Monday, 15 September 2014

In the beginning was the question...

And, according to Daniel Dennett, the question was something like: Forward, or back?  Duck or pounce? Eat, or run?  The mega-minds we now have – each of us carrying around in our skull a single example of the most astonishing thing yet discovered in the entire universe – are the outcome of the unimaginably vast evolutionary processes acting ceaselessly to advance the prospects of survival into the next minute/hour/day.  The sophisticated questioning of which we are now (at least occasionally) capable – questioning embellished through imagination, scenarios, the scaffolding of giant shoulders – is simply the most highly evolved version of that elementary mechanism.

We are born with it.  By the time we are six or seven or eight, and we have heard enough fairy stories and observed enough adults and formulated a rudimentary model of the world in which we find ourselves, it manifests itself as “a sense of wonder”.

I use this phrase, and put it in scare quotes, because it is the closest summation I can muster of the experiment I mentioned in last week’s blog, when I was wondering about the process that takes us from the child that wants to be an astronaut to the adult working as a middle-tier administrator.  That experiment, conducted in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as part of NESTA’s FutureFest last year (see the aforementioned blog for full links, or here if you can’t be arsed) comprised an invitation to conference attendees to contemplate, firstly, the question:

When you were six or seven or eight, 
what did you want to be when you grew up?

Followed by the question:

What was it about being [an astronaut/ballerina/whatever]
that made you want to be or do that?

In responding to the second question, our participants were asked not to answer the question immediately or directly, but to play with Lego and to find or build their answer with their fingers.  It had the effect of sidestepping the logico-rational brain functions that normally try to answer such questions; and the method seemed to go deeper, faster, than any technique I have seen or used before.

Once the participant had made some progress with their Lego construction (there are photos via the links just mentioned) myself and colleagues chatted with them about what they had made, what they were thinking and feeling, and what it told us about the motivations that might once have been in play.

The most frequently occurring response was ‘a sense of wonder’.  Which rings true.  Picture that excited child-face – perhaps your own – as you feel why you wanted to be a pianist, or a marine biologist, or – in my case – Dr Doolittle.  An astonishing mystery in the world! That you could be part of! Wonderment!


And roll the tape forward one and two and three and four and five decades – and how many are lucky enough to still have that sense of wonder, that thrill?  Is it something that simply fades with maturation, an inevitable and unavoidable decay, a ‘natural’ and evolved adaptation – or is it something that ‘the system’ eliminates, squeezes from us?

I am convinced that it is predominantly the latter.  More particularly, I believe that organised capital (and I use the phrase deliberately) and, more especially, its current manifestation ‘contemporary consumerism’ would be threatened, profoundly threatened, if we were all pursuing our own self-determined sense of wonder: so, instead, contemporary consumerism has become supreme at supplanting 'wonder' with ‘dissatisfaction’.

Dissatisfaction under capitalism is the engine that leaves so many of us wanting - without really knowing why - a new shiny thing, the latest pointless i-object, an even-more-adventurous holiday, an experience of some sort to trump our peers.  It is the motile force that nags and gnaws, that makes us feel shiftingly miserable, that propels us, should we fail in other respects, into the desperation of gambling and drugs and alcohol.  The revolting notion ‘bucket list’ seems to me to be the latest manifestation of this pathology: only in a culture where ‘achievement’ is so privileged – where simply being, or being simply a good person, or merely being kind and caring to others is so diminished – could it make sense to want a bucket full of status-fuelled ambitions to prove you exist(ed).

There seems to be no stable state of being or state of mind that enables us – en masse, at least – to say: no thanks, I have enough.  We are processed from a state of wonder to a condition of dissatisfaction. 

It’s essential to remember that this is no-one’s fault.  The ‘man’ has not designed this state of affairs. It is a classic ‘emergent property’, an outcome of the system itself.  Sure, there are beneficiaries of the system, and they typically have power and money; and there are (many, many more) others that are the victims (this is what injustice is about) but the deep solution resides in reform of the system, not simply taxation or control of the individuals that are the current ‘winners’.

Such a statement - indeed, the entire tirade - is open to a criticism that I have already had levelled at me on more than one occasion – that this is pure idealism, mere Utopian speculation.  Unless and until you can speak of practical steps, for ordinary people, on an everyday basis, you are failing.  And it’s a fair point; up to a point.

Utopianism – and it’s worth remembering we are approaching the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More's book – is not a proposition for how the world could actually be.  It is, rather, a form of scenario planning, a method for considering an ‘in principle’ world from which to regard the one we have.  It is a device, a tool, for our mega-minds to play with, better to survive into tomorrow.

Do we not all have one of these minds in our skull?  

And this world we have – is it good enough?  Clearly not.  We find ourselves living in a system that takes and deforms a wonderful and innate human drive – a sense of wonder – and produces a condition of dissatisfaction that is so invidious we hardly dare admit it.  Yet it is a condition that is central to the dynamics of an economic system which repeatedly leaves millions of ordinary people disadvantaged, and a small number of people routinely in luxury.

Day-to-day specifics? There are thousands.  Millions.  Too many for any one mind to contemplate, never mind address and resolve.  Better, surely, to invite people – you, me, anyone – to examine their circumstances (to play with their mega-mind) in the light of a critique and, if they are persuaded, for them to work it out for themselves.  Pull back the curtain - and behold! Not a wizard! 

That said, I think I agree: some specifics would help.  I'll have a go in the next post.

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