The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.
~ Albert Bartlett
Albert Bartlett has apparently been giving a similar lecture to the one above for most of his career. (note – the entire lecture is about 80 minutes, but the first 10 minutes summarizes his main point)
I think we tend to assume that growth is the desirable future. All of our economy and culture is now based on this assumption. Many children wake up each day and embrace some technology before they embrace a parent.We live in a competitive environment, a technological world.
In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin spends some time explaining how the world economy is dependent upon fossil fuels. Rifkin suggests there is a range of predictions for when “peak oil” will occur (peak oil is a point when the maximum production of oil is reached). That range spans from the 197o all the way up to 2050 and well beyond. It may have already occurred for some countries, others may have more time, all depending on what measurements are used.
Many people have debunked the idea that there will be such a thing as peak oil production. Conventional oil production may have peaked but non-conventional production is affected by innovation, investment and some environmental concerns. Some have even called peak oil a myth.
The argument over peak oil will likely continue. I’m not really interested in the argument, and I admit I’m probably too ignorant to have an opinion that says anything useful about the issue. If anything though, I think the argument itself can tell us something about how people face things like the myth of growth. Some people see growth, and resources, as something that can be assumed. Others are not so sure.
To be clear, I am more interested in this inability to understand a simple mathematical function and its implications. I am reminded of this quote from A.N. Whitehead:
The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.
Do you think growth is a myth?
Do you think the general public’s inability to understand the exponential function is a shortcoming, and should we do anything about it?
[Part 1 - the history of the audience, Part 2 - the plural nature of the audience]
Although Peterson’s work on the metamyth has the potential to transcend the gender stereotypes embedded within it, as well as bridge the divide between religious tradition and scientific exploration, I believe there is a fourth element to story that has been somewhat ignored. Peterson breaks down mythology into the known (social order) the unknown(the complex natural world) and the knower(the one that explores or goes through change) in order to show how stories act as maps for behavior through appealing to the most common and general experiences of our lives. His focus in Maps of Meaning is to provide a starting framework for understanding human motivation and behavior when dealing with novelty or new information. And he found that framework in mythological consciousness and in the art of storytelling.
The point of mythologies, steeped in exciting adventures and harrowing ordeals, is to show us how we can adopt stories as guides for how to act in situations when we don’t know how to act. But we must also adapt these stories to our personal life or current situation. We all experience these moments of facing the unknown, but if we are armed with a heroic attitude, we can find promise and hope in that unknown, and endure a journey in which we are reborn wiser, stronger, more skilled, and able to contribute to the community, even if it means making personal sacrifices.
But in a sense, these three elements (the known world, the unknown world and the exploring hero) don’t tell the whole story. There is a fourth element that takes the story in by hearing the ideas or watching the dramatic actions, either through imagination or through some medium. This fourth element is the empathic audience.
The title of this post refers to something from Marshall McLuhan – The medium is the message and the viewer is the content (see this post where I try to explain it a little, or see this other website). I want to substitute Peterson’s three elements into the statement- the known is the unknown and the audience is the knower. The stories we know and tell each other prepare us to face the unknown with the right attitude, and the audience must empathize and identify with the heroes. Without the audience, there is no story.
Jeremy Rifkin separates the history of global civilizations into different modes of consciousness.
I want to use this breakdown to give an oversimplified history of the empathic audience as related to how we use stories. (I would like to flush these ideas out further but I have some limitations when it comes to time, persistence and competence. I’d like to make a more thorough and proper study to explain all this, but that would take a whole book…)
In tribal culture, where Mythological consciousness bloomed and matured, the audience listened to the stories but then actively participated in the rituals – the hunt, the war dance, the rain dance, the trip into the dark magic forest, etc. The behavior that led to transcendence was not (always) restricted to the chief or the storyteller. Identification with the hero in a story was more direct and simple. Mythological consciousness continually tried to instill within the individual the proper heroic attitude and bring the individual to the unknown prepared, armed and hopeful. The audience takes representation within the very story itself sometimes (friends of the hero, family of the hero, social norms in the story that reflect the customs of the tribe, or even just the hero herself).
In empirical culture and Religious consciousness – the audience watched spectacle. Involvement became generally passive and began its evolution towards what we understand as the audience’s role today. The written word, an extension of the eye, started to replace the spoken story as the authoritative medium. Central American priests sacrificed thousands of people to the sun while the gathered population stood and witnessed the ritual. In Mesopotamian or Egyptian empires, the emperor, king or the highest caste performed the rituals and held connection to the transcendent. Only an elite group was usually literate and held the power of knowledge. The audience tended to work through a medium of a priest or official to maintain or achieve any kind of relationship with the transcendent. Where Mythological consciousness was primarily concerned with teaching the individual how to act, Religious consciousness focuses on holding the attention of the audience and controlling the audience’s safe transcendence. The audience identifies itself as followers or members, not regenerating or living the stories as much as witnessing the stories or being responsible to the stories.
In Ideological consciousness, the audience watched plays or read books. The world and all its stories became much more accessible due to transportation and technology. Transcendence came from exposure to something that was either convincing, inspirational or able to temporarily suspend disbelief. But the audience turned into a more complex consumer, able to both pick their journeys of transcendence as well as become much more passive and uninvolved. Reading and reviewing a book, for example, is a much more individual pursuit than participating in an ancient hunt. Watching and critiquing a theatrical performance is quite a detached activity compared to participating in a tribal dance. The main goal of Ideological consciousness is to understand things, or know the object-world of what is, even to the point of ignoring or suppressing the individual’s confrontation with the unknown. The audience identifies itself by adopting titles or labels that usually end with ‘-ist’ or ‘-ism’.
Psychological consciousness created an audience enthralled with the inner journey and upward economic mobility. Electricity became a dominant technology. Where print was an extension of the eye, electrical circuitry became an extension of the nervous system. Audiences became further detached or isolated from the ritual and the story due to screen-media technology. The nature of story itself transformed. Television abandoned the traditional story line for sharp commercial effects and the snappy delivery of punchlines. Comic book superheroes had sidekicks, little representations of the audience drawn into the story and playing right along.Transcendence became understood as celebrity and fame and success. Again the choice was still present though – the audience could actively participate through modeling heroes, achieving goals, pursuing social change and identifying with movements, or they could passively participate through hoping to be discovered, collecting memorabilia, and (to use a religious and modern pop phrase) worshiping their idols. In some respects, the focus of Psychological consciousness was the unknown, and in particular the unknown within the individual. The audience might identify itself as having a prescribed ‘condition’ that needs to be managed or a ‘talent’ that needs to be recognized and developed. The audience might also buy into a program in order to gain self-fulfillment or general improvement. The audience member became a fan (from fanatic).
Today, according Rifkin, we are entering into a world Dramaturgical consciousness. Video games, improvisational theatre, instantaneous media, abundance of new information, and global identities have created a mass audience with choices – we can easily get involved through participation (giving instant evaluation of news, adding voices for support or dissent, acting as a mass towards global goals) or through passive consumption (retreating from available new information, adopting apathetic disinterest and angst, or buying into the benefits without giving or establishing relationships in return). The audience is embedded within the story and getting constantly bombarded with novelty and challenge. These new media are all extensions of the community. The goal of Dramaturgical consciousness, I hope, is to not only see the whole story, but take part in it too.
We have a way to fully understand and live McLuhan’s cryptic declaration: the medium is the message and the viewer is the content. But now, we share a really, really big story and we have to make sure we do things right – especially since each individual, almost literally now, has the power to challenge the present culture (activism), bring down chaos on society (terrorism), create innovative change (technological growth) and re-establish social order (relationships within an international community).
The theme for this past month’s book reviews has beenDissemination — how we spread ideas, how those ideas are explained and how they are understood. In the introduction, I looked at three attempts at explaining the meaning behind virgin births. The point was to show how an idea is not just an idea. How an idea is presented, and what can be done with the information, is just as important as the idea itself.
I have tried to provide videos from each writer alongside my book reviews to further illustrate how ideas depend greatly on their presentation and use. Below is a collection of some of the ideas and lessons learned from the four books.
How we manage energy use, and how we communicate, directly impacts how we trust one another and how we perceive the borders between ourselves, others and the world. We don’t have to rely or accept the old explanations. Even if the ancients may have figured something out first, it doesn’t stop the process of refinement, adjustment, innovation and change. A strange future is possible where we can be wholly independent from each other while completely interdependent with each other. According to Rifkin, this future is possible if we understand our empathic natures, share our stories openly and work together.
There are mental processes in our own brains we may not control. However, we can manage our environment and be conscious of what is influencing us. The key is to face our problems directly. Instead of accepting easy and quick explanations, or trying to consciously control everything, we need to take on the challenge of disciplined, thorough learning. But just as important, we need structured environments where play is nurtured and encouraged. It’s dangerous to hold onto firm, permanent conclusions, but it is healthy to play with ideas.
The Epic of Evolution is a story that we can all share, appreciate and learn from, according to Goodenough. We can give our assent to it without losing sight of what else is important – how we respond to life and what gifts we offer to the emerging generations. We can accept what is while at the same time decide together what matters.
The ideas of a global consciousnessand a better future came up in all four of these books. These four very different and secular writers share common goals although they each offer somewhat different perspectives and different paths. This might be the biggest lesson for me. With the spread of ideas and sharing of explanations, we are ever-so slowly coming together. We are working towards something. However, the stories we now tell suggest there is a change in how we symbolically represent or understand our goals, and ourselves.
So, what’s important? The goal, the story, the lesson, or the symbol? Or each other?
And so, instead of rolling out a long list of quotations from Jeremy Rifkin’s book, I’m going to limit myself to just one for this post. (Well, ok, it’s a composite really. I cheated and put a few together.)
We are strange creatures. We can put our meaning above our survival.
There is no dividing line between what one is and what one ought to be. To our knowledge, we are unique among the animal species in that we are the only ones who tell stories. We live by narrative.
Concepts like the past, present, future and the resolution of conflict are all introduced to the child by way of narrative.
Narrative is critical to transforming empathic distress to empathic engagement.
We are each a composite of the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories others tell about us.
Now, to further explore my current theme of Dissemination, I have four options for you nudging readers. Compare what you know of Rifkin’s message if you:
1. Judge the book by its title. (instantaneous)
2. Read the book. (the effort of finding the book and going through the 600+ pages)
3. Watch this video. (about 10 minutes)
4. Read the book review below from a hack. (that’s me)
The scope of this book is enormous. In just over 600 pages, Rifkin tracks the course of human progress by describing a kind of map for the changes in our consciousness, our energy consumption and our communication revolutions. We are currently at a point where the level of trust between individuals needs to be so high that we require a system in place that will allow global consciousness to flourish, energy use to be less damaging, and access to information to be universal.
I’m a little jealous of this writer. He employed a phenomenal research team to compile, compress and check all the resources that were examined for this book (25 pages of tiny endnotes and a Bibliography boasting nearly 300 titles). But with the resources available to him, and the goal of explaining what we have all been doing here on planet Earth, he better be thorough in his work. I’m probably not qualified to evaluate the even-handedness or quality of the sources, but I would imagine some deep scrutiny would suggest there are opposing sources not suitably rebutted and rallying sources overused. Such is the nature of publishing…
Rifkin’s main point in this book is this:
At the very core of the human story is the paradoxical relationship between empathy and entropy. Throughout history new energy regimes have converged with new communication revolutions, creating ever more complex societies. More technologically advanced civilizations, in turn, have brought more diverse people together, heightened empathic sensitivity, and expanded human consciousness. But these increasingly more complicated milieus require more extensive energy use and speed us towards resource depletion.
The irony is that our growing empathic awareness has been made possible by an ever-greater consumption of the Earth’s energy and other resources, resulting in a dramatic deterioration of the health of the planet.
The book is separated into three parts, each with five chapters. There is a straightforward and concrete style to Rifkin’s writing. He isn’t trying to exaggerate his vocabulary or impress his reader with convoluted acrobatics. He wants the weight of the ideas to drive the message, I think. However, a lot of the sentences are long and strung together with many ‘and’s and ‘or’s. He puts lists and qualifications and histories together all in one thought. Maybe that’s the compromise that comes with his scope.
Part 1 is about rethinking what it means to be human, and Rifkin explores the different ideas that we have used through history to describe our ‘nature’. Also, he gives a detailed explanation of the history of psychology, showing how the narrative within that one discipline has changed so radically. Rifkin drops Latin descriptions of human beings throughout these chapters as a kind of teasing theme. He goes from homo erectus (the upright small-brain creature, to homo homini lupus(the savage beast to his fellows), to homo ludens (the playful character-actor) to what Rifkin refers to as homo empathicus (the emotionally literate, sharing collaborator).
The following chart is my attempt to summarize Rifkin’s breakdown of history:
He explains the relationships between the three as follows:
The convergence of energy and communications revolutions not only reconfigure society and social roles and relationships but also human consciousness itself. Communications revolutions change the temporal and spatial orientation of human beings and, by doing so, change the way the human brain comprehends reality. Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness, while early electricity cultures spawn psychological consciousness.
Each more sophisticated communication revolution brings together more diverse people in increasingly more expansive and dense social networks. By extending the central nervous system of each individual and the society as a whole, communications revolutions provide an ever more inclusive playing field for empathy to mature and consciousness to expand.
Rifkin is not trying to say there is some sort of ‘invisible hand’ at play here. Each of the listed types of consciousness, for example, can be found simultaneously in cultures throughout the world. He goes into great length on how the collapse of Rome created a long history of separate populations in Europe and stagnant technological growth. As well, very early on he discusses the importance of keeping in mind the universal law of entropy. What he is saying is that when the convergence happens, there is a shift in how we represent ourselves, how we understand ourselves, how much we come to trust others, and how we shape the direction of our ‘progress’.
Part 2 is about civilization. There are some brilliant micro-histories plotted out in this section — the shift from ‘we’ tribal identities to ‘I’ individual and citizen identities; the birth of recognizing individuals before the law instead of by familial ties; the history of relationships towards deities; slavery from Rome to Europe to America and its end; property and ownership from physical items to intellectual works; the introduction of privacy in personal lives; the birth of the chair in European furniture; the creation of childhood; how affection and romance entered and became an expectation in married life; the formation of nations and subsequent conscious construction of official languages for those nations; the rise of romance novels; the effects of radio and television on our consciousness, and more. And each time, Rifkin traces back to his main point, that our consumption of energy rises and our communication technologies become more sophisticated and our collective consciousness extends so that barriers between self and other and world dissolve and need re-interpretation. Rifkin also focuses on the writings of specific historical figures like St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in order to illustrate the changing nature of consciousness and self-identity.
I had to wonder if Rifkin was having some fun in this section. At one point he makes mention of the “nature of human nature”. When discussing the changes in consciousness of the late 1800s, he says it was the artists of the period that had the biggest impact on changing the “perspective on perspective.” If I ever meet Jeremy Rifkin at a social function or informal gathering, I would be tempted to ask him for his opinion on why academics feel the need to generate abstractions of… well… abstractions.
Part 3 is about today and tomorrow. Rifkin uses his research team’s collected statistics in great mass in this section. A lot is known numerically about today, after all. These chapters are written with a balance of caution and possibility. He spends a lot of time discussing the Millennial Generation (the population growing up never knowing a world without the Internet), and how they seem to be caught in a curious dialectic. They are the most sharing-oriented, socially conscious, and globally aware generation, while at the same time the most possession-driven, narcissistic, and self-consumed.
Rifkin seems to see these two directions playing out in the energy industries of the world as well. He uses his economics background in this section to describe just how much the world depends on fossil fuels, but his explanations come from the voice of a matter-of-fact teacher using general language and simple examples. He also mentions at length the emerging ‘intergrid’. Companies are using the Internet as a model for energy production, decentralized distribution and collaborative, non-hierarchical management.
Another one of Rifkin’s playful themes in the book can be seen in the derivations he finds for Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. This phrase is often translated as “I think therefore I am.” Thought, ergo some kind of existence. However, our psychological consciousness has brought us to a point where involvement becomes the key to our being. I participate, therefore I am. And in the present consciousness the individual expects rights of access and the free flow of information. The idea of embodied cognition and its growing application is important for Rifkin. With such interaction comes the idea that we change as much as we change the world also. I am involved, therefore I exist. Rifkin puts together philosophical tradition with psychological examination and emerging modern concepts over and over again in this book. And by doing so he paints a detailed picture of our very fluid, changing ‘natures’, but also our potential global direction.
In some ways, there is very little new in Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization. But, he does bring it together with a new vision. And he brings a lot of it together. But as we all should know by now, a 600-page cinder block of a book does not always disseminate well. The vision can get lost, the anchor can be brought up, and the message can become so distorted that it cannot help but to look inconsistent or self-refuting.
Full disclosure: Yea, I’m a convert. I’m very tempted to use this one book for the rest of the year and devote the blog to spreading Rifkin’s ideas. There are so many specific things in this book that I want to chew on, so many directions to move in, but the constraints of a blog post are too limiting (I’m already 800 words over my self-imposed guideline for post-length).
Usually, if I agree too much with what I’m being told, that’s a sign for me to look deeper, find something. I haven’t found that yet in this book, except for some worries about the level of trust that is needed to achieve such a brave, bright, new empathic world. The book is somewhat too focused on European and American history. This may suggest a blind spot in his information – Asia might not want to play a part in the empathic game he has laid out. But then again, Asia’s progress may still fit in terms of energy use, communication technologies, and the debut of dramaturgical consciousness. After all, it was Asia that gave us the gift of karaoke…
For all the build-up, the end of Rifkin’s book didn’t deliver complete satisfaction for me. I was left with the sense that maybe we could pull ourselves into some global balance and fight off the jabberwocky of entropy for a while longer, but the amount of change necessary is tremendous. He’s banking on the malleability of human nature. As a result, this book is an amazing thought experiment on how we can be, how we can look at our history and what direction we can take. But that still leaves the door wide open for how we actually respond to living in the world.
I do want to trust everyone. I really really do. I want to believe in technology. I really do think it can save us, or at least make us aware enough to change. I do think understanding empathy is important and can heal the darker sides of our consciousness. The world Jeremy Rifkin sees possible is better than the world we have now, and the route he outlines might get us there.
Jeremy Rifkin thinks we are more naturally empathic than we give ourselves credit for.
A few main points:
1. The way we see ourselves is changing. We not naturally materialistic, selfish or predatory. We are soft-wired for empathy.
2. The moments we look back on are the moments we transcended ourselves, where we could actually feel the plight and emotions of someone else as though it were our own.
3. Our history focuses war, exploitation and genocide because they don’t happen in every moment. We focus on them because they get our attention, shock us and provoke both an intellectual and emotional response. How we look at history is changing dramatically.
4. Blood ties, religious ties and national ties have defined the limits of our empathic natures. Now, due to today’s communication technologies we are able to go beyond such ties into a world consciousness. We can empathize with people we may never meet, animals we might have otherwise never thought about, and even places we may never specifically call home.