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The New Age of Enlightenment

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The New Age of Enlightenment

By Juan Kelly, Managing Director, Conister Bank

Freedom of thought - the last sanctuary of freedom. A powerful weapon. So powerful, in fact, that the supreme rulers of 17th and 18th century Europe, the monarchy, lived in fear of  the 'enlightened thinkers' of the time. Descartes, Kant, Voltaire and Newton, arguably, were the leading exponents of what became known as the Age of Enlightenment.  Indeed, monarchies across the continent had good reason to be wary of their influence because it pretty much brought an end to monarchistic rule across the continent.  In some cases, violently, as in the case of the French Revolution.

My assertion is that history is now repeating itself. We are entering a second Age of Enlightenment. The first one lasted 200 years. This one will last no more than 50 years, but will be even more profound than the first, in my view. I say this, because the key components of the Age of Enlightenment are here today: radical changes in thinking and the ability to share ideas.

There were two critical factors that allowed the Age of Enlightenment to reach critical mass and have such a cathartic impact.  The first was 'thought leadership'. The great thinkers of the time engaged in a new philosophy of thought, based around the concept of the individual being separate from the state or, as Kant put it, 'man's release from his self-incurred tutelage'. This may sound obvious to us now but, at the time, ruling monarchies asserted 'divine right' - that is to say, they were effectively appointed by God.

As for the sharing of ideas, in those days, this was done through one of the great places of social gathering - the coffee shops. The first one in England was established in 1650. Coffee shops not only became a place of discussion and debate, but also a distribution point for pamphlets and newsletters which played a key role in the dissemination of enlightened thinking

Furthermore, the role of the written word throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries also had a huge impact.  In terms of book production, between 1630 and 1790, the number of books published each year grew tenfold. This level of growth was almost a precursor to what we are experiencing now in modern social media. 

Today, the role of coffee shops has been replaced by social media.  Sites like Twitter, Facebook and Change can rapidly reach audiences of hundreds of millions.  Our ability not only to share, but also for two way communication, means that change can happen fast. Today's thought leaders are not restricted to a small group of intellectuals, as was the case during the enlightenment. Sites like TED provide a focal point for ideas and progressive thinking. 

As an example, contemporary thinking is beginning to adopt the idea that the current global model of growth is flawed.  The assertion being that this is unsustainable and has concentrated power in the hands of the few. Population growth, depletion of resources, corruption, planned obsolescence and political impotence are causing a growing number of people to question the status quo. This is particularly the case for the millennial generation who represent the immediate future. The New Age of Enlightenment will grow through them and will have profound and widespread implications that will spare no sacred cows – from the system of democracy, education, health care, the environment and even capitalism itself. They will all undergo change, in some cases seismically but, I believe, for the better overall.

The Age of Enlightenment brought us representative democracy. The New Age of Enlightenment will bring us direct democracy. For those that remain dismissive of such a notion, I would direct you towards the website is a powerful democratic tool. Anybody with access to the internet can start a petition at any time. No need to wait for the next Tynwald Day, with your petition clutched close to your chest to protect it from the driving rain.

More importantly, if you have a grievance, it can be easily shared and endorsed by others. In one of the best known examples, Bank of America decided, after being bailed out by the American public, to add a $5 fee for customers to use their bank card. A 22-year-old part-time nanny, with no history of complaining about anything in particular, started a petition that quickly grew to 300,000 signatures. Customers started to withdraw money in protest and the story was picked up by the media. After just one month of campaigning, Bank of America, withdrew the fee. launched in the UK in 2011 and with more than eight million users here, Britain is its second largest market. To date, a substantial total of 3.3 million Britons have signed a petition, whose goal was ultimately fulfilled. Even the EU, not necessarily known for its democratic credentials, is toying with the concept. The European Citizens’ Initiative allows one million EU citizens to participate directly in the development of EU policies, by calling on the European Commission to make a legislative proposal. See

We are also seeing government at a local level experimenting with digital democracy. For example, Paris and Madrid are empowering their residents by letting ratepayers vote (electronically, of course) on which projects should receive funding.

This level of empowerment has never been seen before because we've never been able to communicate effectively on a mass scale, until now.  Commentators often mistake low voter engagement for voter apathy. This is incorrect. The reality is a behavioural one.

However, we are now at the juncture of a fundamental paradigm shift from centralised control back to the true meaning of democracy - 'people power'. At first, it will happen by proxy, as we are seeing now with, twitterstorms or Facebook campaigns (remember the Toilet Tax campaign!) They will shape policy, either directly by correcting unwanted decisions, or indirectly as a moderator for  policy makers considering the potential reaction to  the formulation of policy.

There has never been a better time to be a citizen. We have more power than we have ever had. In this New Age of Enlightenment, let's use that power positively to make a difference.

In the words of Marcus Garvey: 'Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds'.

Cogito ergo sum.

Published - Money Media Article – October issue

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