Making the Quantum Leap

W.R. Clement, noted writer, software developer and policy analyst, explains how connections and important shifts in thinking serve to uncover why social changes occurred as they did in the past.

by / November 11, 2005
Several years ago -- 1998 to be exact -- W.R. Clement published a book that never quite achieved the fanfare and popularity of works by futurists like Alvin Toffler or John Naisbitt. Yet in 50 years' time, while other bestselling explanations of our era will likely seem quaint and myopic, Clement's book, Quantum Jump: A Survival Guide for the New Renaissance, just might be the one that holds up. It could well be the most accurate analysis of the social transformation during the first half of the 21st century -- or at least the underpinnings of this transformation.

Among other things, Clement has been a military intelligence officer, a software developer and a career policy analyst for the Canadian government. In the 1970s, when our new age was still called a communications revolution, Clement was conducting studies for Canada to see if that revolution was significant enough to pay serious attention to. His conclusion even back then? It was.

After retiring from government consulting -- having dealt with everything from foreign affairs to technology -- he used his background and skills to dig deeply into events happening beneath our society's surface. The result was Quantum Jump, a book that took Clement eight years to write.

To date, Clement's work apparently has had the most impact at the top of the corporate world. Bank and high-tech corporate leaders have sought him out for his insights, and many have become his friends. In some ways, he employs an intelligence officer's approach to analysis -- the discernment of connections and important shifts in thinking that serve to uncover why past social changes occurred as they did. From this, he presents a clearer picture of what is happening today. "I needed a big canvas to lay it out so people could see it," he explained.

That canvas embraces key events through 500 years of history, as well as significant recent developments such as the end of the Cold War, conflicts with fundamental Islam -- written well before 9/11 -- and globalization.

Past efforts to explain the "information revolution" have usually looked back at the Industrial Revolution for comparison. Clement maintains, however, that we are actually experiencing an era shift, as opposed to a mere age transition such as moving to the mercantile age or the Industrial Age.

A new era, as he sees it, is a time when the worldview -- the level of abstraction -- of a preceding era can no longer apply any more Band-Aids. "When I talk about a 'raised level of abstraction,' I mean a significant leap in our understanding of the forces driving the universe," he explained. "This 'quantum jump' is so profound that it casts doubt on most, if not all, of our past assumptions about how the world is organized. This results in a complete shift in the course of human events, and we can no longer treat the future as an orderly extrapolation of the present.

"All growth and progress, whether economic, social, philosophical or technological, has, since the advent of the written word, been the product of increases in the levels of abstraction at which the society operates," Clement added. "These elevations of abstraction have been exploited to harness the forces of the universe. This has not simply been a linear expansion of technologies, which result in greater productivities with resultant greater wealth.

"Once we discover the limits of our newly established abstraction frontier, we set about inventing tools that make this knowledge accessible to more people. We begin to see goods and services we were previously unaware of come into common use. Meanwhile, the first steps are being taken to challenge the next stage of complexity."

In an era shift, as the new worldview becomes broadly understood, new institutions congruent with the underpinnings of the new era emerge. It is a time when new causes, problems and crises emerge over issues that do not surrender to the historical authorities of our ancestors. And it is a time when issues that previously generated great heat are resolved from unexpected sources, or have lost their urgency. We have called the first age of this new era the Information Age. History will probably call it something else.

"By 1993, most of us had become aware, or started to suspect, that the ways in which we have always managed our lives no longer work very well," Clement said. "New technologies and their social consequences now appear at a bewildering pace. These are altering our expectations of our peers and society, as well as society's expectations of us. And it appears that most people in government have no better comprehension of the direction of events than we do. Political parties are still trying to test how far our credulity can be pushed with the candidates they offer up.

"Today the new era is driven by the products of mathematics and quantum physics," he continued. "It's essential to understand the degree to which computing power and the way computers operate control the change rate -- the rate at which a new level of abstraction, articulated in the scholarly papers of mathematicians, physicists and cosmologists, is translated into fourth- and fifth-order applications which alter our world and our lives.

"None of us can count on any government anywhere to respond appropriately," Clement cautioned. "Most anyone who has ever worked in government will tell you that the government's inertia precludes any real action on any problem for which there has been no pre-planning. What 20th-century governments in the industrial world do well is implement programs designed to deliver services that are general and have strong consensual support from the populace. But as the rate of change becomes faster, governments -- federal, state and municipal -- seem to become more dysfunctional."

Renaissance 2.0
To better understand what Clement means by a rising level of abstraction, we actually have to look back to the social transformation of the Renaissance era. "The people of the Renaissance -- like ourselves -- faced a change-rate of profound proportions," he explained. "The institutions of their society began collapsing due to their inability to adapt, and became increasingly corrupt under assault from an array of new socioeconomic forces. Finally a new worldview supplanted the medieval worldview. This is why the Renaissance is such a good place to begin looking for hints about how to more readily understand our own time."

Here, as with any era shift, the critical variable is the rise to a new plateau in the generally accepted level of abstraction -- a different perception of the way the universe works, according to Clement. The Renaissance raised the middle class through the successful commercialization of spinoffs from the new level of abstraction, and this in turn expanded democratic politics. "Prior to the Renaissance, contemporary ideas were awarded no significance or value," he said. "Medieval society was finite and complete. Everything new was simply unrevealed by God. And should God in his ultimate wisdom decide to reveal something new, the fathers of the church would identify it and prove that it had, in fact, emanated from God. Anything else had already been explained by the classics and interpreted by the church fathers."

So the critical point in the Renaissance emergence was the discovery that this residual worldview of the European Middle Ages no longer encompassed the known and the knowable world of the 15th century. This began in the northern Italian cities of the Lombard League, where artists like Fra Luca Pacioli and Leonardo da Vinci discovered the laws of perspective. "Knowledge of perspective allows you to navigate on the open ocean," Clement explained. "Perspective was conceptually essential to develop the science of optics, and thus telescopes and eventually microscopes."

More broadly, the scientific method grew out of early Renaissance inquisitiveness. "The Renaissance was a time when people were asking 'Why?' and having to work out their own answers, since the conventional wisdom of their authorities didn't even acknowledge the existence of the question," Clement said.

When we look back at the events and discoveries that transformed medieval society, it is difficult to fully appreciate how drastically their worldview was changing as a result. We tend to see these discoveries in the hindsight of our own worldview, our own level of abstraction. So we have to imagine how they viewed the world in which they lived to see just how revolutionary these new ideas and discoveries truly were.

For example, the concept of time and how it is experienced underwent a profound shift during the Renaissance. "When a village acquired a clock, the hourly ringing conditioned people to a commonly accepted sense of 'time,' which allowed work to be organized more effectively, and ushered in the new abstractions in a discrete and orderly way," Clement explained. "The effect of the availability of a consensual temporal reference was enormous, with an impact on everything from birth date significance to setting times for the consummation of new commercial transactions which occurred outside the medieval barter economy. Barter systems are, by nature, essentially local. Commercial trade, with its attendant bills of exchange, growth in real wealth and overall community well-being, contributed to a new worldview with a heightened and expanded sense of the parameters of the individual's world."

Governing in an Era Shift
Setting out to manage institutions or govern during any era shift is a fundamental challenge, just as individual economic and social survival is. How well we accomplish this depends largely on rapidly adapting to changing circumstances.

"In the past 500 years, the rate of technological and social change has sped up exponentially," Clement said. "With an ever-quickening pace, new and complex ideas, inventions and events are foisted on us, while we watch familiar institutions, through which we order our lives, falter and frequently fail to deliver the services we mandated them to provide. We see our familiar social safety nets collapsing under the shifted economic and political sureties, while our institutional leaders no longer demonstrate simple competence, let alone wisdom, in carrying out their responsibilities."

Clement argues that we need a new way of thinking -- one that is not deterministic and doesn't require simple cause-and-effect explanations, and is, in effect, a new epistemology that is congruent with the level of abstraction driving this period. We also have to find ways of selecting and dumping historical baggage that slows us down.

He explained that Quantum Jump was written as an exercise in tangential, or lateral, thinking. "Tangential thought is commonplace during the earlier parts of era transitions," he said. "The basis of tangential thought is to call out and identify connections between events under scrutiny and weigh the relationship between events. In the current era transition, it is essential to become comfortable with tangential thought because our new worldview must comply with quantum theory. This means that there is no determinism at the micro level and that any determination we think we perceive is an illusion. In other words, we no longer accept that simple cause-and-effect relationships supply the answers we need. Applications of the discoveries of Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schr
Blake Harris Contributing Editor