Evolution as a Team Sport

Here’s my first Arthur column. (Arthur is a free magazine. More info at ArthurMagazine.com.) If you’re familiar with the magazine, my contrarian position may feel a bit more pointed.

Nothing is around the corner. There’s no threshold to reach, event horizon to cross, or moment of novelty to await. The change has happened. Indeed, you’re soaking in it.

Those of us who like to think of ourselves on the progressive or countercultural end of the spectrum can’t help but try to foment change. We want our revolution, after all, and won’t be satisfied until we’ve won – and done so in a way that everyone notices. Catastrophe and climax are prizes for our long uphill battle. But by insisting on getting to notice change in dramatic ways, we guarantee it never truly happening.

There’s a disturbing fundamentalism brewing in the counterculture these days – an aching towards apocalypse as dangerous as that of our counterparts in the reddest of states, and understood just as literally. We are to await the apex of novelty, that singularity when consciousness rises from the chrysalis of matter into a new state, beyond time and maybe even energy. And, of course, only those of us with proper spiritual or psychedelic credentials will be prepared for this inevitability, and make it through the bottleneck at the end of linear history. The rest, well, they finally get their comeuppance.

The story is no different in structure than any of the others we’ve developed over the last two thousand or so years since Aristotle identified the narrative arc of linear drama: create a character or group we like, put them into danger, increase the stakes until the audience can’t take it anymore and then provide a solution: salvation, a political ideology, or even, in the age of marketing, a product that relieves the crisis and saves the day. It’s the male orgasm curve that has dominated Western narrative for centuries: crisis, climax, release…and then you get to go to sleep. Winners and losers, saved and damned are properly categorized and justice is finally done. Just buy my product, believe in my god, vote for my guy, or suck my dick, and everything’s gonna be alright.

The problem with this structure is that it postpones resolution to some distant and, for the most part, mythical future. Instead of taking actions and facilitating real, if only incremental progress at relieving human suffering, we dismiss reality as some temporary state – a precursor to the much more important light at the end of the tunnel. We keep our eyes on the fanciful prize, and relegate the plights of those around us to the category of distraction.

Whether we’re setting out on the communist, capitalist, or Christian narrative journey, we’re to endure or, a bit better, witness others’ pain now for the promise of gain later on. The ends justify the present. For this, too, shall pass.

I’ve never liked revolutions. They just go in circles, after all. The downside of getting to “win” is that someone else loses, and invariably the cycle begins again. That’s why I’ve begun to think about our current shift less as a revolution than a renaissance. It’s not a whole new order coming into power, but rather, as the word “renaissance” implies, the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. Renaissances are not events we work towards, but processes occurring in the present. Revolutions require faith, because movements generally involve killing and other nastiness that people won’t generally commit without some spirited motivation. Revolutions happen in the future; Renaissances happen now.

The more I study the original Renaissance, the more I see our own era as having at least as much renaissance character and potential. Where the Renaissance brought us perspective painting, the current one brings virtual reality and holography. The Renaissance saw humanity circumnavigating the globe; in our own era we’ve learned to orbit it from space. Calculus emerged in the 15th Century, while systems theory and chaos math emerged in the 20th. Our analog to the printing press is the Internet, our equivalent of the sonnet and extended metaphor is hypertext.

Renaissance innovations all involve an increase in our ability to contend with dimension: perspective. Perspective painting allowed us to see three dimensions where there were previously only two. Circumnavigation of the globe changed the world from a flat map to a 3D sphere. Calculus allowed us to relate points to lines and lines to objects; integrals move from x to x-squared, to x-cubed, and so on. The printing press promoted individual perspectives on religion and politics. We all could sit with a text and come up with our own, personal opinions on it. This was no small shift: it’s what led to the Protestant wars, after all.

The original Renaissance invented perspective – and out of that was born the notion of the individual: the Renaissance Man. Sure, there were individual people before the Renaissance, but they existed mostly as parts of small groups. With literacy and perspective came the abstract notion the person as a separate entity. This idea of a human being as a “self,” with independent will, capacity, and agency, was pure Renaissance – a rebirth and extension of the Ancient Greek idea of personhood. And from it, we got all sorts of great stuff like the autonomy of the individual, agency, and even democracy and the republic. The right to individual freedom is what led to all those revolutions, in the first place.

For it was also during the first great Renaissance that we developed the concept of competition. Authorities became more centralized, and individuals competed for how high they could rise in the system. We like to think of it as a high-minded meritocracy, but the rat-race that ensued only strengthened the authority of central command. We learned compete for resources and credit made artificially scarce by centralized banking and government.

For just one example, it was during the Renaissance that centralized currency came into widespread use. Before then, localities developed their own currencies, often based on real commodities, and many of which existed side-by-side more centralized currencies that were used for transacting with other regions. With the establishment of the nation state came the exclusive right of kings to create money by “fiat” – literally by invention – and then force everyone else to compete to pay it back. To this day, people who want to buy a house must borrow, say, $100,000 from the bank and then pay back $300,000 over thirty years. Where does the other $200,000 come from? The borrower is to compete for it in the marketplace. Only $100,000 was loaned into existence. The rest must be taken from others.

The idea of competition between individuals was a potentially dangerous side effect of Renaissance thinking. Sure, competition has been a powerful motivator, particularly when applied to capitalism, and on a completely level playing field can competition yield some terrific innovation and growth. But we may have reached the end of what competition can offer us, and new models for innovation and interaction – the ones emerging out of our own renaissance – might prove more appropriate to our current situation.

While our renaissance also brings with it a shift in our relationship to dimension, the character of this shift is different. In a holograph, fractal, or even an Internet web site, perspective is no longer about the individual observer’s position; it’s about that individual’s connection to the whole. Any part of a holographic plate recapitulates the whole image; bringing all the pieces together generates greater resolution. Each detail of a fractal reflects the whole. Web sites live not by their own strength but the strength of their links. As Internet enthusiasts like to say, the power of a network is not the nodes, it’s the connections.

That’s why new model
s for both collaboratio
n and progress have emerged during our renaissance – ones that obviate the need for competition between individuals, and instead value the power of collectivism. The open source development model, shunning the corporate secrets of the competitive marketplace, promotes the free and open exchange of the codes underlying the software we use. Anyone and everyone is invited to make improvements and additions, and the resulting projects – like the Firefox browser – are more nimble, stable, and user-friendly. Likewise, the development of complementary currency models, such as Ithaca Hours, allow people to agree together what their goods and services are worth to one another without involving the Fed. They don’t need to compete for currency in order to pay back the central creditor – currency is an enabler of collaborative efforts rather than purely competitive ones.

For while the Renaissance invented the individual and spawned many institutions enabling personal choices and freedoms, our renaissance is instead reinventing the collective in a new context. Originally, the collective was the clan or the tribe – an entity defined no more by what members had in common with each other than what they had in opposition to the clan or tribe over the hill. Networks give us a new understanding of our potential relationships to one another. Membership in one group does not preclude membership in a myriad of others. We are all parts of a multitude of overlapping groups with often paradoxically contradictory priorities. Because we can contend with having more than one perspective at a time, we needn’t force them to compete for authority in our hearts and minds – we can hold them all, provisionally. That’s the beauty of renaissance: our capacity to contend with multiple dimensions is increased. Things don’t have to be just one way or directed by some central authority, alive, dead or channeled. We have the capacity to contend with spontaneous, emergent reality.

As collaborators, we are no longer setting ourselves up for exclusion, conflict, or even the postponement of joy. We don’t need to dangle the carrot of cash prizes, salvation, or Bhoddisatvahood in order to get others to join in our enterprises, because they are so much fun to do right now, for their own sake.

By the same token, our relationship to the human story changes, as well. Instead of aching towards conclusion, and seeing every global and personal crisis as a sign of impending cosmic state change, we evolve together as a natural course of events. We won’t get those dramatic, cataclysmic shifts to look forward to, but neither will we need them. New threads and understandings simply emerge from our collective engagement, just as new traits species and emerge from our exchange of genomes.

Evolution is a team sport, not a competition. There’s just one thing going on here, however many eyes and “I’s” it may seem to have. We all make it, together, or none of us do.