People in this country,” said Michael Gove, former minister and now candidate for leader of Britain’s governing Conservative Party, “have had enough of experts.” And he certainly seems to have a point. The debate about Britain’s departure from the European Union has been replete with “experts” (the Bank of England, the Treasury, the IMF, the Confederation of British Industry, virtually every employer and so on), almost always on the Remain side. The other side of the debate is notable for its appeal to belief in the country, and a scorn of “Project Fear”. And that side won.
In the United States, the cry of “fake news” drowns out detail. President Trump proposes the shutdown of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. On the internet, people who believe that vaccines cause MMR are promoting an anti-vaccine agenda in the face of mumps and measles outbreaks. Experts are derided. Science is ignored. Fact is prey to belief.
We have said before that the seeds of the future are to be found in the present and the past. To try and understand what this move to belief means, let’s look at the time when belief was indeed greater than fact: in the West, the medieval world of the 13th through 16th centuries. There are some disturbing analogies. Here’s a selection.
- We no longer believe in evidence. People build their views of the world from images created by others, with their own agendas. Paintings become Photoshop; messengers from afar and sermons in church become those news feeds we choose to follow because they agree with and reinforce our point of view.
- Holding contrary views is becoming dangerous, and we cannot risk exposing our young people to the pollution of conflicting ideas. In denying platforms to modern day heretics by, for instance, banning right wing speakers, it’s not hard to see iconoclasm and religious persecution.
- New technology spreads science and literacy and thought – and rumour and myth and false facts. Others have made the comparison between Gutenberg and Tim Berners-Lee, between the printing press and the world wide web, and they are right.
- We are under constant surveillance – or if we are not, we feel ourselves to be. Britain has the highest density of CCTV in the world; China has facial recognition built into (it seems) everything; Google, Apple and Facebook know who you are, intimately – and who your friends are. It’s a short step from this real surveillance to the stories of an omnipresent God, who knows all – and judges you for your actions as China’s concept of social capital judges you now.
- We are dependent on processes we don’t understand, cannot control, and for which we need intermediaries. In the Middle Ages, we propitiated against the ever present threats of war, famine, plague and death with our taxes and our tithes to the church; now our interconnected world is intertwined in ways which we are unable to understand or fix, and we pay our government and the private sector to make things work for us.
- And of course the ideological schism between faith and fact, between populism and western liberalism, between demagoguery and democracy, finds its comparators everywhere: from the Hundred Years war to the denials of Galileo, from the book burning of Savonarola to the attempted destruction of the libraries of Timbuktu.
The past may be a foreign country, but the map looks awfully familiar.
So is the future a medieval one? Maybe with some aspects of A Canticle for Liebowitz, as outposts of civilisation preserve the learnings of the past into the future? Are we going to see a slow slide back to the pre-Enlightenment?
It is too early to tell. Science and fact is putting up a fight. Under enormous pressure, online media giants are engaging more fact checkers. Candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party are signing pledges which seem to control others campaigning for them (and hence spreading stories which may, or may not, be true). Billionaires are putting their money into spaceflight – the ultimate scientific endeavour. Whilst demagogues seem on the rise in the West, there is still, for now at least, the chance that elections will return their polar opposites and the dial will swing once again. The battle between fact and belief has returned to the public space: and the last time that happened, it led to the Enlightenment. It is equally possible that what seems like a turning point towards medievalism is in fact populism’s last gasp, and the turning point is towards a second Enlightenment.
The first Enlightenment, though, took a century to embed. There is no telling how long the second might take…..
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director and Martin Duckworth, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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