Exploring our Zeitgeist: the Necessity of Responsible Innovation

In this column the importance of recognizing the collective responsibility we share and the tools, which we have to address challenges, will be briefly explored.

Industrial Revolution - kidskonnect.com
As an amateur student of history, I am entranced by the ways in which humans, as a society, get themselves into difficult situations and humans, often as individuals or small groups, find ways out of them or fail in doing so. From the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, to the European conquests, age of exploration, and enlightenment, each period has been marked by its own zeitgeist. Societies have either affected or been affected by great changes. Reflecting upon how the human condition changed at various critical points in time and how key events pushed humanity forwards or backwards, is paramount to anticipating future developments. Over the last century, we have seen change so dramatic, that our ancestors would not recognize our lifestyles. This momentum started with the industrial revolution, was strengthened during the engineering accomplishments driven by the necessities of the First and Second World Wars and brought home during the agricultural revolution in the ‘60s and the clash of ideals in the Cold War.

Inactive Mir Diamond Mine - citylab.com We now live in a world, in which every part of our lives relies both on technology, as well as on the work of others and in a society, which has been largely driven by consumerism here in the west. This focus on gathering more resources, refining them and making an ever-increasing amount of goods has created a Frankenstein monster in itself that we, being so close to it, rarely recognize. Damages to our planet and societies come from every direction: from factory farming, pesticide and herbicide overuse in agriculture, to over-crowded cities with huge income disparities, inefficient and wasteful transportation as well as destructive resource extraction methods. Good inventions, made in the previous century for previous century needs, have become so ubiquitous and have been applied at such a large scale in order to maximize perceived profits, that to questions them is akin to challenging the status quo. This over-industrialization and culture of excess and apathy have set humanity on a path of self-destruction: be it through global warming, resource conflicts or some other unforeseen catastrophe.

However, a revolutionary tool, which we have gained and honed over the last 20-25 years, is the internet, which will likely be the defining invention of our generation and marked as a turning point in history. It connects individuals from across the world, facilitating discussions at such speed and with such anonymity that great ideas quickly come to the forefront. Persons, who are empowered both locally and internationally, gain much from cultural exchange and a higher degree of critical thinking. Ideas about environmental protection and safety, originating from scientific and left-leaning parties in the 70s, are beginning to permeate the metaculture in myriad ways. People, all across the world, are beginning to feel culpable, empowered and perceptive of the challenges, which face us as a species.

Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant Seville, Spain - citylab.com Moreover, the current zeitgeist is defined by responsible and, more importantly, necessary innovation. We, as a species, are collectively responsible for a series of trolley games, complicated by the problem of many hands to such a degree that effective enforcement is difficult to employ, and if we make too many of the wrong decisions, we face the harsh reality of oblivion. Coercion and education seem to be the path forward if we do not wish to inhibit the freedoms our forefathers fought so hard to gain. A focus, not just on innovation, but responsible innovation, must be made to meet the challenges we have created for ourselves in this new millennium. In order to raise the required collective willpower, we must re-engineer governing structures so as to make what is individually rational, conflict less with what is collectively rational. To do so, we must learn from history, to see how people were convinced and set to purpose en masse (post World War 2 Europe), and learn to anticipate future needs, limitations and explore applied ethics (natural and social sciences).

Images sourced from kidskonnect.com and citylab.com