Seemingly intensifying troubles all over the globe—and just yesterday at the University of Missouri—produced the almost random thought this morning: global energy is rising—and it’s been going on for a while.
Behind that thought was the commonplace observation that uncontrolled, un-channeled energy almost always causes huge amounts of damage—as we know from tornadoes, earthquakes, and the like. Therefore what I’m observing across the world—be it in the middle-east, in Africa, and the Americas, not least a drum-beat of shootings, killings, and upheavals here—must be the consequence of extra energy.
But when I look at that, I noted that we’re in the gradual process of consuming what little is left now of global hydrocarbon energy. By all accounts we should see the Age of Oil end by the end of this century. So where does this new energy come from?
Next it occurred to me that this New Energy is not of the fossil kind—or the candidates to replace it. Rather that it is new human energy chaotically “doing work,” and mostly destructive work, outside the old-fashioned institutional systems of family, markets, education, and government. Can we actually see it? Yes. We see its tooling almost everywhere except in the pools of swimming pools. That tooling is the cell phone. People use it taking the dog for a walk, driving, waiting for the doctor, while shopping, just before falling asleep and first thing after waking and on the toilet.
The cell phone, to be sure, is but the most visible icon of very rapid communication between individuals; it rests on digital technology and systems developed for its exploitation, most centrally the many different kinds of social media enabling people to form ad-hoc group that, when moved by some strong emotion of idea, take on the character of an institution of the old-fashioned, regular kind like a government or an army.
The difference between what I’ve been calling “old-fashioned” institutions and these new ad-hoc groups is that institutions require major investment, employees, work space, routine missions, and central administration. The ad-hoc groups have no office buildings, payrolls, or, often, recognizable leaders; but, often, they can actually function almost without titular leadership altogether. Rapid communication can gel into consensus; action then follows quite spontaneously.
The various emotions or ideas that move these groups may be quite innocent—like entertainment; but when the emotions are rebellion or opposition, they can and do become quite effectively aggressive and take over (often violently, as is the case with ISIS) all traditional institutions and come to dominate entire regions. The earliest of these groups were called flash mobs and date to the early 2000s.
The energy comes from the concerting of individual actions—individuals whom, before the cyber revolution, it would have taken monumental efforts to recruit to coordinate if they were physically close. Such efforts once took significant time to accomplish and could be relatively easily disrupted. The cyber revolution annihilates both space and time—space by being able to coordinate people at great distances and time by doing it in hours or days rather than months or years. Open communications—on an unimaginable scale—make it almost impossible even to detect the formation and intensification of these groups until they have begun to act. There is also that first amendment guarantee of free speech and assembly to make action countering their destructive efforts difficult. At present this new energy looks like a permanent feature of modern life putting all sorts of institutions at risk. But stable institutions are necessary for order. It is order that has begun to yield—and will fill our media with chaos until a new order, after all kinds of transformations, once more takes hold.