Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Change the World?

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"In the end, the primary source of this deep anthropological crisis is the thinking that human beings, at their very core, are disconnected from amongst themselves and the rest of its reality."



Don Quixote. Pablo Picasso. 1955

Since humanity appeared in the face of the earth, the earth underwent a massive transformation like any other that happened to it for over four billion years. Humanity’s curiosity transformed rocks to highways, wood to intricate sculptures, minerals to trains, ships, computers and power grids. The emergent order originally imposed by billions of years of natural selection has been replaced by an artificial, intelligent order imposed by the human mind.

A human being’s instinct is to know, to test, to explore. Whether exploring the seas and under it, or staring at the skies and beyond it into space, or traveling deep into tropical forests in order to retrieve an herb (which chemical components one can later discover by observing its cells in a microscope), or detailing the anatomical features of our bodies, or testing the limits of artistic expressions – humanity’s impulse is always to increase its understanding and discover the profundity of the universe, the human psyche, and the subconscious.

For this purpose, we develop tools to one, increase our time spent learning and exploring by efficiently producing what we need for convenient survival (e.g. food, shelter, and leisure); and two, increase our capacity to learn by developing instrumentation and computational tools to aid our process of learning (e.g. microscope, personal computers, the paintbrush). Even as we are connected to the universe, we inevitably transform it in our search for meaning and knowledge. Whether our actuations destroy or preserve the earth, for instance, is subordinated to our unquenchable thirst for understanding and its prerequisite – convenient and harmonious survival. We developed genetic engineering to mass manufacture food; upon learning that it may have adverse effects on health, we also further developed past knowledge on organic agriculture to produce healthy food. We developed hydrocarbons that fuel our four-stroke engines; we also developed ecological restoration techniques to mitigate effects of global warming.

The dynamics of society is always towards further technological development for the purpose of discovering ourselves and the universe. It is an inexorable march towards increasing our understanding of our purpose, our meaning and the meaning of everything else. In the process of technological development and evolution, it is inevitable that the society which supports us all should evolve as well – and with it the value systems, beliefs, ideologies, and social structures. Our tools give us the form with which we interact. As we develop our technology, technology changes us. To paraphrase philosopher of technology Karl Marx – the windmill gave us a feudal lord; the steam-mill, a capitalist.


Cover of Giles Slade’s book Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America.

As we develop our technology further, we come closer and closer to a point when a social system can no longer harness the technology effectively in order to provide the maximum welfare for human beings. Poverty and misery persists amid the availability of technology to ensure abundance of food and energy, yet those who can produce have sought to produce more for profit and those who can consume are consuming even more to satisfy false notions of happiness – all to the detriment of our environment and its capacity to act both as a source (with which we produce) and a sink (which absorb our by-products).

Our economic and social systems, as well as its manifestations – our monetary system, political organization, and cultural institutions – are already obsolete. Our scientists are becoming bankers: engineers of financial products that don’t represent anything. Our artists are becoming advertisers: they package and sell us goods that we don’t need. Our story-tellers who would have weaved for humanity a grand story of its meaning are becoming propagandists for few and narrow interests. Such a waste of human talent not directed to the increasing sophistication of knowledge and understanding of our meaning has been the primary phenotype of a species whose social organization is at the throes of extinction.

The immediate face of dysfunctional society which we confront today is a fundamentally unhealthy individual, community, nation, and global society. Alienation, disconnect, apathy has been the characteristic of those whose lives and destinies had been dictated by the need to have more money. The abundance that can already be provided by our existing technology is not being used to allow people to self-actualize and to pursue their instinct of learning and experience-accumulation. Instead, we have at one end a segment of impoverished people who can barely afford their needs (or most of times, cannot) and consigned to cynicism, ignorance, and dependence, at the middle an overworked and psychologically-abused segment addicted to the inanities of contemporary media and entertainment, and at the other end a decadent elite class whose notion of fulfillment is defined by continuous accumulation of wealth and power – a display of primitive desire for “conspicuous consumption” to borrow from Thorstein Veblen. Thus, very few human beings are able to self-actualize by the very design of the system, defined as we are of social rules permeating almost all aspects of our lives.


Isolation. Justine Beckett, Middlesex university.

In the end, the primary source of this deep anthropological crisis is the thinking that human beings, at their very core, are disconnected from amongst themselves and the rest of its reality. For instance, it has been quite appalling that some kids, when asked where common fruits and vegetables came from, would unhesitatingly point to the grocery store where those are sold as commodities. The origins of what we eat, use, and enjoy are continuously being blurred away by the exigencies of the market, consigned to anonymity. The farm and the farmer, the artisan and the workshop, the scientist and the laboratory are no longer source of things, but the increasingly huge supermarket of the likes of Walmart and McDonald's, SM and Jollibee.

Thus, we consume without thinking that with our consumption, we encourage production cycles that necessarily destroy our environment and human beings. We tune in on prime-time TV to watch American Idol, when the only way that power is supplied for peak time use would be through oil barges that further pollute our air and build up greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We no longer care that we when buy our IPads and IPhones, we encourage Foxconn’s company in China to perpetuate its inhuman abuse of Chinese workers whose only respite is suicide. We indulge in profligate purchasing of products which will end up in waste, even if the number of places where we can conveniently dispose is becoming smaller and smaller.

This thinking that we are fundamentally disconnected from one another has also permeated our political institutions. Here and in many places around the world, we saw the emergence of states which powers are reified and thought to be independent of human consensus. Its ugliest incarnation is the totalitarianism exemplified by fascism in Italy and perversions of communist thought in USSR and China. The state was seen (or was made to be seen) as a separate, absolute power apart from people’s political agency. As a consequence, like one would not attempt to stop the impersonal force of a storm, it was allowed to conduct horrible abuses to citizens - as if its power is not derived from its citizen's consent. A milder but no less troubling manifestation would be the patron-client states in the Third World. There, governments are controlled by corrupt and rent-seeking political elites, with some sections of the populace collaborating because they no longer see that their government’s legitimacy is hinged on their compliance.


From directorymanila.net
The disconnectedness that is the cause of our social ills has deeply been embedded in the way our nation, the Philippines, evolved and emerged out of the formal colonization and the World War II. Years under imperialism produced a people who can almost no longer see themselves as a collective. On the one hand, Spain’s divide-and-rule tactic rewired the Filipino DNA towards regional factionalism – a characteristic that is carried over even by Filipinos outside the country who, unlike other migrant workers, prefer to associate as regional “tongue” groups rather than as Filipinos. On the other, American neo-colonial rule ingrained to us the superiority of Western culture over our own, and made us betray our origins in exchange for hamburgers and call centers.

For our masses, whatever connectedness that is left has mostly been eliminated by the gruelling experience of poverty, for if there is anything that is anything that hunger and want taught the Filipino masses, it is that “kanya kanya”, to-each-his-own mentality is the best bet one has in surviving the dog-eat-dog world. Collective action does not work, people power doesn’t pay. Labor unions are crushed every day, and there is no lack of self-interested politicians who will hijack collective actions by the masses. One must care only for himself or his family, as nobody else will. With healthcare and education privatized, no one else will pay for your family’s cost if one member gets ill; no one else will pay for your children’s learning. But even the family is not safe: labor migration has been relentless in breaking familial ties, separating parents from their children and lovers from one another – tearing up our social fabric in the process. The social costs have been unprecedented.

For an elite, what we have is a socially disinterested traitor class who, for the most part of our history, collaborated with foreign powers for their own parochial and particularistic interests. They are a class that has not demonstrated the united vision and action characterizing the leadership of countries which successfully leapfrogged from poverty to modernity. This resulted to a backward system with feudal vestiges, compromised liberal democratic institutions, distorted markets amid lack of state economic planning and regulation, warring families controlling land or other low-productivity, technologically-challenged business conglomerates throughout generations, deeply conflicted political dynasties maintaining private armies and stranglehold in national and local apparatuses of power. They cannot even get their acts together in the face of the dangers they face as a class in the globalized world of free market competition. It is no wonder that liberalization during the Ramos period decimated our fragmented industrial and manufacturing sectors, controlled as they are by our fragmented elite.

For the state, ours have been characterized by an utter lack of a unifying vision and strategic action. Our governments cannot even think beyond the six-year term of the Philippine Development Plan (PDP), whereas other states invest in 25 to 50 year planning cycles. For all his horrendous abuses, the long-range thinking exemplified by former President Ferdinand Marcos has remained unparalleled by his more democratic counterparts. Unfortunately for us, this kind of nationalist, strategic thinking is a prerequisite for almost all nation’s transition from backwardness to modernity. Singapore’s insecurity has propelled its journey from third to first world. South Korea’s crushing poverty was ended by government’s heavy-handed intervention in industrial development. India’s Nehru prepared the country towards full independence by reducing the West’s economic influence. Even the United States birth was characterized by a painful struggle against the colonists of the British Empire. For these nations and many others, national liberation gives the energy with which to build developmental force and economic strength.

Thus the need to end our fragmentation as a nation. We must see ourselves as connected to one another and bound to one another by common interests and a common destiny. Part of seeing ourselves as human beings connected with the rest of humanity and the world, we must set ourselves to thinking as a community and as a nation. Binding ourselves to one another as a people is a concrete step towards ending the disconnectedness that is the cause of our social dysfunction.


The Vitruvian Man, Leonardo Da Vinci. 1487.
Where do we begin? We take heed from a quote from economist John Maynard Keynes. He said, that “sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.” In the end, it our ideas, our way of seeing the world, that brings forth our disconnectedness, our alienation, and our misery. How then should we think? How then should we see the world?

The answer is thinking in terms of systems. While it has been with humanity since civilizations emerged, “systems thinking” as a cognitive methodology was further refined and developed since when MIT Prof. Jay Forrester developed the field of systems dynamics in 1956. Simply put, systems thinking is an approach to problem solving that views problems holistically as a function of systems, instead of looking at and reacting to specific parts, outcomes or events. It recognizes the intrinsic interconnectedness of everything that is part of our reality, and orients our interventions according to this interconnectedness.

In explicit rejection of Rene Descartes's legacy of “scientific” reductionism, systems thinking is believing that 1) components of a system are best captured in the context of relationships, linkages, and interactions rather than in isolation, and 2) in understanding that change is cyclical and simultaneous rather than linear. Thus, what we do now will always have unintended consequences, and what we did was not done in a vacuum.

“Systems thinking” is our best weapon to end individualist thought that has caused our disconnectedness and fragmentation. Understanding that nature, human beings, communities, and nations are part of systems allows us to do things that take into account our impact on everyone and everything else. We also begin to understand why we do what we do – the influences of everything and everyone else on our own thinking and biases.

In one sense, “systems thinking” is not something that has been “constructed”. It emerged out of and as a reaction to the predominant individualist and reductionist philosophy of the 19th century. The fact that it has now found its way to our sciences, our arts, and our methodologies is a signal that the underlying society behind reductionism is now gradually being replaced by a new society with its own logos and ethos. It is the coming generation, our generation, that will facilitate the coming to hegemony of a new philosophy that will guide us towards a more connected and caring world.


Premonition of Civil War. Salvador Dali. 1936. Oil on canvas

Our generation comes from the ranks of what is dubbed as the "Generation Y" - the generation who grew up under the promises of prosperity and mass consumption only to finish school in a period of record-breaking unemployment, massive poverty, and worsening inequality, amid millions of migrant workers abroad. This contradiction compels the new generation towards a re-examination of the fundamentals, infused with a general optimism for a better future under a new order of things. This, among other things, makes the Generation Y the carrier of ideals that will end the scourge of individualist and reductionist thought.

Generation Y stands as the most interconnected generation in history - aided as it is by mobile technologies and social networking tools (Facebook itself was created by a member of Generation Y). Never before in history that it is possible for an individual to organize and keep track the volume of social contacts that we have now, and to communicate with them with speed, convenience, and interactivity never before possible. The rabid individualism bred by one-way mass media in the past generations is paving the way to a more interdependent culture, ripe for socially-embedded thinking that is needed to forward a new social ethos.

It is in the era of Generation Y that the internet began challenging the concept of private, intellectual property through the proliferation of open technologies, peer-to-peer sharing tools for music and other artistic creations, mass production of cheap pirated products. This makes Generation Y as potentially more open to the concept of decommodification than any other previous generations, and the most willing to embrace the concept of shared resources, community-driven progress, and an “open source” culture.

It is the Generation Y that is the first to face the threat of climate change, potentially with the entirety of their adult lives. This makes them naturally predisposed to understand better the indisputable fact that it is the system itself that induces climate change, that it is ultimately incompatible with sustainable development. Their minds and experiences are fertile ground with which to sprout and cultivate ideas towards an ecological framework.

It is the Generation Y that spawned the Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring which revived the political power of collective protest and mass action, again aided by the emergence of new technologies that allowed people to organize themselves. Moreover, Generation Y was raised on a period of social disaffection for the elites: from the emergence of Red Shirts in Thailand to food riots in Africa to the rise of progressive parties amid riots and disorder at the wake of the European debt crisis. Generation X had Latin America and the Bolivarian revolution; Generation Y have US and Europe and the global Occupy movement.

Finally, it is the Generation Y that was born in a country that was known to decline from being second in Asia to the backwaters of development. It is our generation has witnessed how Philippines had sunk so low as to be a victim of China’s expansionism amid continuing US machinations. It is our generation whose families had been victimized by the heart-wrenching labor migration forced upon our parents.

Clearly, if there will be those who can be the harbingers of change, it is we, the Generation Y. It is we who question the assumptions; it is we who can later sweep the old order out and replace it with a new system founded on a renewed sense of humanity and interconnectedness. It is we who can end the disunity that has characterized our nation and unite it towards a vision to end poverty and establish the conditions towards prosperity and modernity. It is we who can break the limits old ways of thinking imposed on the rest of humanity.


by Bansky

People may not comprehend the coming social order, but it is coming nonetheless. We, in our young age and limited capacities, may not see ourselves as playing a crucial part on this, but none can be further from the truth. Look around government departments – from the Presidential Management Staff to the Department of Health to the Senate and House of Representatives, and check out who draft and make the policies and decisions mouthed and ordered by authorities. Check out the most dynamic political parties and movements, and ask who are those driving the organization and its development. Take a look at the business conglomerates, and the scions who are gradually taking responsibilities away from the senior management.

All of this reminds us of a quote from Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” The world is now slowly coming to grips with the force of change our generation is bringing it. The past generations, while reluctant, are now gradually beginning to accept its own obsolescence and recognize our generation’s vitality and force. The only question is whether we will have the courage and wisdom to understand our potential and push things forward.

In the end, we are all part of the continuing history of human evolution: empires have fallen and revolutions take over, ideologies have been quashed and new narratives become hegemonic, theories have been debunked and new paradigms are calcified. In humanity’s inexorable march towards development and understanding, it has always been guided by new forces with new ideas.

Now is our time. No one else will seize the world but us.

by James Miraflor


Y.B. Masdal said...

Humanity must keep on learning and advancing. It is its will and purpose. The time it stops learning is the end of humanity itself.

James Matthew Miraflor said...

I agree. Y.B. Masdal. Learning is part of our being human.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant blog! :) Finally, a voice from the nuanced Left.

If you will allow me a shameless plug...


Englezbap said...

Humanity must keep on learning and advancing. It is its will and purpose. The time it stops learning is the end of humanity itself.

Anonymous said...
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