Rheingold gave a Cliff’s Notes version of history, noting how collaboration is what makes us human: from the get-go, we’ve cooperated to gather food and defend ourselves, and this collaboration–given our lack of fangs and fur–is what has been our saving grace. As we progressed past caveman days, revolutions, marked by key documents like Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” have sped along thanks to printing and distribution technologies.
As we look ahead to what’s coming next, cooperation will be vital. “ People cooperate to do nasty things,” Rheingold admits, “ but the whole story that has brought us here is in the balance, one where we cooperate to enrich all of us.” He cited: a range of promising innovations, from the “notoriously closed” pharmaceutical company Lilly that has opened up research and development to spark collaborative innovation; Amazon and Google opening up their application interfaces; open-source software developers like Linux, and others. New to me were ThinkCycle, “an academic, non-profit initiative engaged in supporting distributed collaboration towards design challenges facing underserved communities and the environment”; Folding@Home, a distributed computing project where users of PCs at home can volunteer their computing power to help scientists research protein folding; and Rheingold’s own Cooperation Commons.
Following Rheingold was Appiah, a Princeton philosophy professor and author ofCosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which examines the history of cosmopolitanism. From the roots kosmos (world) + polis/polite (city/citizen), the word was first used by Diogenes of Sinope. Unlike Diogenes, who lived in what is now Turkey between 404 and 323 BCE, cosmopolitanism is actually relevant today (then, being a “citizen of the world” didn’t mean so much as people had little knowledge of fellow citizens a world away, and even less power to affect them). Defined as concern for all people on earth–“we’re all one, we’re all the same”–it was a belief held by Marcus Aurelius, who thought of it, Appiah says, as “the spiritual affinity of all human beings.”
Often the modern-day view of cosmopolitanism is as an alternative to nationalism, but Appiah calls them “necessary complements.” He adds: “ Nationalism in and of itself leads to immorality.” That is, if cosmopolitanism is the belief that “everybody matters,” then a philosophy that places one higher than another is immoral. But the two can–and should–balance: we believe in living in community as a nation, and we believe all people on the planet should have the same right.
Three points he made about cosmopolitanism:
1. “ We shouldn’t argue for world government…” We can see how one very strong country creates great imbalance; a single centralized government will be even less just.
2. “ We’ll all do better if we take care of one another.” Like Rheingold says, my self-interest is tied to yours.
3. “ Take good ideas wherever you find them.” The Right can learn from the Left, the Christian from the Muslim, the Jew, the Buddhist, the animist, the atheist, and people who listen can take away good ideas–even from people they largely disagree with.
Appiah adds that the tolerance that the third point suggests can’t come at any cost, thanks to the definition of cosmopolitanism. If, for example, a cultural custom hurts human beings (defying the “everybody matters” axiom), we needn’t be tolerant of it, he says. He mentioned slavery: imagine if abolitionists said, “Slavery is a rich part of Southern tradition,” and on that basis did nothing to change it. And so Appiah ended with a somewhat oxymoronic formula of cosmopolitanism: Universality + Difference.
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