In 1958, a young British author achieved overnight fame with his satirical writing “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. He had correctly identified a trend of the times. Basically, this trend was not particularly new; it had begun in the 18th century, when using their knowledge and skills commoners conquered more and more of those prestigious places that had until then fallen to the nobility due to the privileges of birth. But after 1945, at the end of the fratricidal Thirty Years’ War, the world lay in ruins and knowledge and skill were in particularly high demand. Overnight, as it were, outstanding talent was able to achieve the greatest impact and wealth – most visibly in the United States, where world-dominating companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, etc. were launched by individual pioneers and quickly attained the status of global corporations. Elon Musk, a technical all-round genius who has been just as imaginative and successful in the field of communications technology as he has been in car manufacturing, the space industry and brain research, became a symbol of such superior personal ability. People like him are universally admired, because no one can deny that they owe their fame, rank and wealth primarily to their own above-average skills.
Why did Michael Young write his book “The Rise of the Meritocracy”
as a satire rather than a paean to the most capable men of his time? Will anyone seriously take offense at the fact that the privileges of birth have finally been replaced by individual ability?
Perhaps they will, the argument referring to justice being indeed much more complex. For, are we not, after all, again dealing with a privilege of birth when a Mozart, Beethoven or Bach is born with extraordinary talent for music or an Elon Musk with a special talent for technology? Admittedly, this privilege was not bestowed upon them by society, as is the case with princely or royal titles. In this case, it is nature itself that is responsible – depending on one’s inclination, one may imagine nature to be represented by evolution or God.
Is it acceptable from a point of justice – we may well ask ourselves – that people are born with different talents? Even those who do not want to ask this question are still confronted with the problem whether to give society the right to grant additional awards and rewards to those who are already at an advantage over their fellow human beings due to innate talent? Society thereby only exacerbates existing natural differences.
Obviously, such questions are difficult to answer,
especially since social differences additionally contribute to offering natural talents very different development opportunities. As Pisa studies have shown, even in Germany children from the middle class have a much better chance of finding well-paid jobs than those from lower social strata. The financial situation of ones parents – once again the fortuitous result of birth – thus plays a decisive role in the prospects and happiness of a person’s life. Michael Young had his reasons for being skeptical about the rise of the most capable.
In a departure from Young, I would, however, like to examine meritocracy
from a different perspective. I assume that an overwhelming majority of contemporaries think it is perfectly good and right that people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk have global influence and power because they made a name for themselves through spectacular inventions. In contrast, they have for about three centuries fundamentally rejected being ruled by princes, barons, rajahs, sultans, kings and dictators whose only merit is their descent from high-born parents. If we take this acceptance of meritocracy for granted, we are, nevertheless, left with an extremely interesting and, as we shall see, very troubling question: what will be the future social order emerging on such a basis?
A look at the billions all over the world,
who devote a substantial share of their life time to the cell phones in their hands, makes it easier to get to grips with our problem. Ninety-nine percent know how to use the device. Less than one percent know why and how it works, and an infinitesimally small fraction of the latter would be able to redevelop the device if it suddenly disappeared due to some catastrophe.
This contrast between an overwhelming majority of ignorant users and a vanishing minority of experts deepens with each passing day – and it does so in an inescapable way, because technological progress means nothing else but growing complexity – knowledge and skill being increasingly and infinitely widened and deepened. The consequences for society will be radical and can easily be foreseen.
In the future, a decreasing number of people
will still be capable of understanding complex technologies. This is unavoidable as the demands on the technical intelligence of researchers and engineers are increasing as knowledge deepens. It is true that subjects are becoming more and more divided, but each subject is getting a broader base and at the same time the knowledge pyramid is reaching higher. This process of increasing complexity of knowledge is in the nature of things and therefore inevitable. Accordingly, the demands on human intelligence become higher and higher, while the Gaussian normal distribution of intelligence within the population is a constant, changing at most slightly in the course of centuries.
The inevitable consequence is worldwide headhunting,
where those countries are at an advantage that either have the greatest potential of a well-trained population (e.g. Japan, South Korea, China) or the greatest financial means to lure talent from all over the world with high salaries (e.g. USA and other Western countries). At the present day, there is a general competition for the funds of investors and for the technologically trained intelligentsia all over the world. The pool of talent that can be drawn from is now expanding to include all of Asia and soon Africa as well.
But globalization only temporarily alleviates the pressure to tap ever greater intelligence potential. The Gaussian normal distribution of intelligence and the demands due to rising technological complexity contradict each other. And this will have a consequence that will change the structure of future society in a profound way. What we already observe at present will deepen dramatically in the future: the gap between a majority that passively enjoys the fruits of technological complexity on the one hand, and on the other, technical geniuses like Elon Musk and his ilk, who invent, plan and understand what they are dealing with. Headhunting for above-average intelligence will inevitably be accompanied by growing inequality of social recognition and reward.
The loss of a common language
The masters and geniuses of technology and science have less and less in common with their fellow human beings. An astrophysicist, a neurological expert or a drosophila researcher each live in their own bubbles of highly specialized knowledge. The astrophysicist can really communicate only with other astrophysicists, be it in China or in the USA, it is merely the coincidence of birth that still connects him with his compatriots. The natural sciences have created a type of human being for whom national and cultural affiliation plays no more than a subordinate role, because the laws of nature, to whose knowledge he devotes his life, exist independently of national and cultural borders.
This is tantamount to a loss of meaning
The modern natural sciences that emerged in the 17th century created, for the first time in history, a social class that is allowed to act in a socially meaningless way. Until then, this freedom had nowhere existed in any human society. Among hunter-gatherers, the meaning of daily actions was as directly prescribed to the few members of the horde as is the role of each animal in a pack of lions while they are hunting. In later agrarian societies after the Neolithic Revolution, the actions of each social class were visibly related to the good of the whole. The farmer had to feed everyone, the nobility had to provide defense, the clergy had to explain the world, and the artisans were responsible for keeping the material framework of society in repair.
Today there are countless professions,
whose designation alone is exotic so that their purpose has to be circumstantially explained to the average citizen in order for him to grasp their meaning, e.g. drosophila researcher, ocularist, industrial climber, to name but a few from a steadily growing plethora of examples. But the most exotic professions come about as a result of the broader and broader research foci within the natural sciences. Only in the case of medical research, is their meaning immediately comprehensible to the layman. A doctor may be a specialist in researching a particular drug for the cure of an equally particular organ of the human body, but the meaning of what he does remains evident: he cures people.
On the other hand, the meaning of our knowledge
about the structure of atoms or galaxies is not obvious at all. Until recently, mankind knew nothing about black holes, red giants, protons and electrons, and yet it has existed on this planet for more than a million years. Whether we can count on a further period of this length, indeed, whether we can count on even the next hundred years, is by no means settled. The reason for this uncertainty lies exactly in the fact that we have abandoned the question of meaning. For quite some time meaning did not seem to matter at all, because the industrial revolution and ist main agent, technological meritocracy, produced an unbelievable upswing in living conditions and for many people they still do so today. That is why the research that made this process possible in the first place was generally credited as being “good” and highly “meaningful”.
The industrial revolution, recently also called Anthropocene,
has undoubtedly brought about the most profound of all upheavals in human history. As recently as the last century, a question about its meaning seemed simply superfluous. A growing number of people worldwide gained access to greater material well-being. In the states of the West, this goal was realized to such a high degree in the second half of the twentieth century that some could afford the luxury of rejecting the goal itself as “materialistic” and asking for higher goals. But wherever people still live in terrible poverty, that is, in large parts of Asia, in Africa or South America there is no room for such doubts. There, people follow the example of China. First, they want to achieve the Western standard of living, and later they may afford themselves the luxury of striving for something higher – for the time being, the striving for material prosperity exhausts the range of meaning.
But what, if meaning turns into nonsense?
The Industrial Revolution has made the Anthropocene possible, in other words, the unrestricted domination of the planet by human beings. The exploitation of all available resources, especially fossil energy, has so increased the food supply that Homo sapiens has increased its numbers more than sevenfold in a mere blink of history. The consequences are mega-metropolises that turn entire landscapes into deserts of concrete, with more and more space beyond those cities needed for the production of food so that it too must be used as a kind of agrarian desert where other species are reduced to a minimum. The best-known example is the Amazon rainforests transformed into fields for growing soy. However, the same process started much earlier in a prosperous country like Germany. Here, natural forests have predominantly given way to spruce plantations, where trees are planted in military order lined up like tin soldiers.
Obviously, acquiring wealth becomes meaningless when a manifold increase in population thwarts the increase in global per capita wealth and when, at the same time, the resources needed for local wealth increase are largely consumed by the generation currently living, so that future generations will have to be content with a devastated and exhausted globe.
Unfortunately, a word like “devastated” is anything but an exaggeration. We are poisoning the air with the climate poison CO2, we are poisoning the oceans with plastic and thousands of other industrial products, we are reducing the yield and usable area of the soil with garbage and the addition of artificial nutrients that destroy the humus. Recently, we are even littering the ionosphere as ubiquitous space debris becomes a threat to future space travel.
Technical knowledge and research are not “value-neutral”,
as often claimed, they are forces which, on the contrary, exert a direct influence on our values. It is our immensely increased knowledge, it is technological meritocracy that, in the past three hundred years, have transformed the world so comprehensively that the question of meaning has become the most urgent of all.
Meaning not only threatens to turn into nonsense but into madness,
once our knowledge not only deepens the social divide between technical laymen and experts, but its misuse finally becomes a threat to all mankind. Regardless of whether a researcher develops a drug that helps millions to survive, or whether he explores the physical prerequisites for a new, even more efficient bomb, or the chemical basis for an even more effective nerve poison – in all cases he is sure to win the Nobel Prize if his research represents a breakthrough in his respective field. Knowing nature and its laws better and better has generally been judged and appreciated as meaningful for three centuries, although it is precisely this knowledge that enables mankind to extinguish itself for the first time.
The question of meaning was put aside,
as if knowledge and research were always and essentially good, even if they equip us with more and more effective instruments of self-destruction. Man has, so to speak, divided himself into two halves: to the knowing and researching spirit he ascribes innocence, the acting man alone is supposed to bear responsibility. Thus, it comes that all larger states employ thousands of researchers with the production of weapons of mass destruction, the researchers themselves, however, decline all responsibility. What others do with their knowledge is none of their business.
Not everyone thought that way. In a few cases, it is a great researcher himself who sees through the fatal irresponsibility.
Albert Einstein contributed substantially to the development of the final bomb. At the end of his life, however, he wondered about the meaning of what he had been doing. He saw no other way out to cope with the new threat than putting a definite end to the global race for greater economic and military power. But this would require the final step toward a united world. Only a world government would have the possibility to really prevent this race towards the abyss. It may be added that only such a world-uniting power would be able to put a stop to the progressive desolation and destruction of the planet.
Any not well-disposed reader is likely to protest
at this point at the latest. Why, Mr. Jenner, do you end a not entirely uninteresting essay with such unrealistic proposals? Your readers have to fight against Corona and unemployment, the economy as a whole against decline and enormous debts, but you talk about the necessity of a world government, which is of no interest to any of us if only because nobody has the possibility to bring it about by his own actions!
That’s right! All I can say is that this is precisely the tragedy and danger of our current situation. A meritocracy of the technologically most powerful has been wreaking havoc on nature for three hundred years – and with increasing speed and efficiency. It works on behalf of superpowers whose end-time weapons it increases in scale and lethal perfection with every passing year. Actually, it should be obvious to everyone that the dangers involved are infinitely greater than Corona, unemployment and swelling debt. Nevertheless, the abyss towards which we are heading by the destruction of nature and the perfection of end-time weapons hardly seems to be of general interest – as if it were no more than the invention of malicious imagination. Should we really leave our fate to a meritocracy that to this day does not ask itself the question about the meaning, nonsense and madness of its actions?