The reflex to innovate, the reductio ad absurdum of the logic of making changes, is thrashing us. As with anything worth talking about it’s hard to get across just how deep the trouble goes. How far it has spread.
We’re running into limits on all fronts. Whatever stabilities we’ve grown accustomed to are crashing around us. These changes take place at a pace that confounds us. Collapse, catabolic collapse, surrounds us with all the pauses, starts, and stutters of real-life. This year is poorer and less secure than last year and ten years from now there will be less abundance and stability than there was ten years ago.
This time-scale is the hardest for us to read. Especially when so much of what sustains us in the day-to-day, and the beliefs and assumptions we have collected over millennia, conspire to coerce us into looking the other way.
Anger and scapegoating. So much easier to stay within emotional reactions, to lash-out, than it is to witness our reactions and discover what they tell us about ourselves.
Every distraction has a constituency. Someone is making a killing off of keeping us from looking at how we are killing…, well, everything. We are wrapped in the habit of turning to thought-stoppers; John Michael Greer’s term for the shouts and grunts that pass for public speech today. At the end of our tethers; we are loathe to listen to anything that might break through denial and wishful-thinking and bring us to acknowledge our despair.
All this is preamble. A wasteful, yet necessary, setting of the scene. It reminds me of the way we talk to a drunk or someone in shock, patiently returning to the point, stating the obvious again and again in the hope it might eventually sink in.
What we need more than anything is to find a plateau; a place to stand, figuratively speaking, from which to address all we are avoiding. Collapse is not somewhere out there in the Future!™. It is; has been; and will continue to be; the salient condition of our lives.
The first point in such a conversation might be to look into what we might do instead of always turning to this reflex to, “Innovate!”
The habits of mind that lead us to chase innovation are the habits of the plunderer. Innovation is the Engine of Late, Unlamented Capitalism. It breeds instability and sows destruction. These disruptions expose life to further exploitation. An MBA’s total misunderstanding of what Creative Destruction actually means leads us to cheer slash-and-burn tactics as if they were a heroic quest.
This Age of Exploitation began thousands of years before Capitalism was invented. It won’t likely survive its fall. It was appealing so long as there was “a New Frontier!™” available somewhere. At least until all the externalities caught up with us. Now we are like lung cancer patients sucking our favorite poison through a breathing tube….
Our moment is a moment of clarity. There may not be much of an advantage to living in these interesting times. Our time is unique in one way: We can disabuse ourselves of the notion that more-of-the-same will continue to pay-off. This is the only advantage we get from our much vaunted Global Perspective. We know we can’t, “Head off Californy-way.” Expect greener pastures over the next hill. No matter how much Mars or the Singularity or the Rapture are hyped as ways out.
Innovation thrashes us. It keeps compounding our increasingly destabilized and impoverished world. This in large part drives reactionaries to double-down on their preferred fundamentalism, chopping the world into great swathes, surrounding a beleaguered “Us” with countless enemies for us to hate. It’s a mistake to confuse any of these fundamentalisms that plague us for relics of a past age. Whether colonizing Mars or awaiting the Singularity or some version of the Rapture they perch atop the summit of Modernity. These are the fruits of our time. These fundamentalists are the first to react, rush to Innovate, to apply this tick of Modernism to lash out with new forms of hate, to destroy while they pretend to conserve as they revel in new ways to justify the harm they perpetrate.
How can we build to last?
What does this even mean?
We’re not talking about better and higher walls. Not really talking about making things at all. At least until we inquire into how what we make effects life. There’s nothing to be gained by rushing into making new things if all they will be is another wall, a new weapon. Yet these are all we’ve been able to imagine.
We need different habits-of-thought to proceed. Ways of looking and responding to what we see around us that don’t keep sliding us back into the old ways. Old ways that are not disrupted by innovation. Old ways that rely on this habit of chasing innovation.
What might “Built to Last” mean in this context?
Thrashing innovation assumes that we need to keep pushing our selves off-balance. We force disequilibrium on ourselves. In this self-induced prostration we pray to the Gods of Progress. It precludes any possibility we might find our strength. We double-down, seeking to demonstrate our loyalty to Progress, believing this new Providence will provide, “They’ll think of something!”
We don’t lack instability. We don’t need to manufacture Chaos. The consequences of all we’ve done will do it for us!
Build-to-last opens the question, “For what end?”
These questions lead us away from habits imposed by fashion. A fetish of change for its own sake fashion works on the level of social insecurity to coerce us to accept disruptive changes, to internalize desire as if it reflected our needs. Our susceptibility to the coercion of fashion ensures that someone will exploit us. It is a technique that drives us away from what is significant and valuable. A drive to press our awareness to the surfaces of behavior. It keeps us from attending to consequences.
Without the conditioning provided by fashion we would be less vulnerable to the mania of innovation. More able to attend to, “Why?” and “To what end?”
Built, assumes something is made, constructed. It reflects an attitude of Craft. Innovation ignores these questions. An innovator, making a charm to appease Progress, ignores questions of Craft. They are of no consequence, “They’ll do it!” They say, waving their hands, referring to China or a sweat-shop somewhere out of their postal zone. How well something is made doesn’t matter to them either. Cost and speed are the only valued variables. After all, “The March of Progress will soon hatch a fresh innovation making this one obsolete! Hail Progress!”
This process hides the consequences of collapse behind shiny new wrappers for ever-shoddier and less useful goods. A recipe for an escalating ineffectualism. The result is that what we do, how, and why we do it are further and further removed from anything that might provide us with actual traction. We become, “Change Agents!” The kind of changes we do make hold us complicit in the destruction of the world. Rob us of our strength and further our ongoing trivialization.
Building something to last, assumes that not only will it persevere, be hard to destroy; but that its lasting will have a positive result. We manufacture so many things today that last: unstable radioactive isotopes, endocrine disruptors, plastic, atmospheric CO2….
We won’t stop, let alone reverse, this process until we begin to see through the lie of innovation.
Nassim Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility applies. Collapse is what happens when structures become too fragile. Fragility is an intersection of two trends: The structure becomes increasingly brittle. Its milieu becomes increasingly unstable. The are linked. A structure’s reactions become increasingly inflexible. These reactions contribute to, hasten, and exacerbate the trends of change in its milieu. The dissonance between a structure and its conditions grows.
A way to look at this in society is to look at how we view change.
Within a brittle society; one that sees itself under siege from all sides; uncertainty is seen as a threat. The reaction is to apply dogma. Dogma enforced by prohibitions. These prohibitions: of views, ways of life, actions, are considered the only conceivable defense against the threats they seem to represent. As dogma tightens its noose a society becomes more and more brittle. Less and less able to suspend immediate, fearful reaction and find coherent responses to its situation. And so, the process of enbrittlement continues.
Innovation appears to be a way out. In fact, it has become a mechanism for speeding-up the fragility of our culture. The thrashing urgency it promotes and aspires to ensure that we remain susceptible to dogma. Innovation is a great process for discovering new dogmas and finding ways to reinvigorate old ones. This is what we see going on around us.
How do we practice Anti-fragility?
The key is in our relationship with tools.
From within the ruins of Craft we worship Technology. We have no way to resist the pressure tools put on us to use them in stereotypical ways. This is all there in the admonition that, “If the only tool we have is a hammer we tend to see everything as a nail.”
We remain victims of our tools not their masters.
Practices of Craft take this risk seriously. Mastering a craft boils down to honing our relationship with our tools.
If we apply insights surrounding Proprioception to this question we find that what brings mastery is an awareness of our relation to everything. Everything is in everything. We are in our tools. Our tools are in us. There is no other that does not ultimately reflect our projections of our own states and conditions.
These insights lead us to an anti-dogmatic approach.
When we see the global – in the holistic not the neo-liberal sense of the term – interactions in which we are immersed we see that the nature of all tools carries across all types. We escape the prison of specialization. We don’t feel the need to react to uncertainty by defending dogma. We see the danger in this path as clearly as we see the danger of touching a hot stove. There is no longer a need to defend and continually explain where the danger lies. It loses this strange, narcotic effect and becomes transparent, self-evident.
We see that mastery in one craft opens up the potential of mastery in many others. We see through the defenses dogma raises against us, “It’s too complicated! It’s not efficient!”
We become fluid and fluent.
This path has legs….
It opens us to decreasing our fragility by dissolving what has made us so brittle.
Before we can build-to-last we need to recast our relationship to all three parts of this declaration.
What does it mean to build?
What do we want to last?
How do we make the decisions behind every step we take?
Dogma closes off options as it increases our fragility.
Integrating Proprioception into how we act; what we make; and why we make it; sets us on a different path.