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Here’s a tiny question. What do you think most people really want? What do you think the average Jane — or even the less-than-average Joe — is capable of?
One view is: most people don’t want much, and are capable of even less. People — usually (pardon me for saying so) old, rich, white, privileged males — have been advancing this notion for centuries. The funny thing is, the world has made explosive jumps forward to increased prosperity. History has revealed that the less-than-average Joes and Janes of the world weren’t just capable of working all day long hammering wood into railroads, and they didn’t merely want not to be trapped in grinding poverty forever — it turned out the people that were the world’s poor just a few decades ago were, by the 21st century, eminently capable of, for example, designing microchips and mapping genomes, and doing so because they wanted lives materially, emotionally, and spiritually rich. Hence, I’d say: sure, you can argue that the vast majority of humanity is and has always been dumb, loutish, brutish, and stupid — but if it’s the future you want to be a part of, then a better bet goes something like this: each and every one of us has human potential that while not unbounded, is infinite, in the sense that we haven’t begun to explore its outer limits yet.
So here’s another question. What happens when limitless potential crashes headlong into boundaries, prison bars, and maybe even self-imposed limitations? What happens when it’s not just stuffy, sneering (mostly) old (mostly) rich (mostly) white dudes who believe you, I, and everyone else not named “J. Thurston Stubbleforth, IV” aren’t capable of better — but when we sell ourselves short?
If you accept the proposition that societies and economies are heading off the rails, then here’s my hypothesis: we’re about to careen into a Great Collision — people bumping up against the self-imposed perimeter of their own carefully constructed lives; human potential crashing headlong against choices that make the least of it. It’s a collision of values against value. It’s a collision of preferences against expectations; the lives we want versus the choices we’re willing to make; what we give versus why we take; what we find in each other versus what we seek from each other. It’s a collision that’s going to happen inside each of us — and then, maybe, result in a collision that happens outside each of us. It’s a collision first of people versus the consequences of their own decisions — but then, perhaps, of people against broken, entrenched, savagely dysfunctional institutions.
Here’s what that looks like.
We want work that fulfills — but we’re not often willing to spend an extra penny, let alone a dollar, euro, or yen, to ensure others can take on fulfilling work. In the sagging, tube-lit aisles, it’s the everyday low price that we chase with a vengeance.
We cry out for better leaders — but it’s rare that we take the dangerous, decisive step to lead ourselves, choosing instead to remain obedient, pliable followers.
We want education, healthcare, and transportation that works — but we’re reluctant to pay the costs of these public goods. When it comes to the bare-minimum building blocks of a functioning society, they’re someone else’s responsibility.
We hunger for inspiration, purpose, exhilaration — but mostly, we settle for lives of annihilating boredom, alternating with sheer panic. Perhaps we get our fix of “life” through the finely honed narratives of the hundreds of channels of reality TV and “news” we’re smilingly offered night after pixelated night.
We want contracts that don’t steal our future — but we’re often unwilling to walk away from those that already have. Perhaps we feel a sense of moral responsibility to pay our debts — but I’d suggest the greater, perhaps greatest moral responsibility is choosing to live.
We want thriving, diverse cities — but we self-select into neighborhoods of like-for-like. Witness, of course, the rise of the gated community.
We don’t want narcissistic Machiavellian sociopaths to helm our institutions — but at the mall, on the high street, at the gas pump, we seem to barely, if at all, consider whether those we’re choosing to patronize have interests solidly opposed to any rational person’s.
We want basic human rights to be respected — but mostly, we yawn when habeas corpus, the fundamental political building block of a minimally enlightened social contract (remember that 13th century document called the Magna Carta?) is rolled back.
We want communities that cohere, full of relationships that blossom, and in turn, nurture the social soil. But we spend more time and energy on Facebook than on making a lasting, tangible human difference — unless it helps us gain that corner office, promotion, or bonus.
We want a culture that doesn’t dumbify us — but at the end of the day, we’re willing to settle for poking fun at one that does, instead of building one that doesn’t. But the former is not the latter.
We don’t want the future we’re getting — but most of us shrug our shoulders at the end of the day; only to wake up panicked, the next — and begin the cycle all over again.
Welcome to the Great Collision. In the aggregate, our preferences are savagely at odds with our expectations; the future we want is at odds with the present we choose.
It’s easy to construct a narrative of victimhood; and a narrative of victimhood is as easily palatable as a Big Mac. Sure, you can argue that the modern condition is a finely jawed trap: bound by the chains of debt peonage, our horizons have been ineluctably delimited. But I’d say we’re equal parts victims and victimizers — preying not merely on one another, but our own better selves. When it comes to real human prosperity, in the crudest terms of political economy, “demand” is about what people have the impertinence to, well, demand — and perhaps the simple fact is that we’ve become a society that’s simply not demanding enough.
What I’d say “we” want is to escape the toxic tradeoffs of the industrial age — now savage dilemmas, choices between bad alternatives, that drive more and more of us into a sense of crisis, leave us feeling lost and unmoored in the human world. But what we choose, over and over again, is the vicious cycles that make up the grinding gears of the blind machine that’s remorselessly devouring not just a prosperous future, but maybe even, bit by bit, our better, higher, truer, worthier selves. Local, personal choices are colliding with their global, social consequences — and the result is futility, frustration, and fury.
So what’s the way out? In the great tradition of self-help gurus, I could offer you ten quick, easy bullet points, or a seven-step program. But I believe our quest for neat, easy answers is exactly how we got into this mess. Consider one tiny example. Sure, anyone and everyone worth less than $40 million and/or under the age of 35 should protest, if for nothing other than the experience. But protest alone has been subsumed by the system; not just carefully controlled by hovering choppers and rubber bullets, but I’d say almost designed to let people evade the uncomfortable truth that institutional choices matter; to offer a kind of spectacular experience that commoditizes the art of rebellion into a neat, disposable, transaction, offering a cheap, quick, affordable catharsis for crisis — instead of a hinge for transformative change.
Here, I make no utopian call for a glorious revolution. If there is something like a brotherhood of man, too much blood has been spilled for one to believe that it doesn’t often resemble Cain versus Abel.
But I do call for a revolt. A rebellion against the emptiness of the lives we choose, over and over again. I believe you and I are capable of better; I believe each of us deserves better — from ourselves. As the great historian and parliamentarian Edward Gibbon once wrote: “when the freedom they wished for most was the freedom from responsibility, then the Athenians ceased to be free.”
If the above falls prey to the glittering sin of idealism, then think again before you pronounce me guilty. The great collision isn’t (just) tides of protestors crashing into barricades manned by helmeted riot police: nor is it billions of tiny choices to defect from yesterday’s broken institutions; to no longer play by a viciously exploitative set of rules that, if obeyed to the letter, will probably leave one broke, miserable, and broken. It’s not a global Arab Spring, nor simply the millions of human awakenings that must precede it — but a collision against the self that’s the result of an inability to rebel; the collision of the conformist with the need to create the future.
Yet, I will confess. I have a longing to see these awakenings come to fruition. As Albert Camus once noted: “the opposite of an idealist is too often a man without love.” If you and I have become something like the opposite of idealists — weary cynics, dejected fatalists, lost — then perhaps it’s because the love of a searingly well lived life has been defeated in us. But no one can half-live and feel fully alive. That’s what I really mean by “Great Collision.” And perhaps it’s there those who wish to create the future must begin.
NB: If you want some simple life or biz advice, here’s a tiny attempt. Tomorrow’s great institutions will be built — as they always have been — not merely by answering today’s preferences with the lowest common denominator, but by seeking radical, transformative paths to resolve the contradictions between preference and expectation, past and future, value and values. Want to build one? Take a hard look at the Great Collision — and blaze a trail that doesn’t end in social, personal, economic wreckage. Don’t just make a difference.
previously: how to live meaningfully well
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