If nothing else, this site and all the work on it, serves a very important purpose: it is a snapshot of my mind at its best and worst moments, all my best ideas and best thinking preserved, in some kind of context, a kind of a lifeline to lead me back out of the occasional blind alley. I suppose that is one of the points of having a journal in the first place. Even deeper though, I have come to think of this place as a concrete manifestation of a guiding spirit. It is odd to be able to go back and hear my own voice telling me things I ought to know, and once did, but forgot.

If human history were just a matter of us learning things once and moving on, of a painfully slow yet incremental and one way ascent into the light of understanding, things would be drastically different for all of us. But of course, they are not that way at all. We receive lessons, then forget them, then struggle bitterly to win them back again, time and time and time again, until the world around us bears enough marks of the lessons that they become burnt into the very landscape, and we simply live in the space that has been carved out, whether we have ourselves actually understood anything or not. In a very real sense, it is not people who learn, but the world. It is the lessons embedded in the world that shape our behaviour.

It doesn’t matter if you understand how cars work, how electricity is generated, why slavery and child labour are immoral. Those lessons are carved into the social economic and even physical landscape. You are surrounded by cars, you use electricity and there are no slaves. Similarly, it doesn’t really matter how often you think you understand something, it isn’t until you reprogram the environment, that your actual behaviour changes in a lasting way. We are only weakly creatures of rationality, and very strongly creatures of instinct and habit. the best use of our fleeting rational faculties, of our transient willpower, is to change the world around us, to make into a manifestation of understanding. To make the world into an extended mind. Our guiding spirit.

Once you begin to see this, it is utterly clear why few positive changes get much traction, and what does happen appears often to be utterly inexplicable or orthogonal to our intentions. If all you do is think of choice and action, and the childish democratic calculus of getting everyone to think the same ideas as the only way to improve our situation, you will miss the way the manifest conditions override even the largest electorates. Millions of people protest the second iraq war before it even starts, net effect? Zero. Design a cellphone cheap enough that everyone on earth can own one? Sooner or later everyone will.

Philosophically speaking, I am closer and closer to be a thoroughgoing monist: whatever is going on here is all one thing, one fundamental substance. There is no point talking about matter and mind as separate things. In a very real sense, if you want to change enough minds, and it’s abundantly clear that is what we need to do, then it’s all about moving the right kind of material stuff around in a way that our collective extended mind has finally learned something in a way that sticks. Instead of letting ourselves get lost in mere rhetoric about justice, peace, freedom and evolution, while embedded in the material assumptions of corruption, warfare, coercion and stagnation, maybe we should struggle always to remember that justice will only be guaranteed when injustice becomes physically impossible. We should remember to ask ourselves what a manifest justice looks like, the same way we are often asked to visualise a ‘free market’.  We should remember to ask what we look like in the mirror when our lessons are written in our very flesh, and the world itself has been transformed into our guiding spirit. The ‘true will’ only matters if it strong enough, for just a moment, to move us closer to that.


7 thoughts on “Forgetting to Remember

  1. Zac, just a note to let you know that I’m reading your blog and appreciate the depth of thought and substance which you put into it. Your comments two posts down on “doomer fatigue” crystalised the nagging dissatisfaction I had been marking for some time. Thanks for what you are contributing.

  2. Zac, very interesting stuff. I have only read a few things, but I will be reading more. You shoudl check out my blog. I’ve just started, but I’m going to be working with it a lot. I think you’ll find it interesting as I can tell that our thoughts have affinity. It may not be obvious to you at the moment, but as I transcribe more of my hand written journals and ideas, it should become clear.

    I’m over at jeromeyers.wordpress.com

  3. There is a lot of insight in this post :- I very much agree that our physical world is in a coupled relationship that part in part constrains and conditions our ideas. You’re in a long philosophical tradition there, among many others ole’ Karl Marx with his ‘historical materialism’ and ideas of ‘cultural superstructure’ on top of a base mode of production/economic relations was certainly of this ilk.

    But in the spirit of not forgetting – aren’t you downplaying the value of ideas, norms and values in shaping and organising behaviour? E.g in your previous post on psych health where you emphasised the importance of Meaning that was essential and could at least (temporarily) overcome difficult physical conditions?

    I was going to say that capitalism, prohibitions against slavery, feminism, laws to prohibit ethnic discrimination, Open Source, etc were all Ideas before they were some sort of socio-physical-economic ‘realities’. But then I realised that there was varying extents of after-the-fact rationalising and theorising of emerging conditions and nascent practices in all these cases.

    Technology certainly changes the world – but it interacts and is shaped by culture, politics, power-structures, norms, laws, contingent luck – so I tend to disagree with the likes of Bucky Fuller we should only focus on, if I recall the quote roughly, ‘changing the world through technology and the snapping dragon of Politics will follow, dragged by its tail’.

    One way I’ve been getting at this, via my research work, is the idea of ‘Path Dependence’ of socio-technical practice, where both institutions and ways of technical decision-making processes are a big part of this. How do we nudge Paths in the right direction and make them responsive to appropriate change when necessary – especially when we don’t have a “killer app” technology to help in the process?

    Lately I’ve been increasingly interested in the education system as part of this, and been meaning to give a serious look at the works of John Dewey etc.

    Maybe all this seems a bit late in the game given the kind of environmental & other systemic challenges we’re up against but it’s my own take on trying to do ‘the next right thing’ rather than give in to a response of either willful ignorance or despair.

  4. well, if I’m getting the substance of your comment, then yes I am downplaying of values norms ideas et al in shaping behaviour. though I think all those things are shaped more by environment than anyone likes to admit.

    my underlying point I think, if can recall exactly what was going through my head at the time, was that “change activists” for lack of a better term place way too much emphasis on conscious activity, when for most people, most of the time, our decisions are not conscious, and we simply follow the paths that our environment carves out for us. if we put all our eggs in the conscious change basket, then I think that it is non-starter. a lot of the time consciousness is irritating, painful, and an energy drain for most people. if we want justice, and we think that means everyone is consciously choosing justice, we’ll be waiting a long time. if we carve out channels towards justice and people just swim that way because that’s the way the water flows, I think we’ll get a lot farther than we will hoping for planetary consciousness change. the key is being conscious just long enough to change the way the machine steers everyone while they spend most of their time asleep. that includes oneself.

    1. Thanks Zac. Ah, your comments then make a lot of sense in relation to your earlier post about the Occupy movement, which I also agreed with.

      Coincidentally, I was just looking up the book “Responsive Environments” (http://books.google.com.au/books/about/Responsive_Environments.html), considered a modern classic in urban design thinking. From the online blurb, it says it is “most concerned with the areas of design which most frequently go wrong and impresses the idea that *ideals alone are not enough*. Ideals must be linked through appropriate design ideas to the fabric of the built environment itself.” (my emphasis). Which w.r.t. Occupy, makes me think that they were potential *right* to make new practices about public space a big part of the project, but as you say failed to make any real physical and institutional change as a result that would out-last the protests.

      You’re right us humans like to cherish our rationality though :- architects or planners who make a big deal about how ‘environments shape values and behaviour’ periodically get accused of being environmental determinists, as if this is a Very Bad Thing.

      Anyway, thanks for the reply – this exchange has helped me think through a trickier aspect of the philosophical framing of my research, which I have to take a position on. Another guy’s thinking who might be interesting in this respect is Bruno Latour :- I’m currently reading his book “Aramis: or the Love of Technology”.

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