THE BLOG

Occupy Wall Street -- The "What If" Generation's Public Beta Test

10/14/2011 11:19 am ET | Updated Dec 14, 2011

The children of the 1960's asked "What if there was a war and nobody came?" Powerbrokers thought the question naïve and irresponsible with the potential to lead to unpredictable, anarchic results. Now, the children of the Digital Age can actually predict possible outcomes to this and other "What If?" questions.

What if we hadn't bailed out the banks? What if we had bailed out the homeowners? What if we hadn't repealed Glass-Steagall? What if we devoted more resources to renewable energy businesses? The "What If" Generation can reimagine society by asking an array of hypothetical questions, exploring divergent policy initiatives, and extrapolating possible outcomes. The "What If" Generation is not afraid to try, fail, and try again until it gets it right, whether it's the creation of a new society in virtual space or real space.

The digital natives coming of age with Occupy Wall Street grew up in virtual online communities, playing "What If" games. It's second nature to them to imagine countless potential futures. They have now left their computer simulations and have taken to the streets. They are serious and ready to deploy their skills to engage us in building a real-world forum for civic discourse to explore alternatives for a better future.

Are some of the solutions currently proffered by the occupiers of Wall Street naïve? Were the solutions pushed by the Wall Street bankers self-serving? Were solutions settled upon by government ineffectual? The digital generation has the tools to ask and answer these questions.

Online collaboration sites like Wikipedia have shown us that information can be crowd-sourced to tap into our collective intelligence, and then filtered, synthesized and assembled to make the sum of human knowledge available to all. The What If Generation believes we can use similar tools to predict a new society, one that can salvage only the useful concepts of prior eras.

What if we crowd-sourced the future -- proposed a policy, weighed the merits of individual contributions, and ran through the parallel universes that might play out? We could determine how policies adopted today might affect the future. This is something that most pre-digital thinkers probably do not believe in. It is something that the children raised in the Digital Age take for granted.

The digital natives appreciate the power of group-forming networks -- the ability to spontaneously bring together any combination of people for any combination of purposes with a power greater than that of small cabals of the power elite working in isolation and dictating solutions.

From mash-up art, to pop-up shops, to pop-up cities like Burning Man, the What If Generation routinely builds spontaneous communities from scratch or from the reusable parts of existing structures. Digital youth knows that it no longer needs to adapt to the future that the prior generation bequeaths it. Imagine if we could have built the airplane with better tools than the pre-existing bicycle parts, or could have built the broadband Internet on fiber instead of pre-existing copper, or created a human being not descended from a five-phalynxed, amphibious creature. We would have something much more functional for modern needs.

This is what Occupy Wall Street is to the What If Generation -- a genuine attempt to create a better society with the skills they've learned building networks, both online -- like Second Life, World of Warcraft and SimCity -- and in temporary environments like Burning Man. They are ready to whiteboard a new society, more responsive to the people.

The digital natives who can imagine alternative "What If" worlds have come to Wall Street with frustrations over the existing political/corporate structures and processes, and are trying to re-imagine a better world. They might not have all the answers, but they are willing to try many of the possibilities. They do this at Burning Man for two weeks every year. They do this in every virtual online world they create. They might each have their own visions, but they are all united in the logical realization that the system, as it exists, is broken and cannot be fixed with pre-digital tools. So, why not reimagine civics with the new tools at our disposal?

We don't have to try all the "What If" scenarios, but we certainly should be listening and vetting them with the crowd to see what ideas might get us out of the intractable economic, social and political quagmire into which our opaque, hierarchical system has brought us and lead us to a better world.

When we are asked "What if...?" in a political discourse, our response should no longer be "Yeah but..." We should follow the What If Generation's lead asking "Why not?" and trying to make it so.