THE BLOG
08/17/2015 12:19 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2016

Forget 'Convergence' -- This Is the Age of 'Divergence'

TONY KARUMBA via Getty Images

HONG KONG -- Ever since Thomas Friedman published "The World is Flat," it has become fashionable to see convergence everywhere. As the spread of technology, finance and the promise of democracy levels an imaginary competitive playing field between the developing and the developed world, commentators have taken to labeling this era as the age of "great convergence" -- a utopian phenomena that portends a continual and quantum jump in the improvement of the human condition. Unfortunately, these arguments are an oversimplification and, in fact, a denial of a much more complicated and divergent reality.

In June, a figure no less revered than Pope Francis himself issued a warning about the failings of the economic architecture that the world has adopted. In a 184-page encyclical called "Laudato Si," the pontiff blamed apathy, reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness for the destruction of the environment and growing inequalities that he said would pose a "serious consequence" for all. It was a warning about divergence and not in praise of convergence. It is perhaps time to acknowledge that convergence is not the unalloyed reality that some would have us believe.

Even as certain indicators of social development, such as life expectancy and literacy, have converged, we also find ourselves living in a parallel era of great divergences brought about by the very consequences of convergence where technology, free markets and democracy are viewed as the panacea to all human challenges. But it is more likely that divergence, not convergence, will have the most profound impact on societies.

It is more likely that divergence, not convergence, will have the most profound impact on societies.

So what makes up this parallel "Age of Divergence"? There are three big ideas.

1. At the heart of the pope's thesis is the divergence between the rate at which resources are being consumed by the modern global economy and the level of resource depletion our planet can sustain. As the pope has made clear, our economic system is at war with the planet. Our current resource consumption rate is roughly one and a half times what the planet can support and if everyone acquires the consumption habits of an average American that would multiply several times over. In other words, our wasteful wealth creation model has put us at odds with the mother of all capitals -- nature. Narrowing this divergence will require the rejection of an economic model built around fossil fuels that thrives on the promotion of relentless consumption by underpricing resources and externalizing true costs.

2. People around the world are experiencing the erosion of their culture due to increasing Westernization in all aspects of life. Often couched in the language of "modernity," this relentless demand to accept Western norms on everything from notions of freedom to fashion and lifestyle choices is creating deep rifts within and between societies. In particular, this happens where value systems and traditional cultural norms do not subscribe to modern and primarily Western ideals of individual liberty, gender equality, human rights and democratic institutions. Dismissing these tensions simply as an "unwillingness to modernize or democratize" or a refusal to accept "universal values" is an arrogant rejection of the history, culture and identity of others.

This is a divergence that also gnaws at our philosophical and spiritual foundations and is most acute in non-Western societies, often referred to as emerging markets. It is far too often assumed that as long as people adopt the outer manifestations of modernity -- as exemplified by the trappings of a modern "Western" lifestyle such as a pair of jeans or rock music -- then so will their philosophical biases.

In reality, however, individuals struggle to reconcile the numerous contradictions and tensions they feel between their adoption of foreign cultural norms and ways of thinking and their own philosophical orientation rooted in the wisdom of their culture, values and way of life. Hyper-consumption, big screen televisions, fast food and Facebook can never compensate for the warmth and comfort of home food, the familiarity of traditional rituals and actual human company. In many societies, where these are the basis of organizing daily life and protecting social nets as well as offering simple securities, the erosion of these ways of life is creating divergences that are weakening the social underpinning of these societies and tearing them apart. Results can be seen far and wide, from the bloody conflict between Western principles and traditional Islamic prescriptions to the decay of rural towns in Japan and South Korea, where the drive to enjoy Western-style luxury has wiped them out, populated now only by the elderly.

Hyper-consumption, big screen televisions, fast food and Facebook can never compensate for the warmth and comfort of home food, the familiarity of traditional rituals and actual human company.

To add to this, many elements of our modern life have come into conflict with the spiritual needs of human existence, such as the search for inner calm and quiet, a less materialistic existence, the connection to nature and questions about the meaning of life. In a world where speed is king, individualism admired, excessive wealth glorified and where instant and inch-deep information has become a substitute for deeper understanding and learning, cultures where spirituality remains a key part of daily life find themselves facing unprecedented turmoil. This turmoil is the basis of a divergence that is dividing and impoverishing societies around the world.

After all, it is a spiritual awareness that allows humans to ponder larger questions like whether we have a responsibility toward other creatures that share our planet. Evidence of this breakdown and divergence can be found in an increasing number of studies that show that many people in advanced economies are less happy. It suggests that the pursuit of convergence at all costs leads to spiritual decay and unhappiness.

3. The third and final divergence is in the area of technology. The prevailing narrative is that as technology continues to advance and spread, it will only make the world a better place. The obsession with hyper-connectivity suggests we may have hit something of a technology "overreach" tipping point. Connectivity has become important for its own sake because it is seen as the ultimate symbol of modernity, rather than, say, universal access to potable water, sanitation or a safe and secure food supply, the technologies for which have all existed for well over a century, and whose benefits have yet to be disseminated to the rest of the world. Even as nations converge on a purely technical and superficial level there has been an ever-greater divergence between the people who have the means and ability to devise these connective technologies and profit from them and those who have been seduced to use them. Never before has there been such a wide gap of understanding between the producers, owners and users of technology.

The producers and owners are usually affluent elites living in their virtual worlds far removed from the realities of their largest markets. They are not concerned about what a 13-year-old girl in Cambodia understands about the smartphone she has been handed. Who will guide her as she accesses images that assault her senses and gets information that she has no way of fully understanding? Does the app designer in Silicon Valley understand her cultural context and the needs and wants of a billion others half a world away? This is a divergence that obscures a truth that the technological cheerleaders will rarely admit -- that proper investment in technology (in toilets rather than telecoms, for instance) has been deemed less important than searching for the massive valuation of a company whose social utility is marginal at best.

If the true aim of technology is to make the world a better place, then we already possess almost all the necessary tools to do so.

If the true aim of technology is to make the world a better place, then we already possess almost all the necessary tools to do so. What we lack are the appropriate political systems and institutions to put new business models into action and the willingness to change an inherently ineffective and unfair economic model.

So if we have come to believe that we are entering the age of convergence, then we need to think again. Globalization may have flattened the world in many ways, but it has also trampled on it. We must accept that convergence is not the only game in town.

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