While our contemporary notion of the nation-state appears inadequate at managing polyglot societies, the opportunities for motivated individuals within those societies has never been better.
In this, my last column for the Cape Argus, I want to look at what we have gained over the last decade.
If the catalysts for the erosion of social integration are defined by automation and globalisation, then those for promoting individual empowerment can be defined as: knowledge and making.
When I set out to write my first novel back in 2013, it was with the absolute knowledge that I would have no choice but to self-publish.
Ten years ago that would have been a terrifying ordeal. Now there are an astonishing array of free online services teaching you how to do it, providing the software to do so, and hosting and managing sales transactions.
Sure, I got lucky and published by Penguin Random House, but the option was there. The same goes when, earlier this year, I decided to start a weekly video blog. The Coffee Conspiracies (as I call them) see me traipsing around various towns as I look at empty commercial properties and conducting a real-time due diligence to investigate whether those sites offer business opportunities.
All the software I use to record, edit and produce these videos are free. Even hosting on YouTube is free. In the unlikely event that these shows become popular, I can share in YouTube’s advertising revenue.
And there’s been an explosion of these opportunities.
Let’s start with knowledge.
Wikipedia will be the most familiar source of free knowledge, but you can get formal education qualifications free online. The Khan Academy teaches everything from basic literacy up to university. Coursera and Udacity host an ever-expanding range of universities.
Many of these are free services and you pay a small fee if you want to sit an exam and get a certificate.
But if all you want is to know how to do something, or learn a new language or do something new, then there are no end of ways to do this at no cost at all.
Then there’s making.
3D printing is still in its infancy, but entire businesses have been formed around making plastic toys or simple jewellery. But that’s the least of it.
Kickstarter and their clones have permitted individuals to raise funds from total strangers.
Low-cost manufacturing has reduced the entry cost for so many technical businesses. And if what you make is impossible to sell, you can raise funds via Patreon where people support artists and creators with monthly donations.
From Etsy to DeviantArt to Amazon, to the artisan bakery down the road from you, the world is becoming a chaotic, shouty, vibrant marketplace of people learning things and then making things.
It should be clear that these two trends are antagonistic.
The lower the cost of manufactured goods, thanks to automation and globalisation, the easier it is for highly-motivated individuals to produce more complex things and compete against established firms. The more established firms are destabilised, the more resentful some people become and the more strained become the relations that tie nations together.
There are two ways governments can try and regain legitimacy. Two choices which ordinary people must make.
The first is to yield to fear, to attempt a return to the “gilded age” of big factories and static social hierarchy where everyone knows, and has, their place. This will fail, or lead to war, or both.
The second is to embrace it and ensure access to all that knowledge is made available to all, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to explore what is best in themselves.
Over the past 10 years, I have been grateful for the opportunity to write for you. As I leave you now, I hope that you are aware of this choice, and that you choose hope.
Gavin Chait is a data engineer and development economist at Whythawk.