To solve “wicked problems”, we have to get out of whatever “ark of comfort” we’ve retreated into…

I’ve been down with Covid over the last few days and so reduced to consuming politics without being about to think about it critically or write about it. But, courtesy of John Naughton, I’d like to share an insight how we’re retreating into our own Arks.

As our concerns get narrower and narrower our ability to generate reactions to really big, even global issues diminishes says Venkatesh Rao:

There is something exhausted about the collective human psyche right now. It’s been battered so relentlessly for so long with things calling for reactions (either practical, or in the form of futile derangement syndromes) that we’re at saturation. We can’t respond any more strongly. We can’t get any more deranged than we already are.

Hunter S. Thompson famously remarked that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Well, we can’t turn any more pro at this point. [Emphasis added]

This, some of you may recall, is almost exactly why I left Twitter after fifteen years of virtual habitation there. John’s introductory commentary is also worth noting:

I don’t know about you but I feel increasingly like the guy in the cartoon — except that my concern there’s something terribly wrong with our world, not just the Internet. The difficulty is that remedying any of the wicked problems that beset us lies way above my — or your — pay grade, and perhaps above anyone’s pay grade.

And yet nobody writes about this, possibly because nobody wants to admit that we are locked in incompetent systems — ones that can’t fix themselves.

My take is that our popular social cognition systems (like Twitter/FB/TikTok) and proprietary and aimed not at helping us to arrive at better social decisions, but at making fantastic amounts of cash for a vanishingly small number of people.

The speed by which we can share our thoughts encourages the thoroughly weird idea that action should follow on directly (however incoherent and contradictory). Like being governed by a modern oracle no one can (reliably) translate.

Alastair Campbell in his latest podcast two hander with former Tory MP Rory Stewart mentioned something Arsene Wenger has said, which is that the pressure today is to act in tactical ways the right thing is to take the time to act strategically.

Rao again…

We increasingly respond practically to the world without even attempting to make sense of it.

One mental model for this condition is what I call ark head, as in Noah’s Ark. We’ve given up on the prospect of actually solving or managing most of the snowballing global problems and crises we’re hurtling towards. Or even meaningfully comprehending the gestalt.

We’ve accepted that some large fraction of those problems will go unsolved and unmanaged, and result in a drastic but unevenly distributed reduction in quality of life for most of humanity over the next few decades.

We’ve concluded that the rational response is to restrict our concerns to a small subset of local reality–an ark–and compete for a shrinking set of resources with others doing the same.

We’re content to find and inhabit just one zone of positivity, large enough for ourselves and some friends. We cross our fingers and hope our little ark is outside the fallout radius of the next unmanaged crisis, whether it is a nuclear attack, aliens landing, a big hurricane, or (here in California), a big wildfire or earthquake.

We’ve concluded the flood cannot be stopped, and we’re building arks to retreat to…

This pattern is everywhere. The recent Ireland’s Future event is such an Ark. In excluding the people (the as yet unconvinced) needed to make the idea work it encourages a fantasy that neither the expense nor sacrifices required will have to be made.

Liz Truss’s apparent retreat from mundane government responsibility for running the public service and balance the books into macro economic theory (some would say ideology) is another. But those are by no means the only two examples.

And I’m talking here not about personal character so much as a general response to bigger “rhythms” in the world. Rao concludes (concurring with what I think I’ve been trying to do through Slugger’s pluralism from before Twitter or FB began):

The universe is a big place, and it’s nice to be able to feel meaningfully connected to more than an ark-worth of its contents. It’s nice to be able to go out on the open deck and look out and make sense of what you see, even if you can’t shape events beyond ark-scale.

It’s nice to be able to tell stories at cosmic scale about the world and our place in it.

That’s perhaps the way out — keep trying to tell stories beyond ark-scale until one succeeds in expanding your horizons again. But until such narrative traction returns, we’ll have to make do with ark head.

As I’ve written elsewhere, what’s missing in this digital age, where the public voice is endlessly atomised, is a broadly shared narrative – anchored in a common understanding of where our place is in an ever-shifting contemporary world.

Bryan Delaney once memorably said: “we need to make a choice between stories that shrink life and stories that expand it and allow us to breath and to grow and to flourish.” That means getting out of our own Arks or letting fresh air in from the outside.

Aimsigh do thobar féin, a chroí,/óir tá am an anáis romhainn amach:/Caithfear pilleadh arís ar na foinsí.

– Cathal O Searcaigh

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