The Future of Society
See the short introduction to these essays and the rest of my sociomedical essays here.
People often assume they are doing their part to "contribute to the society" by paying taxes and voting. Many believe you cannot realistically be expected to do anything more. But is there not more to society than that? True participation would entail attempting to understand the other people who form the society. This is not the same as trying to understand politics.
To achieve that, one thing that desperately needs reform is the school system. I come from Finland, a country with a highly praised education system which has ranked high in e.g. PISA studies. Finns laugh at Americans who struggle to find Europe on the world map. We know where Cambodia is located and how to solve equations. Yet many people leave school without understanding how our elections or things like paying taxes or mortgages work. For a large part of the population it is not obvious that colds are caused by viruses, not by bacteria or cold weather.
What is the school system for, if it does not teach us the skills and basic knowledge we need in getting by with life? Even if it feeds us knowledge, it does not teach how to understand things. Geography focuses on naming rivers and capital cities, not cultural geography, which is far more important. Many history teachers never teach their pupils why history is studied in the first place.
One thing the Finnish school system definitely does not teach is critical thinking. In some countries schools encourage this, but in most it is the exact opposite. People are taught with the so-called bulimia approach: teachers feed information to students and they purge it out in the exams. Everything else is of minor importance. Grades are what matters, after all.
This is in line with the general attitude of the society, especially the Finnish society, to discourage critical thinking and to act as passive as possible. It is easier to let people grow up into followers of authority, believers of mantras and authority figures and, slaves to traditions they may not even agree with, but that must be followed for the sake of tradition. In Finland it is also considered inappropriate to "meddle" with other people's problems. If someone is lonely, sick, alcoholic or the victim or perpetrator of violence, they had better sort their problems by themselves.
The school system is also very normative, presenting white, heterosexual, cissexual, monogamous, able-bodied people as the norm. While it may seem gender equality is better achieved, in reality studies demonstrate the world view presented by textbooks is still often quite sexist. And just like many minorities are presented as the other, a specimen, human rights are treated as something of importance elsewhere. Gay marriage may be discussed, but other sexual minorities are barely mentioned.
We want to believe the laws and norms of society are just. They would not exist if they were not right, and they must be right because they exist. Most of us have trouble even picturing change. We are willing to believe there are flying cars and perhaps bubble cities waiting for us (yes, waiting for us - someone else will put them there while we watch in fascination) in the future, yet people expect the society to otherwise stay the same. Technology-oriented science fiction is taken as visions that really may come true, but social scifi with its utopias and dystopias is seen as something more fictional than anything that could possibly happen.
Even the people who have witnessed the dramatic change the Internet has brought in their lifetime have trouble realizing how different the future will be - how different humans will be. Yet the changes taking place in the last years have finally opened the eyes of many people to the fact that the Internet can bring much more than just technological change.
Luckily, people are no longer so dependent on school or their parents to acquire knowledge of the world and to understand what is actually going on in there, thanks to the Internet. In the past the voluntary acquisition of information was seen as something only for the library-trawling nerds, whose hunger for knowledge was often greatly limited by the number of books that were translated into languages they could read.
Knowledge was not cool. Now that has all changed. Information is not only cool, but it is something necessary to life, something that must be hoarded. Being a passive citizen, a tax-payer who may vote but not do anything else, is still acceptable, but many go further than that. Many choose to question their parents, teachers and doctors. Many are adopting a more sensible approach: to always ask "is this true?" upon acquiring a new piece of information and after that "if so, what are the consequences?"
People are starting to ask questions. Others are even realizing they can attempt to change things by doing more than just voting, answering polls or surveys or donating to charity. The Internet can facilitate sudden, acute revolutions. Situations and our knowledge, understanding and opinions about them can change faster than ever. But revolutions no longer need to take place on the street.
Some things that are now viewed as the norm will soon be seen as mistakes of catastrophic proportions. We have nothing to blame but our collective ignorance. Time will give us perspective, just like it gave us perspective towards the medieval times, but things need to change now. The mistakes of our past are no excuse to continue more mistakes. Change is inevitable, but we can control what kind of change it will be.
We need to move from fascism to pro-choice, from bigotry to universal human rights. Otherwise we are really no better than the medieval folks and their inquisition that we so laugh at and despise. An ideal society will only forbid things that are absolutely necessary to be forbidden, that is those that damage other people or their possessions. There are two harmful and wide-spread beliefs that need to be dissipated. One is the root of almost all evil: the just world theory, that bad things only happen to people who deserve them. Another is the belief that things we don't understand are sick, bad and/or need to be banned.
Most politics and laws only attempt to debug a system which is deeply flawed. People assume that certain laws, obligations and ideas are right - and even that they are the norm, the "default" from which different approaches would "stray from" - simply because they are what they are used to. It would be very interesting and fruitful to be able to build a society, including its hierarchies and the legal system from scratch, without paying attention to current norms or religious fantasies. Obviously this is an idealistic fantasy, but a fantasy worth entertaining. Debugging is always inferior to rebooting.