Your lack of optimism regarding the “power of the people” is warranted, given the current state of affairs in the world along with the historic trends clearly visible to us. However, keep this in perspective: we’ve never been a well-informed society.
When you live inside of a pseudo-empire where those who directly effect the course of our civilization (whether city, state, province, or country) are more concerned with short-term gain rather than long-term survival and innovative longevity, the outcome is not unpredictable, but actually very predictable. The laws of nature do not care what color of political party this or that human being associates themselves with.
Carl Sagan waxed philosophical (as always) in this excerpt from 'Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space' which reinforces what I just said:
"We seem compelled to project our own nature onto Nature.
"Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy [of] the interposition of a deity," Darwin wrote telegraphically in his notebook. "More humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals."
We’re Johnny-come-latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. And on top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.
The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand?
We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage.
We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop.
Our commonsense intuitions can be mistaken. Our preferences don’t count. We do not live in a privileged reference frame.
If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”
Richard Feynman’s statement ”The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool,” is something we, as a collective species, must take very seriously.
When a scientifically illiterate person looks at an apple and they’re asked to describe what they see, “one apple,” may be held as a correct answer. But that answer is just that - a response - not a description. It tells you nothing whatsoever about the apple. The same could be said when looking at “a single person” or even “a single planet.”
When you multiply these types of bland responses across a wide spectrum of people amongst a population, it’s becomes quite clear that, again, as Carl Sagan asserted, “we’ve arranged a society based on science and technology in which nobody understands science and technology; and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces.”
There’s more than just “one” apple, person, or planet. It’s a complex arrangement of atomic and molecular properties all bound together by laws of nature which must be understood in order to solve similarly complex problems.
Now, take this example and turn it around to the address the pessimism you and and others rightly have regarding corporations and governments, which are one in the same, as far as I’m concerned.
Carl continues: "Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it? Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe, with a fine understanding of human fallibility."
I share the pessimism and cynicism you feel, very often. But just as it’s been said that “you can’t see the forest through the trees,” we must remember that we truly are amidst the forest right now.
I’m much more optimistic about the future than in any other time in my life. I’ve shared this before, but in case you missed it, I encourage you to watch Peter Diamandis’ TED talks and learn more about this man. He’s one of many people in our world who are actively working to encourage the pursuit of STEAM, launch society toward the next evolutionary phase as a spacefaring civilization, illuminate the importance of exponential technology (which includes robotics, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, big data, synthetic biology), and incentivize innovation toward literally changing the world.
His book with Steven Kotler, ‘Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think’ is a must read, and his interviews and presentations around the world that further extend the topics present in his book are inspiring and enlightening to say the least. He’s not just a visionary, he’s actively leading the way in doing what governments and big corporations have only been capable of. Visit his website to learn more.
Why is he important? Let’s just say children of this and upcoming generations will know him by name (especially considering he is the founder of Singularity University, whose mission statement and educational platform is literally to change the world by solving the grand challenges of our time) and he will go down in history as someone who spurred what he refers to as "evolution by intelligent direction."
The reason I bring up Peter Diamandis is because no one in our time (since Carl Sagan) has most effectively conveyed how far we’ve come, where we are, and where we’re headed. One of the major aspects of our society we must keep in mind is that the main source of information about “what’s going on in the world” has been the news/mainstream media. The internet is not just a place anymore, however, it’s a means of actively disrupting the way we’ve traditionally approached problem solving, and one of those major problems we’ve faced has been the accurate relay of important, world-impacting information to the public.
The internet is disrupting how people have been held back from realizing their own strengths and abilities to invoke change, understanding human (let alone Earth life) history, education regarding the pillars of progress (Science Technology Engineering Art Math), and being alerted to the ways politics and religion have swayed the general public away from critically thinking, alongside the true priorities of our time with a firm understanding of the reality we live, and our place in the universe.
Peter Diamandis brings up a point which I’ve only heard physicist Lawrence Krauss mention. Krauss states, "we evolved as human beings a few million years ago on the savannah in Africa to escape tigers, or lions, or predators. So, what makes sense to us, is the world on our scale…how to throw a rock or a spear, or how to find a cave, and we didn’t evolve to understand quantum mechanics. And, therefore, it’s not too surprising that on scales vastly different than the kind of experience we had as we were evolving as a species, nature seems strange and sometimes almost unfathomable, certainly violating our common sense…our sense of what is common sense and what’s intuition. But as I like to say, the universe doesn’t care about our common sense. We have to force our ideas to conform to the evidence of reality rather than the other way around. And if reality seems strange, that’s okay. In fact, that’s what makes science so wonderful; it expands our minds because it forces us to accept possibilities, which, in advance, we may never of thought was possible."
Peter Diamandis reminds us that when we were evolving on those savannahs, our preferences and priorities were much different. We were growing up in environments where our survival depended on being aware of immediate dangers: threats to our family, our tribe, our civilization, our way of life, and ultimately, our survival. Whether it be changes in weather/climate which influenced where we would be able to obtain food, store supplies, or migrate at a moment’s notice, our preferences were geared to negative influences.
We carry this type of negative preferential bias still, thanks to our evolutionary inheritance. The “news” - as we are all well aware - is not actually “new”, nor is it of immediate importance in terms of the information being relayed to us and the “breaking stories” we’re being told are imperative regarding our day-to-day lives.
The internet is certainly breaking it up and has helped us to filter out what we need to know from what we don’t, but we must remind ourselves that we still live in a society where the predominant majority turns to these traditional sources to obtain their information about their world, whether it be the world on a scale of towns/cities, regions, countries, or the global community at large.
That’s a very big point. An entire population can be convinced to "feel hopeless"…whereby, as you said, "nothing can be done by the average person." This thinking is wrong. It’s not unwarranted, but it is most definitely wrong.
When confronted with this kind of pessimism that I once shared, I encourage others to realize that, as simplistic as this sounds, "anything unsustainable cannot be sustained." An oxymoronic statement, certainly, but it’s true. Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman encouraged many to view Earth from the perspective of an extra-terrestrial Martian observer, looking upon our civilization. What kind of opinion would they have of us? What merits toward our stewardship of our planet would be attributed to our species?
In lieu of today being Thomas Jefferson Day, Carl Sagan waxes philosophical once again, "If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true - to be skeptical of those in authority - then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along…it’s a thing that Jefferson lay great stress on. It wasn’t enough, he said, to enshrine some rights in a constitution or bill of rights…the people had to be educated, and they had to practice their skepticism and their education, otherwise, we don’t run the government, the government runs us."
And that, right there, is what this all comes down to: education. Period.
We’re moving at an insanely fast pace in terms of our technological achievement and we’re in the midst of a transition which will supersede all other eras of time throughout history. As I said before, we have never experienced a life living amidst a well-informed society, but we will, in this generation or the next, it’s inevitable.
The way people are being educated and able to educate themselves is speeding forward in a near-unpredictable outcome (as long as we don’t wipe ourselves out first, or give nature the opportunity), and it’s a brilliantly hopeful thing to witness and to be a part of.
Once we are moving in lockstep with the way in which we must educate to continually produce and innovate, our civilization will no longer look back on these times as “what not to do”, but instead, will be ever looking forward, asking “what can we do next?”