One of the biggest criticisms I’d field against my generation, one that certainly applies to myself, is that we have a tendency to refuse participation in imperfection. We notice the problems in political parties, in trades unions, in management, in organised religion even in voluntary organisations and civic societies and as a result we just don’t participate. We have political opinions, labour market interests, managerial philosophies, religious ideals and moral and social goals that cannot be achieved on individual scales, but we are terrified to be part of something bigger than ourselves (though we crave it more than anything) because we can see all to clearly, especially with the viewfinder of the internet, the myriad imperfections we’d be throwing our lot in with.
We are unable to commit to affiliation because it means picking in many cases a “lesser evil” and we cannot stain our philosophical purity with the messy substance of reality. Thus our existence is diminished. Without his co-operative nature man is little better off than an orangutang in the face of a palm oil plantation. Opting out of everything because it’s corrupted leaves everything as ripe pickings for the corrupt.
We try and overcome our lack of real connections by creating artificial connections, mediated connections, by linking up in networks which demand (seemingly, initially) little of us, that require no commitment and come with little to no risk, but these networks cannot substitute for formal organised groups. The modes of social control within them are sorely lacking, they are easily gamed and usually necessarily monetised. More importantly mediated networks ultimately belong to the mediator, whether the technologist (in the case of distributed “p2p” systems) or the owner of the machine. It demands little of us because we’re just end consumers, not stakeholders, even when we create for the machine we are consuming the “opportunity” to be creative, to be seen, that little dopamine rush when someone clicks the “like” button. The machine expects nothing of us and we owe it nothing – no real bonds are forged.
It is a lack of humility, we see the motes in everyone’s eyes very clearly, and the log in ours? Well we had a tough time of it! Our home life was difficult and the teachers at school bullied us! Who wouldn’t have a log in a situation like that? It’s a distraction though because if we don’t work together there will be no-one to help us remove the motes in either of our eyes.
So I was in London for about half of last week, part of what I did there was go to a drop in session run by the Parliamentary Outreach Service. I’d really recommend anyone who gets a chance to go along to one of these (they do them across the country, not just in London and it’s completely free). The session was held in Portcullis House which has a sort of airport style security at the front desk. Once you get through security they give you an “escorted visitor” pass which means you can go to the room you are there for and nowhere else in the building. The room that my session was in was the Wilson Room (shown above) which is right next to the Thatcher room in front of which a bunch of fellows were hanging about waiting to go inside, maybe they really were there to face a select committee!
The session itself had some problems, first whoever was responsible for setting up the room sent the materials to the wrong place. Next the presentation was missing. Despite this the lovely lady who gave the talk took it all in her stride and loosely based it around a talk she gave to a specific group and answers to peoples questions. We learned a lot about select committees which is why they’re on my mind 😉 . We were told that a group of people can get together to nominate someone to be made a Lord and then the Lords Appointments Commission can make them one, usually if they’re an expert in some particular specialist field. We learned various ways that members of the public can work to have a particular topic discussed in parliament and other methods of grassroots lobbying. It was very interesting and really made me feel inspired to try and be a more engaged citizen.
I even wrote to my MP about something that night, but then I remembered that the commons are on recess. Still I feel a lot more fired up about trying to make a difference and even more so about sharing with other people the information that if they put in the work and if we are willing to co-operate with others we can be engaged with our democracy. I am very much of the opinion that the functioning of democracy is contingent on peoples willingness to be educated about the political process and engage with it.
The other thing I did in London is visit the British Museum. The British Museum was perhaps a more reflective experience. I wandered around (I wanted to see everything but I was there for 5 or 6 hours not including a break for lunch and I only just covered half the ground I wanted to and I rushed through some things). My first thoughts were “man I wish we still had an empire” and “we stole so much cool stuff!” But as time went on I settled into a more sombre frame of mind as I contemplated the fragility of human societies and civilisations. What really did it was looking at the giant pillars of the museum juxtaposed with the pillars of various Ancient Greek ruins. I think the museum itself invites that sort of comparison in it’s design and it made me think… “some day far (or maybe not so far?) in the future will the pillars from this museum be in some other museum somewhere as a faint record of the once glorious British civilisation, now but an echo from the past, a quaint memory of something hardly understood?”
I found myself thinking a lot about the fact that we have so many artefacts from so many civilisations but only a faint concept of how people, even from the fairly recent past, thought and felt and related to these artefacts. We have of course some idea, especially for societies which have written language, but there is a barrier there. Even in literate societies up until very recently there was a sharp cultural divide between those who were literate and partook in high culture and those who weren’t. What about those who weren’t, how did they relate to their society and the things it has left behind? A great many artefacts were of a religious nature, statues of goddesses and demons, holy men and angels. It really is remarkable how utterly alien some of these religions are. We take a lot of things for granted, about morality, about the nature of the universe, about the right way to interact with others and with the spirit world. As heirs to an enlightenment with a deep universalist and deist root it is easy for us to imagine all religions are the same, basically teach the same things, which is to be a “good person” which roughly equates to “be nice to others” – but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that that is far from the truth. When you look at some of these terrible and fascinating forms you can’t help but long to be able to get inside the heads of their worshippers, to know why they revered things so very different from anything we are used to.