The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks opens with author Joshua Ramo discussing time he spent with Chinese spiritual leader Nan Huai-Chin. Master Nan’s diagnoses of the great problems of the past serve as a basis for understanding the modern challenge Ramo explores.
“In the nineteenth century the biggest threat to humanity was pneumonia,” [Nan] continued. “In the twentieth century it was cancer. The illness that will mark our era, and particularly the start of the twenty-first century, is insanity. Or, we can say, spiritual disease…Politics, military, economics, education, culture, and medicine–all these will be affected.”
Some 125 years ago. Nietzsche spoke of the need for a “Sixth Sense” to understand and navigate the onslaught that was the Industrial Revolution. For Nietzsche, a deep understanding of history was necessary to realize the full scope of the coming new world order. As two world wars would later reveal, few people heeded his pleas and much of the worst forecasted by Nietzsche came to be. For Joshua Ramo, we live at a similar moment and one that calls for an updated Seventh Sense. While Nietzsche told us about large-scale industrialization and the coming clash of shifting world powers, Ramo contends that public confrontations between nations, although present, are not the real concerns. Connections through networks existing in black boxes largely hidden from public view are now the main drivers of change. As a result, we need citizens capable of a Seventh Sense.
Ramo’s Seventh Sense is not simply a matter of technological know-how. It also requires, as did Nietzsche’s Sixth Sense, an understanding of history and the wisdom to toss aside outdated ways of thinking even though they so effectively described the world of just a few years ago. In one reoccurring example, Ramo argues that failure to confront terrorism effectively is fundamentally a failure to update thinking. ISIS is not, as President Obama once called it, the junior varsity terrorist squad. It is a networked ideology seeking converts wherever it can and not solely, or even mostly, a military organization striving for battlefield victories. As ISIS demonstrates, networks generate a paradox. They allow the U.S. and Western allies to witness terrorism and other crises in realtime while simultaneously leaving us less capable to respond. Because of the network, small forces can produce outsized effects.
For Ramo, navigating the networked future requires a citizenry that understands the effects of connectivity. One effect of networks is that they make the complicated complex. An individual complicated machine becomes part of a complex network capable of problem solving with speeds and depth previously unrealized. Another effect is the compression of time. Not only do our problems get solved faster, but adoption rates, be they for social media platforms or terrorist ideology, is significantly reduced. It is through these effects that Ramo finds a solution to our complex security concerns in the form of network gates.
We are all enmeshed in a network. The same complex connections that allow law-abiding citizens to search Google allow terrorists to conspire across physical borders. A safer world results when the first group has greater control than the second through a security process Ramo calls Hard Gatekeeping.
Hard Gatekeeping means the construction and development of secure, carefully designed communities to manage everything from trade to cyber-information to scientific research. Some of these will be for Americas only. Gatelands. Others will include allies. Each will be developed fresh, tuned for the principles that reflect how network power operates.
While national and international power will certainly play significant roles in creating and maintaining these hard gates, Ramo suggests we not wait for political institutions to roll slowly forward. In the time of Plato and Socrates, social improvement required a focus on the education of kings. Kings had the power so kings led the way to improvement. Following the Enlightenment, the creation of sovereign states, the political emancipation of minorities and woman and the liberation of knowledge Ramo concludes that…
…we confront our age with a different balance. What will decide our future, I think, is not merely our rulers but the quality of our citizens…Our best defense will not be to wait for wise leaders. They are unlikely to emerge by themselves from a system engineered for an old order…No, this is better, I assure you: to rely on ourselves, to use the inheritance of the Enlightenment–the revolution that made us citizens and not subjects–to ensure that we’re not made subjects yet again, by forces we can’t understand and won’t manage to control.
At times, The Seventh Sense offers insightful descriptions for the challenges of a networked world. At other times, it reads like the vague pronouncements of a tech guru prescribing nothing in particular. Even if Ramo does little more than find new ways to describe our present and near-future predicaments, The Seventh Sense is a fruitful read.