The world is a mess. To say that something has to be done is naive and misleading. And still we should think about this predicament, we should be interested in it.
Everything is always falling. The world has always been failing. The nations are always dying and the empires are always ending. If you care to think for an instant that (and how) our society is but a flicker of self-righteousness amidst the flow of history, it’ll give you a new perspective — maybe even new ideas. The risk is you’ll also see that there are paths still open, there are ways we still have to go, and then… Will you be confused?
Cool, hey? Then along comes Karl Schroeder asking us “What can we do with wicked problems?” Of course, we can do nothing. More precisely, tao is the answer, which is nothing, which is to say when faced with a wicked problem make yourself perfect, instead of trying to solve anything.
What i mean by that can maybe be clearer when you meditate about danah’s brilliant post regarding a certain girl who wanted to be rock-star. The incredibly valuable pearl:
So many teens that I interviewed over the years have talked about fame as freedom, failing to recognize the constraints that come with those golden handcuffs.
Fame is supposed to be what we are all fighting for, even if all evidence points out that it’s effects on people’s lives are kinda nasty. Of course, not all of us are trying to be rock-stars, but the cake is still a lie, which is to say all those end goals, all those things which are supposed to motivate daily strife, no matter how you choose to present them — fame or fortune, comfort or power — do look good when they are on the horizon, when they are really impossible, just that little tiny bit at hand, but if you ever get close to this ideal it kills you or worse. We don’t know what we want. Our big tale of why life is worth living (even as modern medicine grants us ever better suicide means), this big tale got paradoxical along the way. Even as we have wants, even as this wanting got ever more overrated, our conception of what is a good life was lost. It didn’t survive the translation. But we could frame this in the opposite light, not as false goals that we hold, but as the lack of a — ¿sane? ¿healthy? … — goal.
Phrased this way, our predicament now sounds as the failure of the consensual idea of family, of the basic building blocks of life.
So, as contemporary macroscopic concerns hint of painful adaptations, we should not talk about deception and false goals, instead we should try to grasp the meaning inside the microscopic. We must see through morality. Instead of proposing some “truer” reason for what’s going on, we should ask why is it that it makes sense to construe our circumstance as we do? Why we have this reading and not others. Instead of finding a hidden, primitive, natural source of those patterns, treat the patterns in their own terms. Granted, in their own terms they look like wicked problems: Painful structures without relief valves.
As usual, everyday life is more nuanced than models about everyday life, which is to say what we see as problems are just tension points in the flux, which is to say life itself is not looking for solutions, but nevertheless it is relentless going somewhere.
Where, exactly, i suspect, we can not know (since what we know changes the destination). But the common assumption is that it is everyone being rich, or (even more obnoxious) that it should be everyone being rich. Not precisely the «myth of progress», but the assumption behind this myth: That money is the means to obtain whatever we want, so regardless of our specific dreams we also will want the means to achieve them, so that we all need to, as a minimum, get rich, or at least richer. In politically correct terms, to end the world poverty. Even without my (tired) preaching against The Market™ this is still a confusion between means and ends, by definition.
Not that i have any problem with money, i don’t, but i believe this simultaneous deriding and overrating of money clouds our considerations of morality. Because we frame the issue in market-terms we see varying quantities (prices) instead of incomparable values. We try to measure human self-realization in a sliding scale of happiness, such that everyone is just shopping for the best life they can. But human life is an open-ended creation, it is not suitable to measurement along a single axis.
Banerjee and Duflo’s book, Poor Economics, argues that the “solution” is NOT more money or more subsidy or more credit or anything, but instead complexity. Unfocusing problem-solving anti-poverty policies, they went and just, you know, checked out what poor people actually do with their lives, and it turns out that, even if those lives are functional inside a Market™ ideology dominated environment, they simply can’t be measured along the simple axis of money. In very human (humane) terms (from a review of the book):
Generally, it is clear that things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor.
Boredom is a weirder enemy than poverty, than atomic war, than global warming, and certainly also then the Saxons who sacked Rome. It’s easy to point at all those problems and say they are more urgent, but please just imagine what does the world look like if we choose boredom as the enemy.
This might be too much re-framing, but the reason i believe this perspective is relevant to all those issues is because it brings to the foreground this oppressive sense of our individual lack of a voice, lack of agency, this feeling that personal action is meaningless. Life has become meaningless. Why is our life not sacred?
I realize this might not sound like a solution to a problem. But i also think it sheds new lights into the wickedness of these issues we are wondering about.
Take US economy. They are in trouble because despite commercial growth their system is not producing jobs, and the system itself is designed to make people unsheltered if they are unemployed. The only economic activity that is growing is, generally speaking, internet stuff, which is geared to make exchanges easier, but tends to do it without money exchange (since money has more inertia than bits). This prompted Marc Andreessen to claim that “Software is eating the world”, as if it was a good thing. His vision is that software can deal with problems that are intractable in their flesh’n’bones versions, and that this in turn must be an “increase in value”, which surely must be good for the economy. But as everything else in the USA way of life took money exchange as measure of success, this change is more structural than expected, and thus brings more pain than relief. Together with it goes the whole corporate culture, the whole cubicle living, the whole ideology that a steady wage is the entry to Middle-Class Heaven. In a sense, this US-lead revolution undoes the US itself, and, what’s more important: In such a way that no one feels they can do anything about it even while they are actively building this futureless future.
We should care. I should care. but i don’t.
There are many misleading ways to paint that picture. One of those is turning it all into an account to be balanced, a simple 2+2, “Earth has X resources, we use X+N, we’re doomed and bog hates us”. This is misleading because it sees the ecosphere as a market, which is to say it commits exactly the sins it purports to condemn. This is misleading because it confuses means and ends. It is misleading because it turns the problem into a moral issue, and exactly because it does so it reinforces the pre-existing morality standards. But worse than all, it makes individual action less important.
If you listen to the eco-freaks, your life becomes a vote into a twisted system. You do the Right-Thing™, you bike, you recycle. And you become one tiny vote in the middle of the ocean. One more person wasting a little less, one of seven billion. That’s 7,000,000,000. In the process, your life stopped being a journey of discovery, a struggle for self-realization. Your life is not important. It is just a little part of enormous processes like urbanization and post-industrialism and globalization which are what really matters.
Your life is boring.
And that might be a bigger problem than climate change or comodogate.
Again, this lack of meaning is also a disconnect from standard ideas of family and society and success. It’s primary symptom is our twisted values, our blind search of fame and success. All the riders of apokolyps which you read on the news usually turn out to be misinterpretations caused by this disconnect.
It so happens that those values, those perspectives, those misleading ideas that we believe will make us free but end up locking us up, those are very ingrained. They have been planted (by ourselves, no less) very deep into our souls. This is bad because unlearning them becomes very difficult, painful even. Which may mean that we need everyone to be genius to solve this boredom thing — which means we will not and we’re doomed.
A surprisingly good take of this comes from Thakara, which i feel hangs very close to eco-freak status, when he says we must make system-thinking sexy. Brilliant. Of course, that means we need geniuses and we’re doomed. Only geniuses grok systems-thinking. Only people bred to distinguish themselves by posing as philosophers will keep the attention long enough to get a mode of thought based on eschewing short-cuts.
But there is a shortcut, of course. Namely, civil war. Because it happens when the incongruences of our mode of living comes close enough to our biologic substrata, so we either abandon our ideals or we die. If it happens by lack of resources we just die, but our current predicament is that it is happening while we still have plenty of energy around. There is a lot of food in the world but the food prices are too high anyway. Thus more like a war than a famine.
Sadly, this is bloodshed. Like nasty.
There is another option, of course. And it is this: Beating boredom.