Introducing Noema Issue I: The Great Acceleration

Our image of the future will determine how we act today.


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Kathleen Miles is the executive editor and cofounder of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.

Nicolas Berggruen is the publisher of Noema Magazine and the chairman and co-founder of the Berggruen Institute.

With this first issue of Noema Magazine, the Berggruen Institute is launching its own publication after several years of partnerships, first with HuffPost and later The Washington Post, through our WorldPost platform. In ancient Greek, the word noēma means “thinking” or “the object of thought.” And that is our intention: to delve deeper into the issues, at greater length and with more historical and social context, in order to illuminate pathways of thought that are not possible to pursue through the immediacy of daily media.

Published online throughout the year and with an annual print edition, Noema will cover the range of our institute’s concerns, from art and philosophy to renovating democratic governance, digital capitalism, geopolitics and what it means to be human in the age of AI and biotech. Our unique approach will be to step outside of the usual lanes and cross disciplines, social silos, political tribes and cultural boundaries.

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Though so much remains unclear in these rapidly evolving days, what is clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic will be seen in retrospect as the “great accelerator” that suddenly moved us from the continuity of the past into a new era. Only such an event that uproots preconceived notions, an epistemological break, has that widespread transformative power to alter the human condition. The social eruption of recent weeks over police brutality and racial justice reinforces this break.

A new consciousness of humankind within nature instead of apart from it could be the most profound outcome of the present crisis. As Tobias Rees writes, our species is poised on the cusp of a shift from the human-centered hubris of the Anthropocene to a humbler Microbiocene. As the pandemic that has disrupted our modern sense of insularity reminds us, we are only small fish swimming in a vast microbial sea. The cover image of Noema’s first print issue features a sculpture by celebrated artist Anicka Yi of trans-species microbes covering all surfaces, living in us and on us, suggesting the time bomb that is now exploding. Venkatesh Rao reflects on the strange experience of “pandemic time” as a kind of “distributed doomsday clock.”

This newfound sense of fragility, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues, will likely conjoin with the already mounting alarm over climate change to speed up the trajectory toward collective resilience, which he calls “planetary co-immunism.” To Nathan Gardels, that new awareness, combined with scientific leaps in AI and biotechnology, is stirring foundational questions in a way not unlike the Axial Age in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. when all the great religions, ethical systems and philosophical outlooks that still dominate today first arose.

To consider what new paths may open ahead, Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui steps back from current events to examine how technological development is informed by a founding cosmology or civilizational worldview. He juxtaposes the mono-technological Silicon Valley idea of transhumanist singularity with the possibility of “Daoist robots” and an ecology of mind.

The inexorable long-term consequences of the global pandemic are well disguised by the immediate, panicked response of nation-states going their own way and speeding up de-globalization. Indeed, the seminal discourse in times to come will be how to reconcile the centrifugal pull of ingathering with the centripetal imperative of cooperation where common challenges beyond the scope of bounded entities converge, such as pandemics and climate.

In a collage of brief comments, thinkers and influencers from Yuval Harari to Eric Schmidt, novelist Elif Shafak, economist Dambisa Moyo and “Guns, Germs and Steel” author Jared Diamond, among others, offer their reflections on how the pandemic will change the world going forward — or not.

The singularly effective response of Taiwan is the subject of an essay by Nils Gilman and Steven Weber. They point out that what matters most is not whether a country is democratic or autocratic, but whether it has operational expertise, plans for the long term and socializes certain risks. Writing from Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani examines how the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the rivalry between the U.S. as a waning power and China as a rising power.

Looking ahead in the larger frame, French philosopher Régis Debray and Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang exchange views on whether the ancient Chinese idea of tianxia — “all under heaven,” living in harmony — suits today’s interdependent world or is just a cover for the next hegemonic power. Former Portuguese diplomat Bruno Maçães sees a new global contest between “civilization-states” like China, Turkey and Russia and the liberal world order led by Western powers. In this context, British philosopher John Gray examines the correspondence between digital surveillance capitalism in the West and the surveillance state in China.

The COVID crisis has glaringly exposed the sharp social fissure of economic inequality, with those on the front lines — store clerks, ambulance drivers, hospital workers — often living only a paycheck away from poverty. The prairie fire that spread flames of anguish across major U.S. cities over the police killing of an unarmed black man named George Floyd, just as the economy was reopening, fused with the pent-up frustrations of the months-long pandemic lockdown. Alula Hunsen ponders the connection between the legal and extralegal system of “plunder” experienced by the black community and the act of looting. That the instinct of rioters in L.A. was to vandalize a Gucci store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills speaks volumes about the fragility of social order when the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown so large.

Ray Dalio, who runs one of the world’s largest hedge funds, Bridgewater Associates, joins with Nobel laureate and former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz to discuss how the less well-off should not just bear the costs of a massive taxpayer bailout of troubled companies, but share in the upside of new wealth creation through an ownership stake when prosperity returns.

Stanford historian Walter Scheidel looks back at the history of social change and notes that inequality has only ever seriously been dealt with in the wake of wars or plagues. Lisa Adkins and Martijn Konings examine the collapse of a key ladder of upward mobility — home ownership — which the COVID crisis will likely further accelerate. Harriet A. Washington writes that we are witnessing a new medical apartheid of sorts as a deadly synergy of environmental racism and infection-driven xenophobia escalates the risks of COVID-19 among people of color. Karla Slocum explores how historic black towns and online black communities have over time sought spaces to breathe.

Social distancing and lockdowns have drawn forward from the future the already intensifying connectivity of the digital revolution, exponentially expanding the base of data that is the raw material of AI learning. Nicole Rigillo insists on the right to “audit” the algorithms of AI so we know on what basis, with what biases, their decisions are made. Abeba Birhane and Jelle van Dijk worry about a misdirected application of AI ethics leaving society’s most vulnerable behind. Allison Pugh calls for a recognition of the “connective labor” of service work, where human relationships matter more than machines. Stephanie Dinkins imagines what she calls “Afro-now-ism” as intelligent machines encroach on our image of the future.

Tracing the course of human history so far sheds light on what it will mean to be human in the future. Adrienne Mayor puts it all in historical perspective, harkening back to “the earliest science fiction” of augmenting human capabilities in Greek mythology. Hannah Landecker challenges us to see food as “technology,” the metabolic partner of human development.

In his contribution to these pages, Harari rightly observes that the decisions we make amid today’s tumult are so consequential because they will set the frame for a long time to come. Yet, as the Nobel physicist Ilya Prigogine understood, the future is not so much determined by what we do in the present as our image of the future determines the actions we take now. Our hope is that the ruminations in this first issue of Noema will offer some guidance in shaping the future we want instead of settling for what is only thrust upon us in the present rush of events.

—The Editors
Nathan Gardels, Editor-in-Chief
Kathleen Miles, Executive Editor
Nils Gilman, Deputy Editor
Peter Mellgard, Senior Editor
Rosa O’Hara, Audience Editor
Alex Gardels, Video Editor

—The Publisher
Nicolas Berggruen

EDITORIAL BOARD: Orhan Pamuk, Pankaj Mishra, Dambisa Moyo, Rocio Martinez-Sampere, Patrick Soon-Shiong, Onora O’Neill, Elif Shafak, Reid Hoffman, Walter Isaacson, Arianna Huffington, Pico Iyer, Yoichi Funabashi, Fareed Zakaria, Nicolas Berggruen, Kathleen Miles, Nathan Gardels, Bing Song

ADDITIONAL EDITORIAL STAFF: Mani Chandy, Newsletter Editor; Rachel Bauch, Art Editor; Tobias Rees, Philosophy + Art Editor; Jennifer Bourne, Associate Editor & Translator; Yakov Feygin, Associate Editor; Tui Shaub, Associate Editor; Mashinka Hakopian, Associate Editor

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