Desperately Seeking Metaphors for Global Civics

Less than one week ago, heads of state from 195 countries passed the Paris Agreement – a legally binding international agreement on climate – with the aim of limiting the global temperature rise to below 2°C. This agreement represents, quite possible, the world’s best answer to the most widespread global challenge we face in this century. Global warming renders national borders meaningless, as world leaders recognize our shared destiny and collective responsibility towards the environment. Many of today’s most pressing challenges – climate change, food and water scarcity, the spread of biological disease, wealth inequality, and religious extremism – are transnational in scale and require transnational solutions. Enter global civics.

Global civics encompasses the concepts of innate human rights, responsibilities to and of the world’s citizens, collective action problems, and globalization. Global civics represents an ethical code of conduct – a universal treatise – that governs citizens’ behavior towards each other in our increasingly interdependent world. Technology has allowed for connectivity across our education, health, environment, media, housing, finances, and careers. Whether or not we choose it, our lives are shaped by international systems and by people seemingly unlike us in countries we have never been to. A community is no longer defined solely by the nationality, language, religion, or history of its inhabitants.

As with many complicated topics, drawing comparisons to other, easier-to-understand concepts can be a valuable exercise. So, I have laid out several metaphors that I found to be useful in explaining and understanding the complex notions behind global civics.

One useful metaphor compares swarm logic with collective intelligence. Swarms result when a species, such as birds, fish, or bees, form self-organizing systems, that act or react collectively. Swarm logic refers to the process by which many otherwise directionless entities can work together to produce intelligent, coordinated action. While one ant might get lost returning to its colony alone, many acting together can create complex routes that return them safely and efficiently.

Many of today’s smart technologies try to mimic swarm logic, often using mass data collection and integration. The aptly named Internet of Things – objects embedded with software to exchange information and produce automatic, remote responses – makes use of the theory of swarm logic. Systems that are programmed to not only automatically respond to incoming data but also to instantaneously adapt to it are becoming increasingly in demand. Much like a swarm of bees or fish can react to externalities organically and in unison, machine learning allows our systems to react to user input to improve performance, predictability, or productivity. Energy firms, for example, have harnessed swarm logic in their air conditioning and heating units to increase energy efficiency and save money . City developers are beginning to utilize the benefits of large-scale synchronization in their housing, environment, transportation, and crime management systems. The city of Songdo, an entire city in development along South Korea’s coast, is being built as a smart city with highly integrated water, sanitation, and transportation systems .

At a broader scale, businesses use collective intelligence to better sell their products, while consumers use it to share reviews of goods and services. It is even used to help generate solutions to large-scale challenges, like The Climate CoLab at MIT which crowdsourced solutions to climate change, The Cairo Transport App Challenge to find solutions to Cairo’s transportation problems, and Zooniverse’s projects to label spatial images.

There is no doubt that the Internet and technology play a huge role in our connectivity and interdependence. The Internet is formless and ethereal, and many metaphors already exist to help us conceptualize it, even if they aren’t necessarily accurate. The terms the Web, the information superhighway, cyberspace, the Global Brain, and the Cloud were socialized (and, oftentimes, politicized) to describe the Internet. When we say the Web, we envision literal linkages occuring when a user stumbles upon a new webpage, just like the word cyberspace evokes a vast, unfettered domain – a dangerous wild west open to the public, hackers, trolls, even your own mother. The Cloud, on the other hand, evokes safety, that our data is gathering in the sky above us, ready to fall like a heavy rain if and when we need it.

Data is obviously not stored in a space above us, just as the Internet is not a literal ever-expanding net. As technology increasingly becomes integrated into our daily lives, the term cyberspace is no longer inclusive enough to describe network communication. Our infrastructure, shelters, commute, and environment will also comprise what was traditionally cyberspace. Information technology is moving increasingly from traditional automation to machine learning, often to increase speed of efficiency or lower cost.

As our networks become increasingly integrated, they will be able to process and synthesize large amounts of different types of data to better understand the movements, behaviors, and patterns of our humans and our ecosystems. Through data collection, we have been able to map communications, immigration, travel, health and disease, resource use, supply chains, spending habits, terrorist attacks, cybersecurity threats, social media use, and environmental occurrences, among others, to recognize patterns, find system weaknesses, and identify areas for improvement. The images of these connections often resemble complex webs showing impact at a global scale.

So, we come to the next metaphor comparing human consciousness to data visualizations. The Portuguese visual information designer Manuel Lima believes that, as our intelligence has expanded, so must the way we display and digest data. For example, Lima uses the example of a hierarchical structure once being the predominant way to display data (think a family tree or organizational chart). Now, he says, this tiered structure has given way to that of a web, where elements have much more irregular relationships. Lima shows how our social connections, neural pathways, and food systems resemble a complex network, not the one-to-one relationship we might have originally believed (think grass to grasshopper to snake to hawk vs. or operator to manager to director to CEO).

Lima’s use of networks as a representation for our expanding intelligence can be applied to the idea that through cooperation, rather than competition, we can tackle major challenges and achieve longterm solutions. We know that the increased economic development of one country can strengthen the global economy, just as the depletion of one country’s resource can affect many businesses, or one weak border can make all countries susceptible to biological disease and security threats. Our analogy also works to make the case for free trade, open immigration, online education, and freedom of communication. These global public goods, if accessible to many, can lead to an increase in standard of living, social and religious tolerance, technological discoveries, and innovation.

The development of cartography, or map-making, provides one interesting lens with which to view human intelligence. Early known maps from Babylonia and Ancient Greece depicted stars, mountains, valleys, water bodies, and other geological structures. As our knowledge advanced and the spherical conception of the Earth arose, we began infusing maps with mathematics, creating a scale, coordinate system, lines of longitude and latitude, and relief and contouring. Our locational accuracy was increased with the use of the compass and telescope.

The late 1700s saw the first use of maps to track the growth of an occurrence (the spread of a fire across a city). In the mid-1800s, John Snow famously tracked the emergence of cholera in London, leading to the discovery that the disease spread through contaminated water, not air. Today, satellites and aerial imagery can provide round-the-clock data and images, which information systems read, monitor, and record. These maps no longer only depict geography, migration, consumption, environmental occurrences, or economic and security risk, they predict them.

We should not think of networks, however, as models we have begun to use to understand data. Rather, we should think of networks as ageless systems we have only begun to understand. Networks have existed in the environment long before software and the Internet allowed man to artificially create them. This philosophy is known as biomimetics. Biomimetics is mimicing natural processes, like mutually beneficial relationships or feedback mechanisms, to solve human challenges. From plants that produce a fungus to warn other plants of insect infestations to the symbiotic relationships between multiple species – sea anemones and hermit crabs or African oxpeckers and zebras – nature has long understood the value of interconnection and collective action to conservation, stability, and security.

I hope these metaphors have given some food for thought. Global civics encompasses the notions of inalienable rights for all, mutual responsibilities toward the world’s citizens, species, and environment, our increasing interdependency and connectivity, technology’s role in global movements and shared experiences, and largescale international cooperation to solve our greatest challenges. These are complicated ideas that warrant dissection, and, as we make sense of the Paris Agreeement in the coming weeks, we should consider other metaphors that advance our understanding of a global civics.

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Tags: action, and, civics, collective, global, responsibilities, rights

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Comment by Al LeBlanc on December 22, 2015 at 6:37pm

Most interesting examples of metaphors; swarming, the cloud, networks/neural networks. Metaphors provide for inspirations for brainstorming and  new ideas.  I have been using the complex systems- chaos theory- butterfly effect model for my #cyberpeacefare blog.(Search GEN #cyberpeacefare #complex systems. Thanks for creating and sharing !  Merry Christmas 

Comment by Valentine Olushola Oyedipe on December 17, 2015 at 6:58am

Yes ! This is food for thought all world citizens Anna ! Great metaphorical illustration and exposition.Solutions to our challenges can be found if we can key into systems logic that we have only began to understand.However, and very crucial at the moment, is to take the bull by the horns as in civic responsibilities to one another and the environment.

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