Monday, September 30, 2019

A New narrative for a Flourishing-Creative World and a Generative Future - Part 4 - Metaphors for generative growth

Metaphors for generative growth



There is another condition arising in the 21st Century adding dimensions accelerating the enactment of the digital environment. The emergence of a digital sensorium (constituted by the nervous system of the Internet-as-Platform, Social Media, the Internet-of-Things, ubiquitous sensors, AI and so much more). This retrieves (as McLuhanesque has noted for the electronic age) a sense of village including: the rumor mill and gossip of tribal cultures but on an unprecedented scale. 
Whereas the 20th Century retrieved the glory of centralized Empire monopoly as cultural resonator via the broadcast media of ‘manufactured consent’ - the 21st Century democratized the individual voice. 
While voice is democratizing - some, maybe many, think otherwise. There is lots of evidence that platforms are the new colonizing force of rent-seeking monopoly. This is a paradox - the barriers to entry to communicating have reduced to what Clay Shirky noted for publishing - simply pushing a button, clicking a mouse. But the publishing platforms have become the new East India Tea Company. 

The ease and democratization of publishing mean many more voices are able to join an exponentially expanding wellspring of knowledge and opinion. Many believe that we have lost our capacity for common consensus - as voices are experienced not simply as a cacophony chaos but that we have also entered a ‘post-fact era’. 

David Weinberger has so wonderfully explored the phenomena of the acceleration of knowledge “Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room The sense of fragmentation is a natural ‘hangover’ from becoming habituated to authoritative knowledge that broadcast media, hierarchical organizational architectures and the related engendering of dependence on Leadership have architected.

It’s not just the fragmentation, the globalizing digital environment has also produced a sort of disorientation associated with the unprecedented connectivity.  The fear of an increasing ‘responsibility’ presented to enact our freedom, is matched by the corresponding ‘response-ability’ required by accelerating change. This disorientation can leave ‘people yearning for a more secure past - a pervasive nostalgia. ‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. 
The consequence is “‘Restorative nostalgia’, which strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’, thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition’, obsesses over grand symbols and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’. 
It is conceivable that the real challenge facing us in the form of Climate Change is not a technological problem, nor a political problem. It is a crisis of consciousness. The challenge of Climate Change is easily grasped as a metaphor of an accelerating tsunami of change. But this change cannot be solved by enacting a ‘restorative nostalgia’ but rather we need to embrace a creatively generative orientation - an attitude to enact a flourishing society in a blooming healthy-vital evolving world. 
We face tectonic shifts in our cultures and our social-economic structures and processes. The digital environment is enacting an equivalent form of Social climate change. A looming transformation of social climate, far more profound that the changes enacted by the industrial society. The evolution of embodied knowledge that is the digital environment is enabling unprecedented information and creative knowledge flow. Part of the crisis arises from what Clay Shirky brilliantly phrased as Institutions and organisation seek to preserve the problem to which they were the solution.
Marshall McLuhan noted that the earth and life on it has become the responsibility of response-ability of the human project - which he considered was now an art project. This also emphasizes an emerging crisis of consciousness where humans must grasp themselves as a single species evolving in a single evolving environment. A huge challenge since both species and climate are ‘hyper objects’ so massive and so distributed that no single individual can grasp them.
This is how McLuhan preciently understood this situation:

For the first time the natural world was completely enclosed in a man-made container. At the moment that the earth went inside this new artifact, Nature ended and Ecology was born. "Ecological" thinking became inevitable as soon as the planet moved up into the status of a work of art.
Marshall McLuhan Unbound, p.4. 2005

McLuhan saw ecologies as a total field of simultaneous processes that included the communication systems enabling awareness of the system itself. In biology this is called homeostasis - the maintaining of viability among innumerable constituents of any living system-environment complex. The implication for concepts of causality is that ‘everything causes everything’.
The simultaneity of co-creating processes can have other implications for understanding the human construct of culture versus nature. All living systems contribute in some way to niche creation, maintenance and building. All living systems are in some way depend on some form of ‘built environment’. 
How we understand our co-creation of our niches (ecologies and environments) can be structured by the metaphors we use
The metaphors we use for the Earth, he proposes, influence the way we frame problems and, therefore, affect our actions. Whether Gaia can regulate itself, Mother Earth will take care of us, or Spaceship Earth needs a mechanic, depends on which metaphor is part of your worldview. Larson’s wish is that metaphors can help us recognize our place within nature and our interconnectedness with other species.

Another example is the complexity involved with the metaphor of continuous growth - often considered a key problematic concept of contemporary economics. Growth is linked to success and lack of growth implies stagnation and the oxymoron of growing smaller suggest a loss. The question of limits to growth can be challenged by asking when can living systems stop growing - if ever? In the case of a finite area then what is the limit to niche density?
There are other examples of how metaphors can combine to create integrated cultural realities. For example, references to ‘Mother Earth’ ‘Mother Nature’ ‘Gaia’ become easily entangled with metaphors of ‘motherland’ ‘fatherland’ and associated with metaphors of the national family. This in turn becomes easily associated with ‘Strict Father’ and leadership hierarchies that aim to shape the governance of nations and organizations. Governance structures become emulations of natural order - parent-child emulates leader-citizen and so on. The evocation of citizen-as-child shapes a more dependent citizen seeking to be protected and saved by parent-leaders. 
Let’s think of the metaphor of generativity. Generativity - is an adult responsibility and response-ability.  The evocation of creativity also brings to mind the capacity for ‘response-ability’. The challenge we face as a global species is one of our transformation from childhood to adult. 
But adulthood also encounters mortality and another dimension of sustainability involves a sort of eternity that denies death in the face of the fear of death.The unwillingness to meet one’s own death - the paradoxical shadow behind both the meme of sustainability and that aspect of the “technological singularity” that yearns to extend life indefinitely - to achieve a sustainable life. As Ray Kurzweil has noted the longer we live the longer we can live. 
The idea of sustainability also promises a sense of certainty in a nostalgic retreat to time as a cycle rather than a forward evolving pattern of change. This nostalgia makes sense has a hangover of the 20th Century. John Higgs has written a fascinating account of the 20th Century in his book “Stranger Than We Can Imagine”. He provides a compelling argument that the developments in science and culture shattered the pillars of many sources of human certainty. 
The de-centering of the traditional paradigms of ‘certainty’ included the possibility of ‘a universal objective frame of reference’ (Einstein's relativity); a unified consciousness (Freud, Jung, et al illumination of the unconscious); the inability to predict even fully deterministic systems (Chaos theory and sensitivity to initial conditions); the unpredictability of complex systems and emergent qualities; the human leap into space; the sexual revolution; all manner of postmodernism and more. Higgs’ account is well worth the read. He sets up our current situation of Global Warming as a crisis of consciousness. 
Edgar Morin was very eloquent in summarizing the cultural and other challenges we faced with the end of the 20th and the approaching new millennium. 
Modernity had been and still remains a civilizational complex animated by an optimistic dynamism. However, the problematization of the triad [science-technology-industry] that animates this dynamism rendered modernity itself problematic. Modernity harbored the ideas of individual emancipation, the generalized secularization of values, and the distinction between the true, the beautiful, and the good.  However, individualism henceforth no longer only meant autonomy and emancipation but also atomization and anonymization. Secularization meant not only liberation from religious dogmas but also loss of foundations, anxiety, doubt, and nostalgia for the great certitudes. The distinctiveness of values led not only to moral autonomy, aesthetic exaltation, and the free search for truth but also to demoralization, frivolous estheticism, and nihilism. 
There has been a general consciousness that we are not in the next to last stage of history,awaiting the day of fulfillment. There has been a general sense that we are not heading toward a radiant, nor even a happy, tomorrows. However, what has been and is still lacking is the consciousness that we are now in the Planetary Iron Age - the prehistory of the human spirit.
Edgar Morin - Homeland Earth, p. 58
Morin goes on to note that all evolution requires leaving a past behind, that there can be no creation without simultaneous destruction. 
One must understand that, as everything that lives if bound to die, each culture is worthy of living but must know how to die. We must also maintain the necessity for a planetary culture. It is true that the multiplicity of cultures, with their marvellous adaptation to local conditions and problems, stand as obstacles to the attainment of the planetary culture. Yet can we not extract from each on and generalize the richness of what each has to offer? How then can we integrate the values and treasures of cultures in the process of disintegration? Is it not too late? We therefore have to come to terms with two contradictory injunctions: to save the extraordinary cultural diversity created by the human diaspora and at the same time, to nourish a planetary culture common to us all. 
Edgar Morin - Homeland Earth, p. 62
The complexity of co-creating living systems means that there is no single priority - no ‘first problem’ to which all other problems must be subordinated. Rather there are many vital interdependencies, antagonisms, crises, uncontrolled processes, in addition to the general crisis climate change. The future has always been uncertain - but the 21st Century challenges us to face and dispel the illusions of certainty. The positive shadow of uncertainty is the corresponding openness of the future to unknowable possibilities.  
However, to grasp the possibilities of an open future - a creative flourishing generative future we must embrace a paradox: Cultures must be both protected and opened to change. This is ancient wisdom - all culture have encountered others and assimilated new customs, practices, language, knowledge. Any approach to a flourishing future that is not shaped by paradigms of complexity is bound to suffers an inability to be proceed with realism. And ‘real realism’ does not provide us with a security blanket of certainty. This same paradox is applicable to all ecologies and to climate itself. 
What is required for guidance is less related to the precautionary principle but rather what Kevin Kelly called a vigilance principle. Such an approach enables us to enact what Morin calls an ‘ecology of action’. Which means that we must make ‘bets’ aware of risks and with a deep strategy focused on ‘response-ability’ - in order to modify or cancel any action. 
As Aurelio Peccei and Daisaku Ikado have put it: “The reductionist approach, which consists in relying on a single series of factors to regulate the totality of problems associated with the multiform crisis we are currently in the middle of, is less a solution than the problem itself.”
Edgar Morin - Homeland Earth. 1999, 128.
A simple metaphorical question can give us a sense of how to compare the power and promise of framing efforts to create a sustainable future versus a framing our efforts to create a future that is creatively generative? 
Would your spouse be enthralled and enamored if you described your relationship as ‘sustainable’ - ‘We have a sustainable marriage.’ Or would your partner be enamored and inspired with a description of your approach to relating to each other as -  ‘Our relationship is a creative and generative work of art’. 
In a world that continually evolves survival can only be ensured by creative and generative adaptation.
Thus we are faced with profound responsibility to enact our response-ability. We are living through an age of deep transformation and our choices are about how we can move forward. I will finish this last of my four part exploration with a suggestion by David Grinnspoon in his Aeon article - Welcome to Terra Sapiens:
I propose that we call this time we’ve been living through so far, the age during which we’ve been accidentally tinkering with planetary evolution, the ‘proto-Anthropocene’. We can regard this phase as a first step in realising our lasting role on Earth. It might be a necessary prelude to the mature Anthropocene, when we fully incorporate our uniquely human powers of imagination, abstraction and foresight into our role as an integral part of the planetary system. The ‘mature’ part of the name differentiates conscious, purposeful global change from the inadvertent, random changes that have largely brought us to this point.
Viewed this way, the Anthropocene is something to welcome, to strive for.
Even changing global climate and initiating mass extinction is not a human first. Photosynthetic bacteria did that some 2.5 billion years ago.
Until now, the people causing the disturbances had no way of recognising or even conceiving of a global change. Yes, humans have been altering our planet for millennia, but there is something going on now that was not happening when we started doing all that world-changing.
To me, what makes the Anthropocene unprecedented and fully worthy of the name is our growing knowledge of what we are doing to this world. Self-conscious global change is a completely new phenomenon. It puts us humans into a category all our own and is, I believe, the best criterion for the real start of the era.