I’m starting to wonder if the era of super-big problems is over. Wars are trending smaller. Economic meltdowns aren’t quite so deep or lasting. Israel has become so skilled at managing its local threats that a peace treaty would feel like a step backwards. The Gates Foundation is chipping away at malaria. The technology to create and deliver food where it’s needed is better than ever. New energy sources are popping up daily.
Generally speaking, the world’s biggest problems have shifted from the right-now type to the pending doom type. Climate change might end us all someday. A meteor might head our way. The global economy might disintegrate because of (insert reason). Iran might build a nuke and use it. Immigration problems might evolve from a nuisance to a huge problem. Pipelines might burst and pollute stuff. Demographics might make us a world full of senile oldsters. And so on.
There’s a lot of scary stuff in the “might” category. Luckily, the Adams Theory of Slow-Moving Disasters predicts that any problem the world sees coming gets solved. We humans are surprisingly competent when we focus.
The great thing about the connected world is that we can see problems developing early enough to head them off. We can monitor climate change over time. We can detect terror plots before they are executed. We can identify financial bubbles early. We can alter lifestyle to ward off predictable future health problems.
A huge advantage of the connected world is that we can study what one government does to address a given problem and then steal those best practices. We could be a lot better at doing that, but the trend seems clear enough.
1. We now have the means to predict most problems well in advance.
2. We can borrow best practices from anywhere in the world.
3. Modern technology provides immense problem-solving tools.
Now that civilization has the ability to identify problems early, and the ability to research and borrow best practices to solve those problems, the weak link is government. Our current forms of government – at least the democracies – are poorly designed for data-driven decisions. Dogma, superstition, money, and reelection concerns will always trump data.
I don’t think there’s a realistic hope of reengineering the basic forms of our elected governments anytime soon. Perhaps we need an independent group of scientists and engineers to identify trending national problems, rank them for importance, and identify best practices from other places. The entrenched political parties will of course ignore data and best practices as they always have. But perhaps the existence of well-publicized best practices will encourage future candidates to run on platforms of data over dogma.
I would feel most comfortable if the scientists and engineers in this independent group were atheists who don’t vote and aren’t strongly aligned with any political party – sort of like having eunuchs guard the harem.