The Quick Read

July 24, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Society, Web

Just finished a quick read, A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright.  At first, I found the work annoying.  An approximately 70-page overview of human history discussed none of the competing paradigms but stuck with the conventional default view of history.  An overview observing competing theories would be interesting, but that was not Wright’s goal.  After the ~70-page set-up, he started talking about environmental destruction.

What Wright did is set up a playing field to discuss various ways we may choose to destroy ourselves.  It is a sort of CliffsNotes version of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel plus Collapse without the erudition, insight or sense of doom.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is Wright’s comparison of Sumer and the Easter Islands with the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In Sumer and the Easter Islands, they destroyed themselves, possibly without the knowledge of how they were doing so or without a civic structure to stop the process, but the ancient Greeks and Romans observed how specifically they were agriculturally compromising their future.  The Greeks and Romans did not act to stop the self destruction.

The drama that we, more than six billion people, are in the midst of now is one where our natural inclination to act like our present behaviors have no future repercussions competes with a proliferation of communications technologies that place high quality knowledge in the hands of those that can most use that knowledge to moderate our tendency to ignore the future.

From my perspective, we are engaged in a race to produce hybrid human beings.

I’ve hypothesized that humans 4,000 generations or so ago were matrifocal, mostly anomalously dominant (both cerebral hemispheres were the same size) and largely primary process thinkers.  As primary process thinkers we were not so much engaged in ruminations on the past or imagining the future.  We did not tend to devour resources because we were not dividing the world into narrative interpretations that could be easily broken down into cause and effect.  We were in the present.  Life was very horizontal.  We were associative thinkers.  We were vulnerable.

Along came cerebral lateralization, early childhood synapse-pruning of the left hemisphere and a diminution of the corpus callosum.  Right-handedness proliferated.  We became facile with time, emerging from the dreamlike world of primary process to be able to easily estimate the effects of our actions.  We became narrative thinkers.  Observing the patterns of our surroundings, we developed an ability to predict those patterns, store what we learned and use that information to accomplish personal goals, with an emphasis on the word “personal.”  With the new patrifocal paradigm individuality emerged.  Even with an ability to predict the future, there was little attention provided to repercussions of present actions because the people in the future affected by present action had no relationship, no connection with the people in the now.

Thesis:  People living in cooperative communities with relatively few negative effects upon their environment, associative thinkers with little sense of individuality, little hierarchy, everything is transparent, what you see is what you get.

Antithesis:  People living in competitive mass societies with widespread environmental degradation, narrative thinkers reveling in cults of individuality, stratification, secrecy, the congregation of information into protected professions, the segregation of ethnicities, information and resource access.

Synthesis:  The merging of a sensitivity to time with an ability to experience the now.  A collapsing of hierarchies that feature secrecy and segregation by transforming information distribution from a pyramid model to a horizontal web or grid with no single source of information storage or control.  Instead of associational or narrative frames of reference, you integrate both together in a context where one can both imagine the future and experience the repercussions, feeling the estimated repercussions as useful information informing present behavior.  Instead of viewing the commons as a place where the individual acquires assets, the individual becomes respected for his or her contribution to the commons.

The problem I had reading Wright’s book is that it was all narrative, no association.  Without an understanding of what we humans are outside what we sequentially have been engaged in, there is little ability for us to feel our way into the future.  Paradoxically, we modern humans, with all our narrative strengths, spend little time exploring our past, back when we were not narrative thinkers, or the future when we may learn how to integrate the two thinking paradigms.

We have imaginations.  It’s time to brainstorm what we will be like when we’ve learned how to live within our world.


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