Michael Tomasello, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Psycholog, dialoga con…
No one needs problems more desperately than politicians, because – otherwise – what would we need them for? But it seems that our reliance on instantaneous solutions may be mentally preparing us to have expectations from politics that we formerly would have called totalitarian.
@Jane woke up to an important day. She had woken up as she always would: right before the lights would flip on, but a feeling that had been with her – somewhere towards her abdomen – for the past 18 months was more intense than she ever could recall. She had enough time, right enough time, to wash first, but she was in such a hurry that she had finished all #HygieneObs well before the water finished. She was pretty sure she was not supposed to feel this way, but as the #DeliveryWindow drew nearer, it was impossible not to remember the moment when she had finally received notice from the @Admin to tell her that her #ApplicationToConceive had been approved and that her life was going to change definitively. And though she knew very well that joy was not what asked from her, she could not help imagine how at some point in the future she would smile, and her #EntrustedInfant would smile back.
She had been responsible enough after, not to disturb the @Community. She had made sure to let all the @Experts know there was going to be an important change at her #Unit, without any of the #DisruptEms that would flash down the screen once in a while. They never got echoed, so you’d have to spot them as they sailed across, but maybe they were #InsignificantGlitches anyway. She’d gotten a decent amount of #Echo, especially from @ExpertHank who appeared to know a lot about #ChildCare; she hadn’t expected that, as in the past he had given much useful advice about #BestChoices for #ReferendumRound6894. Some @Experts were simply too smart, @Jane thought. She wouldn’t find all those answers on her own – never! And imagine the trouble she almost got into even the other day. Nearly bumping into #NeighborsUnknown, just because she was thinking of her upcoming #TimeToConceive; she had no reason to worry, as @ExpertLouise had told her. Those were things of the past, when anybody would be out there, not just #EssentialWorkers, risking their lives in the unknown. There were no more #Grounds to have insecurities since the #DayTheyEndedFear.
We may actually start to understand, and exercise power over our environment. And as our effective control over the world around us continues to increase, our awareness of anything that manages to escape it feels ever more intolerable.
This is what I may have imagined some twenty years ago. An acquaintance was sharing an experience and I was too preoccupied with my own aversion to hear the repeatedly old. So instead, I focused on what seemed novel and hopelessly revolutionary. Those were the days of early ventures on the world wide web, and man’s most urgent needs found immediate application through the offering of particular services. My friend, now, was telling us about his latest adventure in internet-assisted dating and while I was struggling to imagine entering my numerically defined preferences into an interface that would find a digital, and therefore uncontestable, match, he recounted how he had summed up his evaluation to this match-made-in-the-cloud personally. A pig in a poke. That’s what he had told her. He was filing complaint. And for the moment he was giving us the full run-down of his purchase. And instead of having – he had been had. As I said above, I was much too irked by the idea of outsourcing my own judgment to a computer platform to realize his frustration was far from novel. Life is a series of problems to be solved, of obstacles to be steered around. And progress is managing to render this process easier, allowing you more of the satisfaction resulting from mastering these situations. But frustration remains, as much as we would like to forget. If only we had known – known that the next simplification would not to neither completion nor perfection, would not fulfill our life’s purpose – we would have spared ourselves the trouble. And most of all: we would have spared ourselves that feeling of insecurity.
Faith may be the best remedy we have against insecurity. Faith that everything will turn out alright. Faith we will find a solution. Faith we might find an explanation. Faith, even, that there must be a reason for this. And for all of it. We have developed an endless number of variations to exercise and demonstrate our faith throughout history, using an enormous range of symbolisms, artifacts, or props. Sticks, statuettes, mounds, hills, menhirs, cathedrals; we bowed on bare knees, tore hearts from bodies, burned effigies, people, and said our prayers – we curse, look up at the sky, commemorate, hoist the flag and lower it, sing the anthem, cheer the athletes on, cast our ballot, play the lottery, wear our favorite tie, reset our modem, restart our computer, program our thermostat. We memorize the most recent news report. We pledge our faith in science. We grab for our remote control. And trust the tiniest squeeze of our thumb will change our world.
Meaning is the mantra we sing to ourselves to quell our fear. But our fear of what? Doesn’t living a safe and to an extent fulfilling life carry enough meaning to carry on?
I know. There are many distinctions we could and should make between the various behaviors I listed above. But I am asking your attention presently for what they have in common: what desire we express through every single one of them. We hope to understand, and where we do not, to believe an order exists that has meaning for us once we do. Perhaps to find a world where we know our own purpose, so we can find our way, even if surrounded by the obstacles we cannot make sense of. We may get to feel stronger over time. We may actually start to understand, and exercise power over our environment. And as our effective control over the world around us continues to increase, our awareness of anything that manages to escape it feels ever more intolerable.
There’s a principle I hold to be the secret behind many of man’s ventures, whether in child rearing, in adventures of discovery, in scientific research, in perfecting the recipe for sumptuous chocolate cake: if we knew what we were in for beforehand, we most likely would never start. Our blindness to unforeseen consequences is a blessing comparable to the foolishness of the snake who subjects a calf to his raging hunger, only to realize after a little while that he cannot stop eating, by which time it hopes it has the worst behind it. Both the snake and I, of course, is sure to forget the worst once all is over and we roll up in the sun to digest the fruit of our unrelenting appetite for success. And this applies where our own hardships are concerned – if it regards other people’s exertions, or deprivations from the past, the span of our memory reaches even less far. And so the idea that poverty until about a century ago was the lot of the great majority of people around the world is a truth that has drifted so far away from us as to have become almost unimaginable. Shall we talk about hunger?
Risk management has become a liability now that the peril is gone.
Not only has hunger declined as a daily phenomenon over the past century, famines have decreased, too, in the past century only occurring on a large scale in countries like the Soviet Union, China, and Bangladesh, and more recently only in North Korea. Being hungry at least part of the time was the rule for most of our existence as a species. That (the possible) lack of food continues to condition our behavior, therefore, should not surprise us. Abundance is a situation many of us struggle with as soon as society offers us anything beyond the bare minimum. Knowing you will still have more than enough food on the table tomorrow and the next day, as well as one month from now, evidently is not an incentive that is stronger than the call of millennia of genetical instructions telling us to stock up on nutrients. We call obesity a welfare disease, but what it really is a manifestation of, is how our evolutionary hardwiring overrules our intellectual luggage. In the following I hope to show that there are more mechanisms conditioning our conduct in a similar manner, whereby we can perceive not merely a dissociation of incentives from the various sources described, but we may well be caught in a self-propelling process, provoking us into a state of hysteria for reasons that are effectively becoming of diminishing existential import.
The ironic truth is that, by increasing our control, there seems to be an endlessly growing list of dreams that deserve to be meddled this way or that. There never is a limit to our expectations once our last desire was satisfied.
Some professionals refer to it as negativity bias, some call it click-baiting, still others simply claim the end of time is about to enter into effect, this time for real. In any event, globalization has proven to apply to the sphere of disaster as well. Crises and emergencies are mined the world over and though at times it makes perfect sense to report on an accident from the other side of the world – say, if it regards the type of plane you may board tomorrow – on other occasions the steering error of a day laborer in a far-away country takes on the prominence formerly only accorded to the vicissitudes touching on our closest ones. Our negativity bias, the tendency to always focus on the negative aspects of any situation, can be seen most blatantly in the way we consume news. That news still is taken to mean bad news is something worthy to ponder if we consider that life for most people – primarily in the West, but by now this applies to the great majority of people – no longer revolves around emergencies, death, and famine. One could argue this is logical, inasmuch as it is matters falling outside the norm that draw attention, but at the same time it hints at an experiential dissociation. This dissociation occurs not so much because the anecdotal evidence of the consumer of the news – from his own surroundings – is juxtaposed with anecdotal material from a different place so as to provide a window on a different world. What is deemed deservant of narration is invested with meaning.
Our modern lives are filled with tools that we use without ever understanding the way they function, whether it regards opening a faucet, operating a computer, or driving a car. As these thoughtless miracles accompany our daily lives, there seems hope for hope left.
Meaning is not an explanation, but as close as we may get. Meaning is where we seek to attribute a role to events and to ourselves where we cannot find a final cause. Meaning is inventing agency behind the facts of life, when you know you would change them, if such powers were at your disposal. Meaning is hope. Meaning is the mantra we sing to ourselves to quell our fear. But our fear of what? Doesn’t living a safe and to an extent fulfilling life carry enough meaning to carry on? Isn’t the fact that the newspaper reports car accidents from across the globe a sign that we essentially live out of harm’s way? A remarkable discrepancy continues to exist between people’s impression of rampant crime, while figures throughout the West indicate that it has been receding for decades. Natural disasters do happen, but we monitor earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados and the likes to a degree that the worst can be avoided. Wars are still being fought but at nowhere near the levels that were common during the past century. A meagre harvest in one country can be silently compensated for from the harvest in another part of the world. At the same time, phenomena that have accompanied our (pre-)history for thousands of years are looked upon with new-found dread, as if they hold exactly the type of lesson we were looking for. Migration and climate change are examples of such appeals to eschatology; these are not issues that are presented to us as situations that need thought to find solutions, but rather as definitive forks in the road of civilization itself. We are being gauged – they tell us – and meaning is attributed: not for ourselves, of course, but for the particular collective we are expected to pledge allegiance to.
We all carry some of these choices around through our personal lives – overtly or less so – by wearing the right carnation on a certain day, for instance, by maintaining the subscription for a particular publication we stopped reading a decade ago, by leaving a particular book on our coffee table, by quoting research results we have absolutely no clue of how they came about. The interesting thing is that as the world at large has become more inclusive and therefore varied and at the same time more secular, any single, pronounced faith no longer has ascendancy. It is ‘science’ that has generally taken over that role as point of absolute orientation for mankind to base its decisions on. The truth, of course, is rather more subtle. Science, as such, does not exist. There is a scientific method which may or may not be applied, but when science is referred to in any public or political debate, it tends to mean there is a single and uniform truth that should be adhered to undisputedly. Numbers always come in handy to create the suggestion of the scientific objectivity that has become an overt standard but measuring something does not amount to the uncovering of the causal relationship underneath it. This applies most decidedly to the statistical data the many models are based on that are presented to us as guidelines that should inform our future behavior. The mantra of numbers is sung to accompany our decision-making.
So just about when mankind was hammering the last nails in poverty’s coffin, one of the last strongholds of dirigiste economy serves us apples and oranges à la Piketty, a soup of correlations purporting to demonstrate that the problem wasn’t poverty, after all, but inequality. Publication of yet another of his volumes on inequality occurred just about when Maduro started ruling Venezuela by decree, as a further aid to equally distributed poverty among all Venezuelans besides those in power. The weight of Piketty’s lengthy studies is not carried by great attention for causation and empirical evidence, but by loads of statistics. A similar phenomenon can be perceived in the corpus of ‘environmental science’ which has mushroomed since just about the moment the Berlin Wall fell. Even as the environment of London is more livable than it has been for the past couple of centuries, we can swim again in many a river, Europe has become a lot greener over the past century, and private organizations are active all over the world to protect and save the variety of flora and fauna for our posterity. Again, in the absence of conclusive understanding of the causal mechanisms driving climate change historically, mathematical models are used not only to grasp correlations that may lead to an unambiguous hypothesis that can explain climate change in terms of geologic time and not as an isolated timeframe that coincidentally starts at the starting shot of the Industrial Revolution. Of course, plenty of scientists do investigate the issue in such terms, but this is not the kind of thorough and intricate study that is deemed to guide us for decision-making, that is assumed to carry meaning for us. In the meantime, the mathematical models are used to extrapolate from a specific section of historical data to another set of inexorable results. We have seen the same type of mathematical modeling during the Covid pandemic, of course, aggravated – or rendered even more futile, if you wish – by the insertion of inherently invalid data, for the simple reason that incompatible samples were combined, incomplete information was used, unreliable tests were applied, etcetera, etcetera. The inadequacy of this approach has perhaps been most noteworthy where it regarded medical findings.
I am not a physician, but perhaps that allows me to make an observation that is overdue as we, ignorant masses, are called upon to follow the indications of experts with a certain degree of blindness, as – of course – experts we are not. The uncomforting fact I am referring to is the circumstance that a major part of medical research has the form of statistical analysis. Where causal relationships are not clear, (double) blind testing uncovers correlations for us that may or may not be causal. So even if we know that incidence of Covid among the obese and among those with a vitamin D deficiency is more frequent, we still have no idea of the process underlying the infectious fate that may await us were we not to lose those pounds in excess or not to correct the lack of sunlight. What we do take away is a factor of risk.
Our tendency to accumulate excess calories in itself is a mechanism of risk management. Most of us know now how much food we will be able to consume in the coming week – you probably even know for the whole month. During most of our evolution as a species we were nowhere near such a luxurious position. The beauty of evolution was we were provided with a mechanism that allowed us to deal with that daily dearth. We should not be surprised that the present period of unprecedented abundance is accompanied by the proliferation of obesity. Risk management has become a liability now that the peril is gone. But I believe there is another survival mechanism we see struggling against our better interest during this pandemic as well. I have called it mental obesity for the reason described above, though I think its workings are more intricate and similar to an auto-immune disorder than our evolutionary drive to store caloric reserves. As a manner of introducing the idea I will pose you a question. What kind of society invents the not-so venerable activity of bungee jumping? What function, what value does fear-seeking have? Some of it we can surely explain away with reference to thriller movies, the biological tendency of the teenager (of mind if not of body) to act upon his own sense of immortality by seeking more dangerous pass-times. Personally, of course, I suspect something more is going on.
And that is where I find myself back again, reflecting on how our ever-more efficient means of survival may have encouraged our love of entertaining the dream we have had for so long, that of conjuring up the spirits that make things right. The ironic truth is that, by increasing our control, there seems to be an endlessly growing list of dreams that deserve to be meddled this way or that. There never is a limit to our expectations once our last desire was satisfied. But there’s more. Global child mortality has dropped from over 40% in 1800 to less than 5% in 2015. When we talk about love and care, especially towards children, what we may not realize is the extent to which those are acquired, even embattled, values that are the crown to these historical efforts. The rhetorical, and slightly tasteless, question to ask would be whether you would venture to love if you ran a risk of one out of two to lose your child. But the general point I am making – and another worthy example would certainly be the vastly different incidence of the maimed and disabled in society – is that sensitivity is an acquired luxury. Our sense of vulnerability may have always been there, but imagine how vastly different it makes itself felt between a situation where deadly threats are the quotidian standard and circumstances where an emergency can be defined in terms of limited internet access, or the discontinuation of a TV show. Our sensitivity to peril was an essential trait evolutionarily, considering our lack of physical strength and our directedness, not towards overpowering our environment, but to adapting it as well as ourselves. Now that those threats are close to gone, could it be the same mechanism renders us inversely more susceptible to any threat relative to what we have become accustomed to?
So in this timorous new world where we are finally able to fully appreciate the preciousness of life, we are surrounded by amenities we depend on, even if our actual application of them does not exceed by far the way our forebears would have handled their wand. One can argue that the behavior is teleologically the same. Our modern lives are filled with tools that we use without ever understanding the way they function, whether it regards opening a faucet, operating a computer, or driving a car. As these thoughtless miracles accompany our daily lives, there seems hope for hope left. We faithfully count on creations we do not understand, and we are required to interact with knowledge itself in a similar manner, especially if it is offered to us under the guise of ‘science’, and carrying, if not a stark warning, at least a message resembling meaning, purporting to explain to us a final cause or our ultimate purpose – maybe even both.
A reflection of the fusion of our hands with the remote controls they operate, and the concomitant conjuring we have grown accustomed to, is how we project some of those towering expectations on the world of politics as well. It is not just us, the electorate, of course. As a rule, a political party will start with presenting us all the problems they are the only one qualified to resolve. No one needs problems more desperately than politicians, because – otherwise – what would we need them for? But it seems that our reliance on instantaneous solutions may be mentally preparing us to have expectations from politics that we formerly would have called totalitarian. At what price a sugared drink should be available, what mode of transportation would be permitted between N and X, or what way we are allowed to consume our drink are rather overbearing decisions to delegate to a party with authority and the availability of violent means to enforce our compliance. Such policies are sold to us on the ballot’s occasion not so much under the pretense of common good, these days, as they are under threat of impending doom. If we see a resurgence of protectionism in international politics, it is attractive to peel back the skins of economic theory and geo-political interests and determine whether the appeal does not lie at a more intuitive, or even anthropological level. We have built in a world-wide peephole in every home, so building a wall to hide behind seems inversely proportional a measure. The tragic irony is that we will not notice how safe our own environment has really become; we have set ourselves a perfect trap to fear the worst from.
Even the surge in conspiracy theories can be explained in these terms. The idea that ‘things can go wrong’, that the natural environment – for us – is everything but an idyllic garden, that mistakes and poor thinking have always played a role much more decisive than that of decisive brilliance in history, that we may get sick and will pass away eventually: all such thoughts seem feeble excuses of impotent creatures against a backdrop of leadership that poses as your last resort in the face of imminent disaster. Perhaps the greatest mockery of all that politics has to offer for us now is that the worst calamity Party A – also known as the Left – claims it is going to protect us from is Party B – or the Right – as for Party B it is Party A. By extolling (and expanding) its own power and importance, politics is assuming a role of purpose in our lives, of meaning, in itself. For us, the voters, perhaps it is just as attractive to imagine institutions are that powerful; that a mark on our ballot will serve as a tap on our all-powerful remote wand, ready to save us from all dangers. If, only, the others do not end up on top.
What has happened in the process cannot be understood separately from the information revolution. Just as radio, cinema, and television offered a channel for politics to communicate directly with the people, so the internet has changed the power of communication in all respects. One aspect, already referred to, is the globalizing tendency of instant interconnectedness between the single most remote spots the world over. But if this gadget serves us up fears from anywhere we are connected with, the next aspect makes sure they will land with most dramatic effect. Because, as we have all learned, we are not anonymous on the internet, but rather represent a set of datapoints that – either through our commercial preferences, through location-data, by way of our hobbies, or perhaps through more directly political options – have tagged us as targets for a particular type of message. As advertisers before them, political pundits and actual or aspiring rulers have discovered how much of this information is non-intellectual, or at least non-political, per se. What we fear is where we may be motivated to take action. Simultaneous with this process of philosophical hollowing out of electoral orientation, another change related to the IT-age is well underway that is impossible to neatly separate from the former but does deserve specific mention. I am referring to the deflating role of professional journalism.
We have built in a world-wide peephole in every home, so building a wall to hide behind seems inversely proportional a measure. The tragic irony is that we will not notice how safe our own environment has really become; we have set ourselves a perfect trap to fear the worst from.
The slogan of ‘fake news’ is only a symptom of the phenomenon. The availability of cost-free information on the web and the consequent bleeding of professional press budgets, the entanglement of media in political strife, and the logic of clickbait which favors less over more serious publishers are all aspects of this development. This problem is only aggravated by the way we constantly select the data we process intellectually. As has been recently demonstrated by Harvard economists, we tend to perceive what we were looking for in the first place, and this tendency has only received a forceful stimulus from social media that make us find exactly what we were looking for anyway. Meaning selects facts – otherwise, how could notoriously false theories have withstood the test of time and observation so successfully for centuries? There have always been specific social classes charged with monitoring compliance with dominant theories of meaning; Brahmins, priests, aristocracy, imams, samurai had this role in pre-modern society. The social development that underlay the intellectual revolution we identify as the culmination of modern Western values – be it meritocracy, professional specialization, literacy, the principle of one-man-one-vote, or even our allegiance to the scientific method itself – has upended this more hereditary, or at least feudal way of organizing society. What the open, or liberal, society offers us is no longer a single, approved or official, vision on why we are here and what we are here for. The invention of terms like technocrat and clerisy, however, should have warned us of the perils that await those who imagine any reordering of society can be definitive. What recent developments seem to signal is a vanishing role for a middle class that for the past half millennium has not only manifested itself through professional specialization, but also by positioning itself at the center of influence channeling – if not wielding – power, positioned between the truly powerful – whether these are institutions, companies, or families – and the truly numerous masses. Now, the powers communicate directly with the people, and vice versa. If there is anything to be seriously worried about at the moment, it is the intuitive fluency with which both sides tend to find each other.
It is at this stage I would ask how much agency and meaning is sought by the people. Is the surge of the conspiracy an expression of this popular probe? Is this an unfair characterization on my part? Am I unfairly suggesting that it is the uneducated masses who are responsible for the proliferation of one conspiracy theory after the other? The most likely answer I will get is: yes, uneducated makes gullible and susceptible. And I will grant you that anti-elitism – whatever that may mean today – is a prominent ingredient of the sentiments on which such theories are brewed. But my point is another, one that may seem paradoxical, but that in my opinion lies at the heart of the symbiotic relationship between the dictator and his masses, between the one swearing on his omnipotence and those wishing to believe in it. Those powers may now still lie with malignant forces, but there is no movement of awareness that cannot, does not, promise to relieve us. The masses are a hopeless child, begging for salvation. Someone must be doing this. Someone must take this fear away.
@Jane took a deep breath. She knew she just needed to leave her worries in the hands of #Experts. It was not her #Task to do it herself. That was why everybody lived in #SerenityNow. She thought it was hard to imagine how people had dealt with having too big a #Footprint before, how life had been during the #Migrations. But all that was less than a memory now. Much like she managed to recall life with her #EntrustedCarer when she was just a child herself. As everybody knew, it was not about who did what, and what was caused how, but all matter of avoiding #DeadlyCorrelations. #Experts had banned all #Risk from our lives. @Jane was at her #Unit, free at last.
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