Regardless of what transpires in the geo-political landscape regarding the civil war in Syria, it may well be looked upon as a pivot point for citizens of the United States. This could be the beginning of a necessary and critical conversation about the future of the country in the Shift Age and, longer term, in the 21st century.
Twenty years ago the United States "won" the Cold War. Twelve years ago the country was attacked by Al Qaeda. This prompted the country to enter two wars in Islamic countries. It is not clear that the United States have won these wars, as the definition of winning is unclear. What we do know is that we have been "fighting the war on terrorism" for most of this century.
There are two realities that America is wrestling with today that may be accelerated by the civil war in Syria. The first is that we have yet to fully redefine what it means to be the single most powerful country in the world. America has become an empire, a democratic 21st century empire. This makes us both uneasy and proud. The narrow and destructive manifestation of this power is becoming the policeman of the world. We manifest this by the largely unilateral wars we have plunged into in this century. That is far too narrow a definition and utilization of our empire-like power. This is a residual of the Cold War mentality of power. This is the geopolitical issue we face.
The second reality affected by the civil war in Syria is that American citizens have been overwhelmingly clear that they do not want another military engagement in the Arab Middle East. We are not just war weary, we are concerned about all the problems within our borders and the need to address them, and spend money on them rather than another military adventure abroad. On this the people have spoken loudly and clearly to our elected officials in Washington D.C. This is the domestic rebuilding issue we face; doing what is necessary to remain a great country and not a country in decline.
So the geopolitical opportunity today is to find a way to be the empire we are without being simply the military policeman. We will need to find ways to lead and influence a world into peaceful integration without thinking of military options first. We have multiple areas of global dominance other than our military. Our economy drives the global economy. Our culture influences countries around the world. Our technologies and innovation lead the world into this new century. We have incredible influence in the world today. We must find a way to stand tall but not stand alone, to influence and even manipulate strategically in ways that merge global humanity with national interests.
This is at the essence of the Shift Age and of this century because in this global stage of human evolution, the nation state is giving way to ever more global integration.
As the empire at this time of history, the United States must, as a nation, lead the world into this new stage of global reality.
On the home front it is time to reinvest in American infrastructure, not those of Afghanistan, Iraq or even Syria. As a country, America is at a critical juncture when our infrastructure, our education systems, our incredible opportunities in manufacturing, the reality of a total failure in the war on drugs, and our ever more racially and culturally diverse culture need attention. This attention must come with new, fresh ideas and not dealt with through the legacy thought from the 20th century that still pervades today.
A few years ago, during the Great Recession, I was constantly asked about America's future in the face of a China in resurgence and the outsourcing of jobs to India. The general tenor was around whether we will remain a great nation into this century and age. As I have written over the past two years, China is facing major problems as is India, Russia and Brazil. I have written about the Eurozone being a non-growth zone for most of this decade. There is no country, or region that has the power and influence of the United States today.
So, now is the time to define what being the global power, the empire of the world is at this time, both globally and domestically. We must both lead the world into the global future of this century and reinvigorate across the board domestically. It feels like the current crises of the Middle East is an opportunity to thread the needle globally and to bring all our national intelligence, wealth and ingenuity back to a domestic focus to create a new America.
People often ask me about what books I read. I sense that they expect some kind of unique or weird answer from a futurist. In addition to this question I am often given books or names of books to read, usually books that have transformed the life of that person. So I often seem to be in book conversations.
So here is a list of recent reads that I have greatly enjoyed. In a future column I will list some older favorites that stand the test of time, even for a futurist.
"The Unwinding: A Inner History of the New America" by George Packer is a brilliant book. It is beautifully written and uniquely structured. It is perhaps the best, most human book I have read about the unraveling of American Democracy and the profound changes that have occurred in the last 30 years. A great story teller with an eye for telling details, Packer writes with compassion about how much of America has been hollowed out by Wall Street and globalism.
The Next Decade: Where We Have Been and Where We Are Going by George Friedman is a deeply thoughtful, high level look at how geopolitics will unfold between now and 2020. Friedman fills a gap for me as he is so strategically thoughtful about geopolitics. As those of you who have read my books or heard me speak know, I am much more focused on the big, technologically influenced future of humanity than in geopolitics. I would recommend anyone wanting to let go of the weeds of policy and politics and step up to some deeper, historically based analysis of how geopolitics may play out in the next ten year to pick this up.
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson. I often quote the famous saying from Gibson:"The future is here it is just not evenly distributed". Here is an author of fiction who coined the phrase "Cyberspace" in his first hugely successful novel "Neuromancer", who now is writing non-fiction. The fictional future he wrote about in the 1980s and 1990s is now here and is real. So it makes sense that he now writes non-fiction about the real world only imagined in his novels. This is a collection of essays by this great and future facing author. If you haven't read any of Gibson's fiction and you like science fiction you are in for a treat with almost any of his novels.
Two Books About the Younger Generations
Those who have heard me or read me know that I focus a good bit of attention on the two generations I call the Millennials and the Digital Natives. In my last book, "Entering the Shift Age" I call them the Shift Age generations. There are two books about these new generations I would highly recommend.
First is "Hooked Up: A New Generation's Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World" by Jack Myers. Jack is a long time friend and collaborator and someone I listen to carefully about the future of media and advertising. In this well researched book Jack takes a look at what he calls the "Internet Pioneers" the generation that is now in high school and college and how different and powerfully unique they are. This is the part of the Millennial generation born between 1991 and 1995. If you want to understand your children and your future customers this is a great read.
Second is "Disrupted: From Gen Y to iGen: Communicating with the Next Generation" by Stefan Pollack. I got to read this book in final draft PDF form as I wrote the foreword to this book. Pollack is a friend and a PR maven. In this book he looks at what he calls the iGen, the children born between 1994 and 2004. His focus is how differently they need to be communicated to. He focuses on how different the media and technology environments are perceived and used by these young people.
If you want to really dive deep into a better understanding of the generation(s) born since 1991, reading these two books is the best way to go.
Last year, when writing "Entering the Shift Age" any reading I did was related to the writing of that book, so I didn't allow myself the option of reading fiction. So this year I have read a number of novels with great pleasure. Here are three science fiction books I have enjoyed this year.
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner I first read this book in 1970, shortly after it came out. It had such an impact on me that I reread it this year. What is striking about reading it in 2013 is how prophetic it turned out to be in its view of Earth in this new millennium. Genetic mapping, an eviscerated Detroit, a mega-multinational corporation and even a President [admittedly of an African country] named Obomi. I read the newer version, with a foreword from Bruce Sterling, which triggered reading the next book.
Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling This was the first book of Sterling's that I have read. He is considered one of the great science fiction writers of the last 20 years, and I now understand why. This space adventure of fantastic human worlds in the future has a continuing theme of genetic and physical rebirth, allowing people to live for hundreds of years, again touching on an emerging trend of today. I intend to read more Sterling for sure.
"The Drowned World" by J.G. Ballard A reissued classic first published in 1962, this is an atmospheric future fiction novel about earth after significant global warming. The big cities of the world are under water, the equator is too hot for human habitation and nature has gone on a rapid evolutionary regression. Given the current situation of rising sea levels today, this is an extreme view of what might eventually occur. Again an author I intend to read more of in the future.
In a future column I will list some books that are classics and which gave me the impetus to become a futurist.