was the failure of 20th century mass-media systems around the end of that first decade. Mass-media at the time perpetuated cultural expectations of disappointment, division and dissension. It functioned as a massive brake on social change, and you really begin to see its demise with the Obama election.
ALLENDE: Do you disagree, Dr. Erickson?
ERICKSON: To a degree. Would that media system have collapsed without the fall of the global banking system between 2008-11? But I'm an economist, so that's my perspective. We're probably arguing a chicken-or-the-egg question.
ALLENDE: (Confused) A... chicken? (inaudible) What?
ERICKSON: (Laughs) Well, that's a good example. There was a cliché of 20th century thought that posed the question "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" That's a meaningless question today.
SINGH: Its like an 17th century person asking "Which came first, the rain or the frogs?" but that's the way paradigm shifts work.The idea that consciousness organizes biology seemed anti-scientific to most 20th century thinkers, even though there was science that supported the principle available around that time.
ALLENDE: Why wasn't it more widely accepted?
SINGH: I think you have to begin by imagining how different a mass-mediated society really is. A few of us are old enough to remember it, but to the younger generations it's just alien. You have this 20th century paradigm that was materialistic, Newtonian, and mass-media was the cultural mechanism that enforced it. So I don't think it's any coincidence that the burst of advancement that created what we think of as 21st century culture takes place after the fall of the mass-media economy. You just don't get the explosion of progress that occurred in the 2010s and 2020s without the weakening of that mass-media identity.
ALLENDE: What else would a time-traveler from 2009 struggle to grasp?
ERICKSON: Remember, in the years before The Great Recession, financial regulations around the world were generally far more concerned with establishing methods by which market players could unilaterally extract value from the network. Preserving the integrity of the economic network that created their wealth in the first place wasn't even part of their thinking. These weren't stupid people: They were simply working within a limited context.
SINGH: And given 20th century ideas about the nature of what they called "the material world," is it any wonder that people saw economics as one issue and media as another, politics over here and science over there...
COLBERT: Not to mention religion...
COLBERT: One of the main reasons that science was so slow to embrace the controversial discoveries of the late 20th century was the overwhelming fear that the alternative to Darwin was creationism, that if physics explored the mechanics of consciousness it was somehow searching for God. So even though there was evidence that the phenome and the genome were in constant conversation, that evolution involved an exchange of information between our DNA and the environment, scientists were not able to investigate that evidence because of the cost to their careers and reputations.
WANG: They would have lost their funding.
ROBERTSON: So in many cases the most interesting evidence was essentially ignored, even though it pointed the way toward solutions society desperately needed.
SINGH: It's not just true in science. During The Great Recession, even as the banking system and the old political-media control systems collapsed, the companies that funded those systems were incapable of considering alternatives that could have saved them. It's generally forgotten today, but in 2009 the newspaper companies that controlled much of the nation's informational infrastructure actually colluded to force the public to pay for freely available information.The semantic economy was wide open to them, but as we know today, you literally cannot see what you cannot first imagine.
ALLENDE: I guess I keep coming back to this in different ways, but why was progress so difficult for them?
WANG: Because you're coming at this question as a citizen of a semantic society. We expect the information we need will be properly contextualized and delivered to us in useful ways. Your idea of "research" bears little resemblance to what it meant for scientists or journalists at the turn of the century. In their day, it literally required searching. And then when you got some information, you could easily spend as long or longer trying to determine whether it was any good, or even where it originated.
SINGH: The concept that really stumps my students is "mainstream." And it doesn't matter whether the topic is science or culture or media, in the 20th century context a thing was either in the mainstream, and therefore known and viable, or out of the mainstream and therefore obscure and suspect. They can't quite believe that an entire society functioned by what was essentially a rigged popularity contest, but it begins to make sense when you realize just how many institutions benefited from excluding all but a few possibilities.
ROBERTSON: Right. Limit the options to what you're selling.
WANG: It wasn't one system that was flawed. Twentieth century thought was a series of mutually reinforcing feedback loops that kept society mired in a Newtonian universe a century after the advent of special relativity and 80 years after the discoveries of Heisenberg and Schrödinger. So in a sense, trying to figure out what act or discovery began the 21st century is a 20th century errand. There were new ideas at play in multiple disciplines simultaneously, each was held back by convention, and once the change began toward an integrated paradigm it occurred rapidly and with enormous power.
COLBERT: That's true, but Iet's not lose sight of the fact that the origins of 21st century culture are all scientific advances with technological applications: Nonlocality, self-assemblying biotechnology, the Zero Point Field, all of these things became part of our identity when they stopped being theories and became tangible parts of our daily lives. Quantum physics was just quasi-mystical bullshit to most people until it started showing up in consumer technology.
ROBERTSON: One hundred years ago, you wouldn't even be considered human.
COLBERT: Correct. And what I'm saying is that we didn't get to these ideas via narrative, but by science: Good, hard, grinding science. Am I an artificial intelligence made by humans or a non-biological extension of human consciousness? And the answer is, I was built, people experienced me as human, and the cultural shift followed accordingly.
WANG: But, now Stephen, that's a perfect example of how Lakshimi may be right. To say that narrative had nothing to do with those discoveries misses her point about media. Those discoveries were based on evidence that was available before the rise of networked media. Why didn't they become acceptable and "mainstream" sooner? Because we're a quorum-sensing species. It took networked media to provide the necessary environmental signals that allowed science the permission to venture into these areas. How many years did it take for society -- for science -- to accept our understanding of something as simple as gravity? And when that finally did happen, did it occur because of science or because the network moved the proper theory into the window of possibility?
COLBERT:You're seriously contending that networked media enabled the Second Scientific Revolution? Is that what you're saying?
WANG: I'm saying that, to borrow a metaphor from physics, the two subjects are entangled.
COLBERT: Which means everything from fusion to projected consciousness, all the fundamental technologies that drive our modern economy, all of these advances exist today because of ... media?
SINGH: And vice-versa.
WANG: Mass media was controlled. Networked media is often manipulated, but control doesn't scale. In a mass-mediated society, scientists had to be careful how they discussed science in public, but with the rise of networked media, citizens were free to learn about and talk about science in ways that scientists themselves could not. That affected the political climate, which affected funding, which provided its own feedback loop with science and media, which accelerated the cycle. And so on.
SINGH: Neither begat the other. But when each became an open system, each enhanced the other.
ALLENDE: Open systems were a 20th century invention, correct?
WANT: Perhaps, but they weren't really deployed until the 21st. Open Source software development is the classic example. Before then, all systems that involved value were essentially closed systems, and extraction meant that open systems, like fisheries, suffered from the Tragedy of the Commons. So you had all these closed systems, and the nature of closed systems is that they're competitive.
ERICKSON: Whereas in open systems, wealth is created by cooperation. In the 20th century, that was called "hippie economics," or confused with communism.
ROBERTSON: Or socialism.
ERICKSON: Or socialism. So while I agree with our esteemed specialists in media and science, I would contend that this shift -- from economic competition to economic cooperation -- is actually the genesis point for 21st century culture. Because let's face it: If Google could have made more money by not sharing its Wave technology, others would have happily continued not sharing their products. Post-capitalist theory won because it was practical, not because it was pretty.
The great irony is that post-capitalism is ultimately the expression of a mature capitalist system. We enjoy flexible, non-corrupt entities today not because our parents and grandparents thought they would be cool, but because flexible, non-corrupt entities wound up making more money. Why do open systems win? Because closed systems can't adapt quickly enough.
COLBERT: You don't see that as an outgrowth of science? Because it's essentially an understanding of society and economics that's modeled on our understanding of the way bacteria exist within a colony.
ERICKSON: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
ERICKSON: And it certainly doesn't hurt that our economic thinking is reinforced by an economic abundance that our ancestors simply couldn't imagine. The industrialized world didn't develop a stable food supply until the mid-20th century. We didn't develop a stable global economic system until the mid-21st. Our parents and grandparents made all their decisions based on scarcity.
WANG: Scarcity is a self-fulfilling prophecy of closed systems.
COLBERT: Yes, but you don't just make the leap and arrive there. You don't plant an old-growth climax-forest ecosystem. You arrive there over time.
WANG: You progress arithmetically until you hit the knee of the curve and then your results are logarithmic. We're all standing on the shoulders of giants. That's a technology known as "civilization."
COLBERT: Absolutely. Although if that were strictly true we'd have hit The Singularity 54 years ago.
SINGH: And immediately turned into golden, flying unicorns. That was my plan at the time, anyway (laughter).
WANG: The Technological Singularity didn't occur as a quasi-magical event, but I think a time-traveler from 2009 would look at the world 90 years later and think our technology is pretty damn magical.
ALLENDE: Let's say for the moment that the work that's going on now with 4th dimensional consciousness projection is approved in the next quarter. If you could project only one thought back to your ancestors, to help them get through the transition from the 20th to the 21st century way of thinking, what would that thought be?
ROBERTSON: I'd tell them to stop waiting for the Chicago Cubs to win a pennant. After 191 years, it's pretty obvious that there's something other than baseball at play there (laughter).
WANG: I think that's easy. I'd tell them to stop being so afraid.
ALLENDE: But those were scary times.
WANG: All the more reason.