Experimenting with the Questions

Fixing the language


The restoration of value begins with fixing the language. And continues with adjusting expectations. When you tell a new story, you can begin to weave into an alternative narrative. This in turn allows you to tap into a new set of beliefs. And the path that seemed unimaginable before opens up.

Childhood, for example, is an idea born in the Renaissance. Before then, as soon as human beings could talk and understood direction they became full members of society. On average at 7 years of age. First came the word, than the idea. Once childhood took root, it became impossible to go back.

A lot of good came from understanding child development. The market economy of the 19th century enabled the concept of childhood as a time of fun of happiness. Whether right or wrong, the new story attached itself to the narrative of commerce.

The rest, as they say, is history. Looking back, we don't see all the twists and turns the idea took to get to us.


What if history was non linear?

David Graeber and David Wengrow question the tale as we know it. The Dawn of Everything's core message is that the linearity of Rousseau's approach and Hobbes' view is the opposite of the actual social and political experimenting that contemporary archaeological evidence suggests earlier humans undertook for 30,000 years.

'What if' has the power to manifests new possibilities.

Asked of anything you take for granted opens a new line of inquiry. A lot has happened in the years before the last 200 years that contradicts the story we're taught. I'm wandering through Graeber's and Wengrow's book and rejoicing at the astonishing imagination of the authors. Their work a gift, because it explains so much about human nature.

Sarah Jilani's article in ArtReview covers many of the angles you'd want to address in a proper review. As you read, do use tools like WordHippo, or a paper dictionary. They're useful for readings with no distractions. I love discovering meaning in nuance. This part is particularly poignant. 

The three fundamental freedoms archaeology shows were self-evident to earlier humans – to move away, to disobey and to re- arrange social ties – are now difficult to imagine. Convinced we will end up back in caves if people stop buying and selling imaginary numbers in New York and Hong Kong, we are obedient, isolated and immobile to a degree that would have baffled our ancestors.

To move away, to disobey, and to re-arrange social ties are actual freedoms, not formal ones. These fundamental freedoms seem much more advanced and suitable for adapting to change than many of the cumbersome processes and bureaucracies we have today.

In Brain Rules John Medina says, “Though a great deal of our evolutionary history remains shrouded in controversy, the one fact that every paleoanthropologist on the planet accepts can be summarized in two words: we moved. A lot.” Likely up to 12 miles per day.

Ironically, when the pandemic hit and our being stuck became more obvious, many re-discovered walking and running. Preferably immersed in nature. Movement is imprinted into our DNA. But if you're tabulating your mileage, data alone won't help you long term. You'll need a conceptual shift.

Reframing the questions is a necessary step for a new awareness to dawn. Graeber and Wengrow retraced some of the initial steps humanity took, before the modern idea of social evolution took hold. “Histories are hypotheses and theories of why change occurs,” said Neil Postman. They teach us connections.

Mutual aid, justice, and autonomy are not new human desires. Not even improved. Archeology and anthropology uncovered the evidence in different parts of the world since prehistoric times. But why give them up, unless you thought you were buying a better story?

To understand whether it is a better story you should test it.

Disobeying became very difficult between 1604 and 1914 during the enclosure of open fields and common land in England and Wales. The Enclosure Acts created legal property rights to land previously held in common. People were hung or deported who protested the acts. This, in turn, led to a more rigid social hierarchy.

Another example to test the story is inequality. Our problem with it is downstream from the accepted story. Inequality—as a word and issue—took center stage with the financial crisis of 2008. Spotlighting its history is strangely reassuring. The gap is widening, so we just need to tinker with it and we'll be fine.

But the word 'inequality' is itself part of the problem. It says, 'if you want to live in a large, complex society that has made technological advances, suck it up.' Technology can list, quantify, and project the numbers with sophisticated mathematical formulas.

But it frames the issue from a technocratic point of view,

where no real vision of social transformation is possible.

“You can be anything you want to be.” “You can make it if you try.” These exhortations are so ingrained in American culture that it's hard to see them for what they really are: slogans to promote opportunism. If you make it, you answer no one. But this misses the essence of the fairness principle altogether.

There's a certain inevitability in the linear story that should bother you.


What is meaningful change?

Oliver Bredski was found by his sister in the loft of their family home and had left a note reading: “I've been sacked.” This high-flyer at Deloitte thought his dreams were over and took his own life minutes after Deloitte sacked him over Zoom. The call with an executive lasted all of 14 minutes.

Those executives thought they knew how to get things dine with efficiency. But they were wrong when it came to human dignity. This example from recent headlines is not so different from the Enclosure Acts I mentioned above. Bureaucracy is a technology more complex than Zoom. 

When you get help navigating situations, that's when you can talk about meaningful change. Imagine how things would have gone had Oliver gotten the help he needed to bridge the gap in performance. If not that, then practices that respected his dignity as part of the separation process.

In turn, what does the freedom to abandon one's community at work look like? Say a company loses fifteen experienced people in three months. That company has just watched upward of 5.3 million walk out the door in a quarter. That's without even trying to quantify the loss of implicit knowledge.

How are the people who are still there coping? Do they have to deal with increased workload while the company incurs the cost (and effort) to replace lost staff? If your culture if toxic you lose people. Probably the best ones, those who have plenty of options elsewhere.

Change in part of life. You can make it meaningful when you're working better together. But when you change your story, you also need to put in place a new process that replaces the toxic practices. In that case, you may also have attrition. Those who were used to the predictability of how things were may opt out.

However, which narrative would you rather weave your story into?



[Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]