Civilized society 2117, Part 1:

Professor Juho Saari: “In a civilized society, people are equal.”

Akavalainen launches a new article series in which we make a journey towards the civilized society of the future. To start the journey, we interviewed Professor of Social and Health Policy at the University of Tampere, Juho Saari, and asked him to share his ideas about civilization and its future.

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Juho Saari believes that society provides citizens with good opportunities for education and civilization, but the individual abilities to exploit these opportunities vary in accordance with one’s social standing.

For this article, we interviewed Juho Saari, Professor of Social and Health Policy, who is known as a researcher of poverty, deprivation and loneliness in Finland. He is currently heading a working group appointed by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, the aim of which is to find solutions to halt the increasing inequality in Finland.  

In keeping with the theme, we agreed to conduct the interview at the National Archives of Finland in Helsinki. The place is very familiar to Saari. For years, he has visited the archives to read old documents for the sake of personal interests, that is, for individual civilization. Most recently, he has studied the documents of Supo (Finnish Security Police) from the 1950s.

“It was an interesting period in Finland, with the society undergoing major changes within a very short time. In the archives from the early 1950s, you can find, for example, writings by clergymen who were concerned about rude wall scribbles in boys’ lavatories, or about the indecency that took place at municipal offices because women were wearing trousers. A half-decade later, dresses became shorter and shorter, and clergymen were challenged by different problems.”

The National Archives serves as a sort of retreat for Saari. In the reading room, you must silence your mobile phone, which means that you can be undisturbed for hours.

Civilized society stands on two basic pillars

Saari is often interviewed about themes related to welfare society, but he also has clear ideas about civilized society. According to Saari, civilized society is based on two basic pillars. First, all people are treated equally.

“In a civilized society, people are not defined by social disparities or divisions. This is a fundamental aspect.  A society in which people are structurally in inequitable positions is not a civilized society.”

The other basic pillar is people’s ability to process information and symbols.

“In practice, this refers to a nation that reads, photographs, innovates and, in general, re-forms its surroundings by means of symbols.  It is quite a long journey from a spade-and-machine society to one based on the use of symbols and concepts.”

Saari considers that we are already living in a civilized society.

¬“Despite certain leakage points, people primarily feel that they belong to the same nation. We are increasingly equipped with abilities to handle symbols and information.”

According to Saari, we are gradually moving towards a visual society in terms of information processing.  The volume of visual information is constantly growing, and instead of reading texts or making calculations, people are more and more engaged with visual messaging.

Welfare and civilization go hand-in-hand

From our school years, we remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Mental or psychological needs related to civilization are at the top of the pyramid.  To reach the top level, we need to have our physiological, social, safety and security needs satisfied. In principle, these basic needs are the responsibility of a welfare society.

Does this allow for the interpretation that a civilized society is built on the foundation of a welfare society? Saari says “no”.

“I have written a lot to explain why Maslow was wrong. Psychological autonomy and physical health are not hierarchically related but rather, they are intertwined with each other. For example, our mental capacity has an impact on our ability to maintain good health.”

While the basic task of a welfare state is to generate well-being and health, it requires more than just the provision of welfare services and income transfers.

“Education, civilization and culture are essential elements of a welfare state. The public broadcasting company YLE or public libraries can be seen as symbols of civilization.”   

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The galleries of the National Archives are familiar to Saari, whose interests include the study of history. Recently, he has also spent a lot of time at the National Library.

Saari also says that civilization and welfare have already been joined in several areas in society. As an example, he mentions hospitals where the benefit of the arts, in terms of human health and well-being, is nowadays well understood.

“Mental health care pioneered in this matter. Working at the Kellokoski mental hospital, Psychiatrist Ilkka Taipale promoted the use of the arts within mental care.  His idea was that there should be paintings and musical instruments in every ward.”

Educational capabilities vary

Although a specialist in the field of poverty and deprivation in Finland, Saari also moves, through his work, in well-off circles. Saari is a Board member in several corporations and foundations, as well as a member of the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland.  He regularly meets with high-level political decision-makers.

So, he is well acquainted with the group of people we are accustomed to viewing as civilized. Do they understand the poor and deprived?

“Yes, they do.  For example, within literature and arts, issues related to inequality have always been emphasized. In Finland, newspapers and TV licenses have been among those items that are approved as necessary costs when granting basic social assistance. This is quite exceptional in international comparison.”  

Another example mentioned by Saari are public libraries in Finland. Libraries offer a free place for people to pass the time.  The public support paid to orchestras reflects the same idea. While there is good will and equal opportunities for civilization, they unfortunately do not always translate into reality as desired.

“Cultural institutions are predominantly occupied by the middle-class. It is true that opportunities are created by public power, but individual capabilities to take advantage of these opportunities vary greatly. If your life is all about struggling and coping with scarcity, cultural activities play a minor part.”

Saari reminds us that the ability to function is a collective feature.

“A human being is a cruise missile guided to fall on the sofa unless otherwise motivated by the group. The group effect is more powerful than the price or accessibility of a service.  Middle-class women constitute the largest group of cultural service consumers. The underlying reason is that it is the group that guides individuals to these services.”

The future is scattered

Now, let’s start our journey towards the year 2117.  How will civilized society look when that time arrives? Saari speaks again of the two basic pillars: the citizenship that unites individuals, and their ability to process information. A century from now, both of these pillars will face great challenges.

“The matters underlying citizenship are changing at a rapid pace. What will, for example, a household or family be like? If you live a long life, you may have 5–6 long-term partnerships during your lifetime, and children in your family may have different parents. What will be considered your family, and who are your relatives? Will you live in a friendship society or amidst relatives?”

Saari believes that the realities of individual people will differentiate and segregate, and citizenship will be multi-faceted. Nor will the processing of information be easy because the volume of information will grow exponentially with time.

“We will have access to unlimited and inexpensive information. This will result in the multimodal usage and application of information, and it may be challenging to reduce it to one single concept of civilization.”

Juho Saari 3
Juho Saari finds it difficult, if not impossible, to predict the future. He believes, however, that one hundred years from now, we will no longer share a single unified concept of civilization.

Education pays off in the future as well

The future appears to be very complicated and unpredictable. What advice would Saari like to give to the current decision-makers who are establishing the foundation for the civilized society of 2117? He recommends that they invest in education.

“Even if we cannot, today, define what the need for information will be in the Finnish nation of 2117, it is enough to know that information will be needed. Thus, it is necessary to teach people to process and use information. In this respect, education plays a vital role.”

In Saari’s opinion, a healthy critical approach and ability to understand the quality of information are essential aspects.

“Many systems are self-remedying, such as Wikipedia. But if anyone has an interest in systematically generating false information, it will result in a challenging situation.  How can we differentiate between information that is correct and that which is incorrect?”

Saari gives a science-fiction style example.

“In 30–50 years from now, this interview will be carried out by a robot meeting with a digital character that I have programmed with information about myself. The interview is done in seconds – but is the whole thing just a hoax? That is something we cannot know as yet.”

The matter is further complicated by the fact that traditional institutions will be replaced by smaller networks. In the past, YLE used to be the primary source of news, but today, Twitter, YouTube or Facebook are spreading news.  Saari is convinced that, despite this revolution, the value of civilization will remain.

“It has always been so. For example, the meaning of folk poetry research has changed over the past decades. However, while we no longer need the Kalevala for the purposes of building up a national state, its value has not declined."

Finally, for those who feel anxious about these changes, Saari offers consolation to suit the jubilee year of Finland’s independence.

“Finland is a relatively good country to live in when you have to face all these changes and transitions.  Thanks to the hard work conducted during the past centuries, we have collective capital and prosperity upon which we can build our future.”

  • Text: Valtteri Väkevä
  • Photos: Liisa Takala

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