On 25 May 2018 a significant piece of European Union legislation comes into effect: the General Data Protection Regulation, better known as the GDPR. With this legislation, we can seriously begin to embrace the belief that the individual is now more important than the system.

The GDPR upholds the rights of individuals as more important than those of corporations, organisations and (to a degree) governments. Rights enshrined in the GDPR include the right to know what data is held about an individual, how that data is processed, and the ‘right to be forgotten’—i.e. to be removed from a system database[1].

Saharasia

What system would that be? In Saharasia, geographer James DeMeo describes how, around 5,000 years ago in the Sahara, Arabia and central Asia, “irrigation agriculture and nomadic pastoralist technology first developed… as were various forms of central-state and military apparatus.” The military-political-industrial complex that evolved from these early civilizations has dominated global society ever since and is better known as patriarchy.

Patriarchy operates on the basis that survival is a society’s only goal, and that survival justifies all means used to achieve it. This creates generations of people conditioned to accept any individual sacrifice, up to and including death. This may sound medieval but look at the rush to fight—and die—“for King and Country” triggered by the declaration of World War I only a century ago[2].

Human rights

The shift away from the system being more important than the individual has long been coming. Previous declarations of individual rights include the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen from a century later. These, however, did not result in systemic change—the system remained more important than the individual.

In patriarchies, state institutions are used to condition individuals to place the system before all. The education system imparts a rose-tinted version of that society’s glorious past while conditioning students for future sacrifice. Political, economic, legal and health systems that place people in a subservient role are also present. Those who rebel are either shamed into compliance by peer pressure or psychologically damaged.

Watershed

This is why the enactment of the GDPR represents a watershed moment. It comes into force just as it has become clear that several of our institutional systems are failing. The National Health Service and the school system are the two most obviously at breaking point. Caught between centralised demands for conveyor-belt processes and the reality that these one-size-fits-all processes are actively harming growing numbers of people, overstressed doctors, nurses and teachers are quitting in droves. A failing economic model increasingly constricts funding. Significant collapse is inevitable.

The shift to the individual being more important than the system is the greatest change of the last five millennia. A shift of this magnitude means all our systems must change.

This is not just inevitable but desirable. The shift to the individual being more important than the system is the greatest change of the last five millennia. A shift of this magnitude means all our systems must change. Their fundamental basis must be individual-centric. When the individual is more valued than the system, the key objective is wellbeing. The Age of Survival passes; the Age of Wellbeing approaches.

[1] For Brexitophobes, fear not—the government has indicated that withdrawal from the EU will not affect the GDPR; similar regulations will be enacted in post-Brexit Britain.

[2] After the death of his brother Frank in 1915, T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) wrote to his parents that, “to die for one’s country is a sort of privilege.”

Image: 165/368 Stand out by Olga Filonenko on Flickr.