A few days ago I

A few days ago I published links to what Tom Atlee called Revolutions in Science and Democracy, Part 1 and Part 2. Here is his response, Part 3:
Date: Mon, 25 Aug 2003 23:21:26 -0700
From: Tom Atlee
Subject: Part 3: Revolutions in Science and Democracy
Dear friends,
I have a habit of asking audiences how many of them think we’ll “make it” through this century without significantly more wisdom being applied in our collective decision-making. They respond with uncomfortable, attentive silence. Next I ask how many of them feel confident that our current democratic processes will generate the wisdom we need. Silence again.
The implications are clear. We have to change our democratic processes or we won’t make it through this century.
I have an initial suggestion for action at the end of this message. But first let me tell you why I think it is important.
There are many democratic innovations available to us. Some help heal and empower communities. Others make elections and governments more dependable. But the kind of democratic innovations I believe we need most are those that could help us deal wisely with powerful new technologies — or even just handle them with common sense.
When I say “powerful new technologies,” I’m talking about rapidly developing technologies like biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics and computer power. I’m particularly concerned about the likelihood that these four technologies will begin to merge with one another, generating possibilities — and catastrophes — that few ordinary citizens can even imagine.
So I chose this standard — this test of democratic innovations — mostly because I think our rapidly growing technological power will have more impact on whether we “make it” than any other factor. Such technological power could increase the potency of every other problem we face — terrorism, war, population, gross inequity and injustice, hunger, disease, exploitation, and the degradation of natural systems, cultures and ethics.
With these new technologies we are about to generate a quantum leap in the empowerment of human destructiveness. (See Bill Joy’s article.) This leap magnifies not only the potential destructiveness of nations and multinational organizations, but the destructive power of individuals and small groups, as well.
Significantly, this is happening at the same time that we are mass-producing enough suffering, resentment and fundamentalist backlash to motivate thousands of groups and individuals eager to gain and use that technological power.
It is not hard to extend this trend into the future. We can imagine cultures seriously disrupted by climate change or exploitive globalization producing ever-increasing numbers of disturbed individuals and groups highly motivated to use whatever technologies they can to disrupt countries and peoples they see as the source of their problems. And we can imagine powerholders and frightened populations struggling to harness the highest levels of technology they can to maintain control and enhance their relative status and “security.” In a context of rising crises and tantalyzing opportunities, one can imagine breakneck experimentation by elites and underdogs alike to gain more power, resulting in increasing technological risk-taking — just as corners are cut in biotechnology today for the sake of profit. In such a climate, we can imagine increasing chances for high-tech accidents, disasters and even global catastrophe.
It seems to me, personally, that all other issues pale in the face of this remarkably ignored development. This doesn’t mean we should swing the other way and ignore all other issues. Thankfully, the saving grace of this focus is that any democratic processes that could help us apply our collective common sense and community wisdom to complex technological issues like this would also likely help us address virtually every other significant issue we face. Technological controversies do provide us with tough, extreme cases on which to test the power of any particular democratic innovation.
It also seems clear to me that our business-as-usual quasi-democracy cannot possibly address this complex, terrifying, controversial class of problems. The technologies in question offer too many positive miracles — and the ever-ready rationale of more jobs (read “profits”) — with which to rouse the support of a public and a government largely ignorant of the dark sides. The current nanotechnology bill being rushed through the US Congress is a case in point (see below).
So we need to rethink democracy, itself. It seems clear to me (although certainly not to everyone) that we don’t have time to recreate our political and governmental systems from scratch. The approach that seems most real to me is to identify high-leverage modifications to our existing systems which offer a real possibility of dramatic improvement in our collective ability to address these issues wisely. The innovations we are looking for would likely be based on profoundly different assumptions than our current system.
One way I look at this is to consider three levels at which democracy operates.
The first level involves empowering citizens — and their associations — in relation to their government and other forms of concentrated power. Here we find elections, the Bill of Rights, issue campaigns, the courts, ballot initiatives, and most of the other trappings most people think of when they hear the word “democracy.”
The second level is a little more sophisticated, a little less commonly recognized as an aspect of democracy. It involves ways that the members of a community co-create their common affairs. Here we find volunteerism, stakeholder dialogues to bridge conflicts, community vision exercises, county fairs, community organizing, and any number of other activities that “build community.”
The third level — one seldom recognized at all — involves improving the capacity of a democratic system as a whole — a whole society or community — to produce intelligent and wise outcomes for the common good. Here we find
– efforts to set up information systems, scholarship, education and media so they provide society with the knowledge needed to understand “the big picture”;
– widespread citizen dialogue, deliberation and reflection — much of it official — with lots of good listening and creative engagement among different people and perspectives;
– a rich culture of art, performance, intuition, spirit — with lots of attention to noticing and co-creating wisely the stories we use to weave our shared lives;
– close attention to healthy feedback loops — especially feedback that helps the whole community or society learn from its collective experience, over and over, forever.
At the center of this vision of co-intelligent democracy, we find at least three kinds of deliberation:
1. Deliberation among partisans, stakeholders and other adversaries to transform their differences from community problems to community assets. Examples of this are watershed councils, future search conferences and consensus councils.
2. Deliberation among experts — both scientific and moral — to clarify areas of agreement and disagreement on specific issues. This is invaluable information for the public, officials and issue partisans. Examples include science courts, fact fora, and efforts by the Parliament of World Religions to create a Global Ethic.
3. Deliberation and reflection among citizens, informed as needed by experts and stakeholders, to apply their community’s values and their own collective common sense to the problems facing their community and society at large. Examples include Citizens Juries, citizen-based Consensus Conferences, and Wisdom Councils.
All these councils and conferences are formally, even officially convened to produce intellectual, social and moral capital for their communities, societies and the world. To do their jobs effectively, they need to be chartered — formally mandated by We the People — to serve the common good.
I believe that such chartered councils — especially the citizen-centered panels in the third category above — are key to navigating our way through the dangerous waters of technological development. Properly established and run, they invoke inclusive, highly visible, ongoing conversations in which conflicting views and information can be worked through and the informed creativity of diverse citizens can be brought to bear on these subjects — all guided by the values of We the People rather than by the profits of corporations, the curiosity and ambition of scientists, the campaign strategies of politicians, or the automatic dynamics of a dysfunctional and deadly System.
Surrounding these councils — in the healthy democracy we are called to co-create — we would find thousands of other less formal conversations among citizens, among researchers, among people in government and corporations, among community groups and nonprofits, all over the place. This sea of dialogue would sustain — and be sustained by — those specially selected and facilitated conversations in 1-3 above which we would use to advance the understanding and cohesion of our whole communities and societies.
Within such an collectively educational context, the problems of technology development — and all other problems — could be addressed with intelligence, common sense and wisdom. To the extent such innovations are supported, empowered, woven together and ultimately institutionalized, we could experience a new level of COLLECTIVE CAPACITY — a wise, savvy collective sanity. Such collective intelligence is a natural product of diversity used creatively, and of human intelligence allowed to reflect — over and over again, individually and collectively — on the outcomes of its thought, feeling and action.
We can build that capacity by putting it on the agenda of every group, every party, every candidate, every publication that claims to speak for the common good.
Just for a good start, you can call Senator Ron Wyden’s office
541 431 0229 Eugene
202 224 5244 Washington
503 326 7525 Portland
Ask for a staff person working on the Nanotechnology bill. Tell them you want strong language in that bill MANDATING frequent citizen panels and consensus conferences, in which randomly selected citizens learn about nanotechnology and interview experts, deliberate and then let businesses, government, media and the public know what research and development they think is safe, wise and desirable to pursue — and what research and development they want to hold off on. Tell them that none of us want the fiascos of nuclear technology and biotechnology where development raced ahead of what was wise, so that now businesses, governments and citizens face some real messes. If Senator Wyden wants to create sustainable jobs with nanotechnology, make sure they are jobs doing things that well-informed people want to have done. Senator Wyden has a good track record on listening to the people’s voice. He needs to apply that to nanotechnology.
If you are an American citizen, you can call your Senators and Congressperson (at 202-224-3121 you can ask for your Senators’ office numbers or visit Congress.org and tell them you’re really concerned about this and you want them to talk to Wyden’s office about it. You can also send them the recent Rachels articles. I just sent you. After all, “Senator George Allen (R-VA) [originator of the Senate nanotechnology bill] … made a key observation..: that no more than 5% of senators or their staffs [even] know what nanotechnology is.”
And so we come to this current crossroads. The House nanotechnology bill (H.R. 766, which passed the House by a wide margin: 405-19) recommended but did not mandate citizen panels. And the current Senate nanotechnology bill S. 189 — Wyden’s and Allen’s bill — doesn’t even mention citizen deliberation. The Senate bill is being prepared by Wyden’s office right now — without having been voted on by the Senate — for a House/Senate committee to come up with a combined bill that can be pushed through both houses of Congress shortly after they return to work in early September. Now is the time to make an important difference, a small but solid start to the kind of change I’ve suggested here.
And even as you focus on this detail, don’t forget the big picture.
May we succeed in this, and give future generations a chance at life on earth.

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