A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Natural History of Human Change

Our physical world is made up of dominating motions: the pull of the Sun’s gravity, the earth’s yearly revolution around the Sun and daily rotation on its own tilted axis, the moon’s monthly transit.  Our small personal motions, going to work, sex, betting on a football game, growing a kitchen garden, all happen within the parameters of these dominating and other motions.  We adapt to all of them; no one seriously demands a weaker force of gravity, a 30 “hour” day or less extreme tidal fluctuations; and we almost as universally accept the normalcy and necessity of our personal lives.

There are motions in our social, political and economic world that, while not based directly in universal physical law, have some of the qualities of dominating physical motion – more on the model of glaciers and large ocean currents, on the one hand, and avalanches and hurricanes on the other.  We, humans, help to create the conditions in which they manifest, but once in motion they are similarly irresistible.

To further explore the potentials of the analogy: the strength of a hurricane depends in major part on the temperature of the water over which it forms and moves.  It does no good to simply build barriers in front of the winds while ignoring forces that form, strengthen and guide the storm.

As a function of both habit and capacity we are ignoring the dominating motions of our present reality: the irresistible glacial forces of population numbers combined with technological developments, the ocean current of wealth extraction and concentration, the avalanches of social disruption and dislocation and the hurricanes of ecological perturbation.  Attention is given to many of the consequential details of change, but not to the reality of the motions themselves and their underlying forces; for finally, this is not a metaphor at all.

Millions of people acting in unison, acting from common belief and habit, cannot be redirected in any simple way.  The forces of change must be equal to the momentum possessed by continuing to stay the same.  This has almost always meant that such forces of change be draconian.  Reasoned argument, scientific and logical conclusions and even general acceptance of abstract ideas have had little impact.  Major changes are, therefore, almost always traumatic for societies and individuals.

But looking at human capacity and potential, it seems that major changes should be possible for human beings without all the Sturm und Drang. We can learn new things with relative ease and, in general, show a remarkable adaptability, however, large groups are most often better understood as large masses in motion than as many highly maneuverable separate entities. 

We might imagine a convoy, a thousand cars long, filling a thousand-lane highway.  It must go in the direction of the roadway; it may not slow down or speed up except in the most complex and gradual manner.  The communication and coordination to perform even the simplest maneuver would be monumental… and this in cars with only the function of moving from one place to another.  Whole lives in motion, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for many tens of years, accumulate complicated interwoven patterns of momentums with all the other surrounding lives. 

In practical terms, it may only be possible to redirect the convoy by crashing the cars and suffering the consequences.  The burdens of coordination and communication would be greatly eased by only the need to crash the convoy, but, of course, the outcome may not be substantively different than doing nothing at all and waiting for the eventual end of the roadway to force a pile-up in any case.

In terms of the metaphor, we are watching increasingly frantic attempts to communicate and coordinate changes in direction coming from all the various ideational centers.  If we image that the convoy can be communicated with by car radio and cell phone, and that people will be tuned to different stations and receiving calls, texts or tweets from different sources, they are still – and this is vital – utterly dependent on the immediate patterns of movement surrounding them to give order to their sustaining behavior.  No matter how compelling, the messages beyond the moment cannot compete with the immediate conditions within which each person finds him or her self.  In other words, the dominating momentum of the convoy, regardless its rationality or irrationality, matters more than any communication from beyond it – even completely believable descriptions of the end of the roadway and the certainties of driving into it at speed. 

Ultimately, people learn to not give attention to the messages from beyond their immediate condition – even when they understand them to be true.  It is only when the immediately surrounding conditions become impossible to predict and respond to that actions are taken in response to the messages from beyond the convoy and then only in terms of the long habit of local attention; once that begins the only certainty is that the loss of internal structure will spread crashes at random.  As a society we are just approaching that point.

Some would say that we have already begun, that economic inequity and the decline of the middle class are evidence, but these have long been the direction of our travel; we are just beginning to realize where we’ve been going.  And we have quite a long way to go in that direction yet before the end of road.  In the world fantasized by typical economists, one that is unlimitedly substitutable, we would have a much longer way to go than we actually do, but we still have the time to retrace our steps into a “modern” version of medieval feudalism, a motif tellingly dominant in fictional portrayals of our future. 

The question for us, for all ideologies of change, is, what are the mechanisms and messages that might be successful in communicating with the great momentum of movement that is present humanity, and what are the realistic expectations?  In terms of the metaphor, a small percentage, say 5%, spread randomly throughout the convoy could slow it down or speed it up, eventually even guide it to some extent, by coordinated increments of change. 

If, at every opportunity, such a random assortment were to apply the brakes a little sooner, brake a little longer and return to speed more hesitantly, then the whole convoy would slow over time.  This is almost certainly how we have gotten to our present place; the incremental speeding up of a random collection of actors. But, given human nature, slowing down is a more tedious and contentious process.  It shortens distances, greater attention is required by all and our animal competitiveness is not triggered by increments of slowing in the way that it is by someone speeding ahead [1].

Clarity of idea is key, and a way to communicate with accuracy and honesty to a sufficient percentage of people.  Otherwise our momentum will carry us all along to the end of road, that point were the systemic order that forms our actions in the world fails to meet our needs beyond our capacity to ignore the failure.  At that point we really do enter the maelstrom knowing nothing of if or how our kind might come out on the other side.

[1] Even after many tens of years I am still amazed and amused when drivers in cars seem to have to speed up to pass me when I am riding my bicycle faster than ambient traffic.

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